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An unappreciated effort

A Hollywood budget, important factual inspiration and a non-American director – all these features may be considered as providing the right opportunity for a high-quality movie. The latest film by Polish Oscar nominee Agnieszka Holland – Mr Jones – combines all of them. Yet, the Hollywood finances and the predictable filming style became too visible, distracting from a much-needed history lesson.

January 29, 2020 - Grzegorz Szymborski - Books and ReviewsMagazine

The topic selected as one of the main stories in Agnieszka Holland’s recent film Mr Jones makes this movie significant. Indeed, it seems to be one of the first international films concerning the story of the Ukrainian genocide, or Holodomor – the great famine committed by Soviet authorities in the 1930s. Others include Under Jakob’s Ladder (2011) and Bitter Harvest (2017). Moreover, Holland’s is the first which could become – due to its Hollywood budget and famous director – well-known worldwide, spreading knowledge about the great famine to a wide audience.

Personally, I had placed high hopes on our Polish director who is known thanks to such films like Angry Harvest, Europa Europa, and In Darkness, all of which were nominated for Academy Awards in 1985, 1991 and 2011 respectively. Holland’s personal story, as a Pole who experienced the communist period, should give her a good understanding of life under Soviet rule. Witnessing the socialism of the Polish People’s Republic and experiencing the misery of communism, including the Prague Spring of 1968 and other communistic measures of terror, puts her at an advantage over other western directors who decide to set a film in Soviet times. Moreover, Holland had also directed several movies depicting the Holocaust. Hence, it could be expected that she would use those experiences, offering a multi-layered story of the hidden genocide, explaining its origins and devastating results. The case of the journalist Gareth Jones (played by James Norton) appears to be an excellent starting point and a pretext to do so; especially since knowledge about the Holodomor does not seem to be common among the wide general public.

The Holodomor preceded the Holocaust and led to the deaths, according to some estimates, of some 10 million people at a time of peace. Historians have no doubt that Joseph Stalin, Vyacheslav Molotov and Lazar Kaganovich were responsible for the massive starvation policy and its deadly implementation. Ukraine was a part of the USSR which was greatly opposed to the idea of collectivisation. In 1930, prior to the policy, there were as many as 14,000 peasant strikes and riots in Soviet Ukraine. In order to break the spirit of the Ukrainian nation and resistance against collective farming, the plan was announced. Authorities forced Ukrainians to contribute their grain supplies, which led to a massive starvation of people. Notably, three-fourths of the population lived then in rural areas. The theft of grain was penalised with capital punishment and considered theft of collective property. Fields were constantly supervised by armed men. Between August 1932 and December 1933, 125,000 people were punished by courts, including over 5,000 sentenced to death.

Moreover, Ukraine was cut off from the rest of the world. The borders with Poland and Romania were strictly guarded. Even entering the Belarusian and Russian Soviet Republics was prohibited. The exact number of victims will never be known for sure. Authorities did not register data, forcing doctors to avoid indicating starvation as a cause of death. The most bizarre in the whole story is that since March 1933 authorities even stopped issuing death certificates.    

However, the Holodomor, as seen in the Holland’s film, becomes just the background of the story of the young Welsh journalist who departs for Moscow in order to interview Stalin and find out what is behind the Soviet Union’s “great economic success”. The dreadful story of the genocide itself is not so detailed in the movie. The plot rather focuses on the impressions of Jones and his experience in the dark communistic reality. During the journey, the ambitious Brit quickly becomes very suspicious due to the specificity of the Soviet realm and he decides to dig deeper, which leads the main character directly to Ukraine.

Unfortunately, the Holodomor is presented for approximately half an hour in the film – just one-quarter of the whole movie’s length. Jones explores the ghost towns and creepy villages. The director shows us a few touching clichés which are commonly associated with the Holodomor and a bit predictable for people familiar with the topic. Wagons of corpses, dead bodies in the streets, a distrustful hot meal in one of the homesteads… those images and scenes could really help the audience understand the tragedy of the Ukrainian nation. Unfortunately, the events take place so quickly that it is impossible to witness the scale of the mass starvation, to discover the mechanisms behind it and to understand the sick idea of the Kremlin.

Perhaps the true story of Gareth Jones was that rapid and chaotic. Perhaps the director’s aim was to shock us quickly with the icy wasteland and completely anonymous, numerous Ukrainian parts and then, once more, contrast it with the hypocrisy of the fake-wealthy Moscow as well as the stability and relative prosperity of London (let’s remember, it was the era of “Great Depression”). Yet, a deep perspective of what was happening in Ukraine is somewhat missing.

It may be that for some, the western perspective attracts too much attention away from the storyline. Holland’s decision to focus on the famine from the point of view of Europe’s witnesses weakened the Ukrainian aspect and marginalised the remembrance value. For most of the film, viewers follow the perspective of the wealthy, well-off characters who hear about the tragedy of the Ukrainian nation and treat it like a piece of news. For the Brits, the news seems to be remote and too far away to really care.

Jones, meanwhile, is not only the protagonist of the film but an ideal hero himself – fighting for the truth at all cost. The world of diplomacy and the mass media that deny that truth are the antagonists and true villains. The storyline focuses on the world of journalism and its moral degeneracy, looking for obvious distinctions between the values represented by Jones and other journalists, which results in a very black and white picture. The main struggle is rather simple: an idealistic journalist faces a mixture of brutality of cruel realpolitik, superstitions about the Soviet realm and the corrupted souls of greedy people. He is pressured and surrounded by the “enemies”.His actions seem naïve, the same as the attitude of western intelligentsia, truly spoiled at that time by communistic propaganda and passive towards any arguments challenging the fake images.

The origins of the director and co-operation with the Ukrainian film industry should have made this movie more sophisticated with deeper conclusions. However, the opposite happened – the plot is simplified, the production is westernised, and the educational value is lost. The main character seems unstoppable in what he does. Too many times the audience may scowl, thinking of a logical connection between the events, the rationality of the main character and foolishness of the Soviet authorities (and accuracy of their soldiers as well…).

The death of the millions is just the reason to speak of the unequal duel between an individual, his values and, paradoxically, the collective voice of the western political lobby. Unfortunately, the viewer can easily forget, that s/he has seen the horrifying landscapes of Ukraine. It is natural – the emptiness of the wooden villages covered with snow is less shocking and memorable than bloody massacres or other ways mass murder is often portrayed. The problem with Holland’s portrayal of the Holodomor is that we do not see the real perpetrators. The people are just stuck; and they are left to die. Nobody is supervising the slow process. The genocide is not direct and it is not the aim itself. This is not massive bloodshed or industrialised death camps governed by people. As a result, the audience’s perception of the horrors of the Holodomor may be incomplete.

If Holland truly wanted to impact the audience, she may not have achieved her goal. She should have shocked us. Instead, the film presents an ideal and schematic story about unambiguous good and evil; leading to the impression that Jones was one of the biggest victim of the Ukrainian version of “Holocaust denial”. Clearly, one point of the movie is to argue that Europe did nothing to stop that madness. The seeds of evil rose in Moscow, but it was the Western World which indirectly supported the annihilation of the Ukrainian population by its political neutrality and disinterest.

The British-Polish-Ukrainian co-production will certainly be remembered as a thought-provoking story about deep cynicism in diplomacy and journalism. But it fails as a symbolic memorial for the victims of the Soviet “Holodomor”. Any film concerning a genocide should send a strong and clear message. Perhaps we should treat this movie as a dangerous memento of European passivity and the hidden desire to maintain good relations with Russia at all cost? And expectations that the civilised world will come to the rescue of oppressed nations and people, seem pointless. Nevertheless, we should always remember the past in order to avoid future, similar disappointments.

Grzegorz Szymborski is a student of postgraduate studies at College of Europe in Natolin (Poland), graduate from the Faculty of Law and Administration at the University of Warsaw, author of the books: Wolność niejedno ma imię (2013) and Wyprawa Fryderyka Augusta I do Inflant w latach 1700-1701 w świetle wojny domowej na Litwie (2015).

For another take on the film, read Paulina Siegień’s review: “Devoted to the truth” which appeared first in Issue 1-2/2020

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