Text by Agne Dovydaityte
Edited by Darya Malyutina
In the last two years, Ukraine has constantly been in the focus of the international media. A country in turmoil, standing up to its powerful neighbour, in a short period of time became known as the 21st century’s frontline. Since the beginning of the Euromaidan and armed conflict in the East of Ukraine, numerous cultural projects, including, in particular, documentaries, have sought to bring the Ukrainian experiences closer to the Western audiences. At the weekend of 10-13 December, Ukraine has again appeared on the screens in London. This time, the audience was not presented with images of Kyiv on fire, or Putin shaking hands with world leaders. This time the audience saw peaceful images of grazing sheep, accompanied by the sounds of Ukrainian national music. Ukrainian Cinema Days brought a different Ukraine to the audiences at the iconic RichMix Cinema, in East London’s trendy Shoreditch.
Ukrainian Cinema Days brought a different Ukraine to the audiences at the iconic RichMix Cinema, in East London’s trendy Shoreditch.
John Whittingdale, UK Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, praised the creativity of Ukrainian filmmakers, and stressed the importance of remembering the plight of Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian film director imprisoned by the Russian Federal Security Service on suspicion of plotting terrorist acts in Crimea.
While Ukraine is still fighting for its freedom, and political talks are being held behind the closed doors, the country’s cultural initiatives in the last two years have become an efficient way of conveying messages about Ukraine’s past and present, and promoting cultural understanding. Hopefully, the festival would also make an impact on its diverse audiences, in terms of fostering the understanding of why the borderland is the way it is.
Igor Iankovskyi, businessman and founder of Ukrainian charity foundation Initiative for the Future which sponsored the festival, admitted that it has become common for today’s media audiences to see Ukraine as a country paralyzed by corruption and war, in the first place. He expressed hopes that that the festival that started in Paris and was now closing the year in London, would help people to discover Ukraine that they can actually enjoy.
‘Because of the talented people we have, I think that in this respect we will be absolutely fine,’ Iankovksyi said.
Pylyp Illienko, head of the Ukrainian State Film Agency, has worked together with Igor Iankovskyi and Kyiv International Film Festival ‘Molodist’, said that this festival seemed to be the best example of the state and private partnership, also involving talented youth, artists, and international audiences. Illienko placed high hopes on changes in Ukrainian law which would make it easier for foreign filmmakers to shoot their movies in Ukraine, facilitating the promotion of the country’s positive image on a global scale, and exchange of experience with artists around the world.
The festival opening film ‘The Living Fire’ was warmly received and highly praised by the audience. A documentary that would not be everyone’s weeknight’s choice while munching on popcorn, the film was the result of four-year-long project centred on documenting and trying to understand three generations of Ukrainian Carpathian shepherds and their struggle to keep their traditions alive. According to the film’s executive producer, Olga Beskhmelnitsyna, the primary purpose of the movie director Ostap Kostyuk was actually presenting the traditional authentic Ukrainian music. However, since he started his research, the director discovered a story about a fading tradition of men leaving their homes for four months to take their flocks to pasture – a story that he could not ignore. Even though Kostyuk’s initial plan has changed, the astonishing sounds of accordion, traditional Hutsul mouth harp drymba, clinking buckets on the fence, and bells on sheep necks, go perfectly with serene shots of endless fields, and depiction of the last shepherds’ everyday culture.
The astonishing sounds of accordion, traditional Hutsul mouth harp drymba, clinking buckets on the fence, and bells on sheep necks, go perfectly with serene shots of endless fields, and depiction of the last shepherds’ everyday culture.
The three characters in the movie represent three generations. Nine-year-old Ivanko Mykhailjuk is different from his friends at school: he feels the call of nature, animals and music, and follows it spending his vacation in harsh conditions in the mountains looking after the pasture. Ivanko seems to feel very comfortable in front of the camera, which captures his process of finding out about his real passion at a very young age.
Ivan Besashchuk, 82, has been a shepherd for all his life. Since his beloved wife passed away, he is too old to go to the mountains, and dreams about returning to the nature. Ivan is a truly touching character, looking like a keeper of the last spark of the living fire.
Vasyl Tonjuk, 39, Ivanko’s godfather, seems like a quite pragmatic and down-to-earth person, caring about safety of the sheep and the management of the team. It is not long until you notice that shepherding is not a business, and Vasyl opens up as he talks about mountains calling him. ‘Everyone has a calling,’ he says.
‘The Living Fire’ goes way beyond the Carpathians, and way beyond Ukraine. It presents the audience with a romanticised view on traditions around the world in the face of globalisation and modernisation.
Olga Beskhmelnitsyna noted that the documentary material is even more touching and emotional than one can see on the screen. Unfortunately, the team recently found out that Vasyl passed away. Again, Ivan outlives one more generation, waiting for his land to take him. He shows the crew a handmade coffin and his wife’s pictures, and this scene, evidently, had a strong emotional impact on the audience at RichMix.
‘The Living Fire’ goes way beyond the Carpathians, and way beyond Ukraine. It presents the audience with a romanticised view on traditions around the world in the face of globalisation and modernisation. How many Ivans are out there, as remnants of the old world, trying to save the metaphorical fire for the future, for new generations who don’t even know that it exists?
Christine Bardsley, British Council: THE LIVING FIRE is a beautiful film and was a great choice to open Ukrainian Cinema Days.
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