Light-Sensitive Materials (SVEMA)

By Oleksiy Radynski (Kyiv Mohyla Academy)

© Oleksiy Radynski, 2009

SVEMA (an abbreviation for Svetochuvstvitelnye materialy, which means light-sensitive materials in Russian) is the name of the most famous Soviet film stock, produced at the factory of the same name in Shostka, Ukraine. Most of Soviet films were shot on SVEMA film, which became a synonym for a specific faded picture quality. Despite the fact that by now the factory itself is bankrupt, SVEMA film became a symbol of a young cinema generation that has won international recognition—from the Palme d’Or at Cannes to the Berlin Silver Bear.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the arrival of Ukrainian independence, the film industry in Ukraine was ruined. Most cinemas were closed, and film production by the end of the 1990s decreased to a couple of films per year. The Soviet generation of Ukrainian filmmakers did not manage to get used to the new situation, while young people could not start their careers because film education in Ukraine was devastated. Its financing cut off, the Kyiv film school could not even provide students with the good old SVEMA.

taxi driverThe latter descriptor should be taken literally. By that moment, the SVEMA factory, like most of Ukrainian industry, was on the verge of destruction. It no longer produced new film, but possessed huge amounts of Soviet-age SVEMA which could not be used in film industry due to its expiration date having passed long ago. The managers found the solution: they decided to sell the remainder to film students who were eager to shoot their movies on any kind of material. No one could anticipate the result of this deal.

First, the film stock itself was totally unpredictable. From the start of the shooting process, the author could not be quite sure what kind of footage s/he would receive in the end. A significant amount of SVEMA film was simply waste. A whole sequence could disappear from the movie because film did not have perforation. Brightness, contrast, and image color were also distorted in a way no one could foretell. Little wonder then that most of the filmmakers chose the black-and-white mode for their projects.

against the sunSecond, the aesthetic result of this lo-fi technique of making movies was doubly unexpected. The first director to fully experience the overwhelming properties of SVEMA film was Taras Tomenko. His Shooting Gallery (Tyr, 2001) was the first major success of a Ukrainian student film on an international scene. A gloomy story of a homeless teenage junky was recognized due to its old-school texture, which in fact was not a conscious stylization but rather a technical coincidence. Shooting Gallery proved that filming on SVEMA stock is the most important exam in a director’s education. In order to succeed, one should unconsciously feel the light-sensitive materials of film that does not obey the major principles of film industry. SVEMA creates enormous aesthetic possibilities for those who possess this irrational feeling. For those who do not, SVEMA becomes a nightmare.

Paradoxically, the outdated Soviet-era SVEMA film stock turned out to be the most adequate medium for representing the bleak hopeless Ukrainian reality. A number of glamorous state-funded productions which were to create the new Ukrainian mythology failed completely in the beginning of the 2000s simply because the viewers did not recognize the reality on the screen. Simultaneously, a new generation of filmmakers proposed a new look at this reality, a look materialized in the pure technological form of lo-fi film texture. This generation had no other common denominator except for the SVEMA film image. Nevertheless, the attempts to create a collective generation portrait from within also took place.

against the sunAgainst the Sun (Proty sontsia, 2004) by Valentyn Vasianovych was ultimately the most successful of these attempts. One could read this film as an allegory for the artistic life of the Ukrainian 1990s, when handicraft became the most common artists’ survival strategy. The protagonist of Against the Sun is a young artist, Tymofii, who earns his living as a potter. It is significant that in the ancient Ukrainian mythology the potter was considered to be a sacred figure whose position in the social structure was close to a modernist figure of contemporary artist. Against the Sun depicts the protagonist’s attempt to escape the everyday craftsman routine and engage into an act of “pure” artistic creation on a remote island on the Dnieper River. In the end, he returns to his family, finishing the vicious circle against the sun. The film title refers to another aspect of the potter mythology. Some of them were supposed to rotate the potter’s wheel in the direction opposite to that of the sun. Movement against the sun thus signifies a subversive artistic gesture similar for all the outcasts from ancient potters to contemporary artists.

The most peculiar feature of Vasianovych’s art is the elimination of the difference between documentary and fiction. Against the Sun starts with a flashback edited out of Tymofii’s amateur 16mm footage from his birthday party. The film was officially positioned as a documentary, although most of the scenes were staged and professional actors recorded an over voice for the dialogues. Anyway, Tymofii (who actually works as a potter and has no prior acting experience) was asked to replay his ordinary behavior in front of a camera. His ordinary life reproduced on such a characteristic medium as SVEMA film gained the elusive shade of fiction that structures the reality.


The Tragic Love for the Unfaithful Nuska (Trahichna liubov do zradlyvoi Nus'ky, 2004) by Taras Tkachenko is another example of defamiliarization by means of SVEMA. This time the film stock is used to recreate the nostalgic world of late-Soviet childhood, which is another experience common to all young Ukrainians. Nevertheless, late-Soviet time is usually represented in cinema as a period of stagnation and poverty. Tkachenko’s film is a rare example of escaping from Soviet social reality into an idyllic world of pre-school love. The action takes place in a provincial town full of late-Soviet attributes like a Red Army soldier crushing the erotic dream of two boys in love with the local Komsomol-styled beauty. The film was shot on location in a small town near Kyiv that preserved all the elements of Soviet style. Still, the major factor creating an authentic impression of the Soviet world is the inimitable texture of SVEMA, familiar to the entire “viewers’ community” of ex-Soviet people.

wayfarersThe highest triumph of SVEMA aesthetics in Ukraine occurred in 2005, when a 10-minute student documentary by Ihor Strembitsky titled Wayfarers (Podorozhni) was awarded the Palm d’Or at Cannes. By that time Ukrainian student films were being strongly criticized at home for using the outdated technique and emphasizing the dark side of Ukrainian society. As it often happens in Ukraine, the real recognition at home came to this group of filmmakers only after an international success. Still the case of Wayfarers remains a unique example of employing the magic of light-sensitive materials in film.

Wayfarers is a poetic non-narrative film exploring the ordinary life of an asylum for mentally disturbed people which by fatal irony neighbors the home for retired actors. Director Ihor Strembitsky also transgresses the border between reality and fiction, but unlike Vasianovych, he does not intrude into the events he is filming. On the contrary, his characters themselves—the mental asylum inmates and former actors—start acting in front of the camera, trying to fit the image they suppose is wanted from them. The success of Wayfarers is based on Strembitsky’s ability to take into account the position of camera itself and its consequences on the behavior of his characters.

taxiTaxi Driver (Taksyst, 2007) by Roman Bondarchuk seems to be the last movie ever shot on SVEMA. The supply of SVEMA to the film school is over. Instead, students now receive Chinese KODAK stock which, according to their experience, is of approximately the same quality but of course does not possess the visual specifics of SVEMA. Anyway, Bondarchuk was lucky to commemorate these specifics by locating his story in scenery of the postindustrial city of Kherson in Southern Ukraine. The plot of Taxi Driver (containing clear references to Scorsese’s masterpiece) is little more than a background detail in a picture of urban devastation that causes devastation in the dwellers’ minds.

The SVEMA aesthetic had also contributed to the development of Ukrainian animated film. Although not depending so much on the direct representation of reality, animated films like Tram no. 9 (Tramvai no. 9, 2002) by Stepan Koval', Chaffinches and Others (Ziablyky ta inshi, 2001) by Anatolii Lavrenishyn, Disposable Eternity (Odnorazova vichnist', 2002) by Mykhailo Illienko and Compromix (Kompromiks, 2002) by Ievhen Syvokin' contain all the visual characteristics of classic SVEMA: rain of dots and scratches, distorted brightness and contrast, bleak faded image texture and other spontaneous effects that otherwise could be taken for waste. This “waste” is probably the most proper way to refer to the reality of contemporary Ukraine.


Updated: 09 Jan 10