Annabelle Chapman reviews Ukraine Goodbye, a film anthology project premiered on October 25th 2012 at the 42nd Kyiv Molodist International Film Festival.
Ukrainian cinema is hard to come by, even in Ukraine. So I jumped at the opportunity to watch this anthology called Ukraine Goodbye in Kyiv this November (trailer). Six short films, two hours in total. They were selected from a total of 25, the fruit of a state-backed project to explore new directions in Ukrainian film. In a sense, it is Ukraine’s parallel to tableau Paris Je T’Aime (2006), which brought together 20 shorts from the French capital, or the follow-up set in New York (2009).
The result is both disconcerting and interesting. Together, the six films paint a gloomy picture of Ukraine today. Both the economy and people’s wallets are in trouble. Only politicians have been spared. Gas is ominously expensive. In almost all the films, family members have left to find work abroad. (Originally, the whole project was meant to be about emigration from Ukraine). Yet family and, significantly, children remain the ultimate source of joy – or sorrow. With this in common, the films are refreshingly different in genre and setting. From the pounding capital, we move to run-down provincial towns and sleepy villages. Almost all the talking is in Ukrainian.
Six short films from today’s Ukraine
The Date is a day in the life of Anya, a single mother in Kyiv. She juggles jobs, doing voice-overs for cartoons and working for an erotic phoneline. Then, one of her loyal clients announces that he is going away and wants to “do it one more time”. Apart from the issue of single parenthood, it shows the loneliness of big cities.
Pie is the only comedy in the collection. A babushka invites unsuspecting people to her house for cherry pie, only to sell them marijuana. Then the police gets involved. (Not a very sympathetic portrait of the Ukrainian police, by the way). The result is jolly but not particularly funny.
In The Angel of Death, an old man cannot come to terms with his wife’s suicide. He decides to punish the world, turning to a dark form of religion. Eventually, he takes on the role of God himself. The plot is far-fetched, but the film stands out with its sharp dialogues and black humour. For example, a neighbour has found a way to turn on the hot water tap without it being counted on the meter. She says it is her “way to get revenge” on the state.
How the Cossacks Flew into Space is a frantic look at the finances of a young family. They have just taken out a loan and bought a huge refrigerator, but the pregnant wife wants more. Meanwhile, the lukewarm husband has been caught swindling money at work. The film is an ironic look at people wavering between materialistic dreams and genuine financial pressures.
Nuclear Waste is true to two foreign stereotypes about Ukraine: snow and Chernobyl. It shows the routine of a worker who disposes of nuclear waste from the power station. He works, washes and eats, then has sex. This is a slow-moving film with no words and few colours. No wonder it appealed to foreign juries, winning a Silver Leopard at the Locarno film festival in Switzerland.
There and back again
The second film, The Beard, struck me the most (trailer). A gruff, bearded old man lives alone in a wooden house somewhere in western Ukraine. He spends his days between home, a nearby lake, and the village church. Then suddenly, his beloved daughter Marika arrives from abroad with her unattractive Italian husband and two children. To the sound of the grandfather’s heavy breathing, the film is gripping to the end. The camera shots are beautiful. It is also poignant, showing a family torn across a continent.
In Ukraine, the whole feature is only being screened at a handful of cinemas, including Zhovten (October) in Kyiv. Individually, the short films have appeared at festivals in Odessa and St Petersburg, Locarno and Cannes. I hope that Ukraine Goodbye will be shown abroad more widely. Some will say that it paints an overly negative picture of Ukraine. Yet, too often, there is no picture at all. In the end, the films show goodbyes, but also hellos.
Film information: Ukraine Goodbye / Україно Гудбай, 2012
The Date / Pobachennya – directed by Yevhen Matviyenko, 12 mins
The Beard / Boroda – directed by Dmytro Sukholytyi-Sobchuk, 25 mins
Pie / Pyrih – directed by Yuriy Kovalov, 16 mins
The Angel of Death / Yanhol Cmerti – directed by Volodymyr Tykhyi, 20 mins
How the Cossacks Flew into Space / Yak Kozaky u kosmos poletily – directed by Yevhen
Matviyenko, 20 mins
Nuclear Waste / Yanderni Vidkhody – directed by Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi, 24 mins
All available with English subtitles. A list of all 25 shorts in the project is available here.
Annabelle Chapman is a journalist focusing on Eastern Europe. Writing from Warsaw, Kyiv, and in between, her articles have been published in the English-language and Polish press. She is also working on a PhD on the cities of the region under Communism, at Oxford University.