Here are two recommendations from this year’s Kinofest, a New York film festival featuring works from Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries: The Other Chelsea and Firecrosser, both nuanced accounts, as well as subtly savage critiques, of Ukrainian realities.
The Other Chelsea, a documentary by the German filmmaker Jakob Preuss, depicts Donetsk during its soccer team’s march to victory in the UEFA championship in Istanbul in 2009. Firecrosser, a feature-length art film by Mykhaylo Illyenko, is based on the true story of a Ukrainian peasant–turned–fighter pilot who made his way to Canada after World War II and joined an Indian tribe in Ontario.
Preuss’s film features Nikolai Levchenko, the notorious young Party of Regions politico and Donetsk city council secretary who claims to have read Tolstoy’s War and Peace seven times and thinks Ukrainian is a laughable language. Although Jakob and Kolya are on a first-name basis and address each other with the informal you (“ty”), it’s hard to imagine that they’re still the best of buds. Preuss cleverly juxtaposes Levchenko’s lavish lifestyle and absurd habits with the lives of several decent coalminers who lead ordinary lives, work in miserable conditions, are nostalgic about the Soviet past, know that their leaders are crooks, have no idea how to improve their lives, and find solace in the Donetsk soccer team’s victories.
Kolya Levchenko, who cannot have been flattered by Preuss’s portrayal, is depicted as a ridiculous popinjay and transparent demagogue who worries about his neatly trimmed Beatle haircut, can only eat his porridge when it’s cooled, has portraits of Soviet-era military dignitaries and Stalin in his office, carefully cultivates his television image, and lives in the kind of tackily decorated apartment whose Late Regionnaire Rococo style is identical to that of Viktor Yanukovych’s palatial estate outside Kyiv. Kolya first admits to owning a construction firm and then, after Preuss asks him if that isn’t, er, illegal, denies having it.
To their credit, the football-crazy miners see Kolya for what he is—an overly ambitious young man with “criminal” (their word, not mine) ties. Unfortunately, the good people of Donetsk have no idea what to do about the Levchenkos that misrule them. Instead, they seek refuge in soccer. Fittingly, the film ends with the completion of the magnificent Donbas Arena, a soccer stadium built by a Donetsk multibillionaire oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov. Preuss’s message is clear: if you can’t offer the coalminers bread, give them a circus. Unfortunately, the miners almost seem to prefer the circus to bread.
Illyenko’s film features Ivan Dodoka, a Ukrainian peasant from the Poltava region, who becomes an ace pilot, is shot down and captured by the Nazis, is dumped in the Gulag for his “treasonous” stint in a German camp, and escapes by plane to Canada, where he comes upon Indians who take him in and provide him with a home. Although the commercially successful film has been called a “blockbuster” in Ukraine, it’s hardly a Hollywood-style epic with a gun-slinging hero. Rather, as Illyenko put it, it’s a “romantic ballad,” an art film that combines magical realism with history and adventure.
The cleverest part of the film is its treatment of identity and language. Dodoka speaks Ukrainian at home and with some intimate friends. He teaches it to his Tatar wife, who in turn teaches him her language. He also teaches it to the Indians in Canada. Once outside the personal sphere, however, Dodoka speaks only Russian, which is the language of communism, the police, and the military—in a word, of power. Ironically, Dodoka can speak Ukrainian freely, and in that sense be himself, only after he leaves Ukraine. In contrast to the Soviet power-holders, who countenance only Russian, the Indians happily learn how to sing Ukrainian songs and to cook borscht. Illyenko’s message is clear: Soviet rule crushed Ukrainian language and identity, and the only refuge from its oppressive influence could be found in internal or external emigration.
Now read Preuss’s film through the lens Illyenko provides. Preuss’s coalminers have no particular regard for a distinctly Ukrainian identity or for the language. That is their perfect right, of course, but it may also be their malheur. Because Ukrainian represents an alternative to Soviet reality, the bilingual Dodoka knows how to save himself. Tragically, the monolingual coalminers do not.
Photo Credit: Andrew Butko