Are you a foreign film buff? Ivan Kozlenko is deputy director of National Film Centre of Ukraine, and in charge of restoring and promoting Ukrainian and Soviet film classics. Here, he recommends his top five Ukrainian movies of all time, and describes the differences between film restoration in Ukraine and the West.
When I met Robin Baker, the head curator at the British Film Institute (BFI) National Archive, at the Odessa Film Festival, I thought it would be useful to recommend him a list of Ukrainian and Soviet Ukrainian films worth watching. This would give him a greater understanding of my country when back he went home to the UK. But choosing my top five was a challenge.
Rating and compiling a list of my favourite films was no easy task at all: there are too many to choose from. I tried to focus on little-known, forbidden, censored or simply forgotten films which I considered worth being brought back into the international arts canon. I also aimed to show an alternative picture of Ukraine, far away from the traditional and official standards of Soviet times.
1. 'Bread' (1929), director Mykola Shpykovskyi
Probably the biggest discovery for Ukrainian film studies of the last 20 years. This film was forbidden and not released on big screens in the 1920s. It was first shown to a narrow circle of film professionals in the late 1970s. After its restoration in 2013, 'Bread' was shown again to audiences in Ukraine, Russia and Italy. It is a simple and unpretentious story about partial military collectivisation in Ukraine during the 1920s, when individual land and labour was consolidated into collective farms. Clear characters, constructionism landscapes, an unstoppable film rhythm and avant-garde editing place 'Bread' in one line with early Soviet filmmaker Alexander Dovzhenko’s silent film masterpieces 'Arsenal' and 'Earth'.
2. 'A Severe Young Man' (1934), director Abram Room
This film was an adaptation of a novel by Yuriy Olesha, 'Envy', which was well-known in the 1920s. It is full of eroticism, far away from the conventional style of its time. Made during the Stalin era, the film presents striking work by cameraman Yuriy Yelkevich, terse and witty dialogue, and a celebration of the human body. Abram Room’s futuristic script is perhaps the most extraordinary example of what Ukrainian film created in the first half of the 1930s. The film's theme relates to the search for new values to reflect social transformations in the future.
3. 'Out of Boredom' (original 'Skuki Radi') (1967), director Artur Vojtetskyi
A brilliant screening of the same-named book by Alexander Herzen. Opening with intimate drama at the background of a forgotten railway station, it slowly grows into the tragedy of the whole generation and Soviet epoch. Attention to detail and perfect acting emphasise the atomisation of a group of people who have been brought together by chance, in a house amid endless steeps and skies.
4. 'Dolgiye provody' (1972) director: Kira Muratova
One of Muratova’s first works as independent director. It is a love story of a mother and her son, who is inexorably growing up and ready to leave home, as the mother tries to hide her fear of being left alone. This was one of the first independent Ukrainian films to be forbidden for showing 'bourgeois degeneration'. For the first time a Ukrainian film touched upon an existential problem at the background of a psychological drama. A human being was portrayed with all her weaknesses and doubts, which could not exist within the heroic narrative of a Soviet proletarian.
5. 'Josephine the Singer and Mice People' (1994) Serhiy Masloboyschikov
Based on the literary work of the same name, this film with its expressionist imagery truly reflects a Kafkaesque view of the world. It shows a state of existential anxiety and hopelessness, and humans' inability to withstand the whirlwind of bureaucracy and red-tape conventions. The film became a kind of diagnosis for the problems facing Ukrainian society at the beginning of the 1990s – a dark time when guiding lines were lost and hopes and illusions collapsed.
The differences between film restoration in Ukraine and Western Europe
Ukraine's state film archive, the National Oleksandr Dovzhenko Centre, was founded on the site of one of the biggest film copying laboratories in the USSR, so the whole cycle of film copying and restoration was preserved here. Film restoration, which requires a chemical laboratory, is rare for European archives and is a big luxury for ours. However, modern restoration is mainly based on the digital format.
In Ukraine there are no specialized laboratories to restore archive film, and so restoration is done by different subcontractors specializing in postproduction. As a result, the technology is mainly applied to visual characteristics of film materials and colour correction. Such restoration can hardly be called comprehensive, yet it is the best solution in our circumstances.
Resources and restrictions on film restoration are tight
Unlike in Western Europe, having neither human nor financial resources to search for all copies of a restored film, we actually do restoration rarely. Time is also an issue, as restoration projects often have a very tight time frame for delivery. So we generally restore one film copy using negative or double-negative film, without combining different copies in one film. Due to the above-mentioned problems, a film restoration takes us no more than two months, whereas Western archives can reconstruct and restore one film for years.
Our restoration programme is also the only way for us to buy missing films in our archive held overseas (mainly in Russia, where film where taken in Soviet times) and complete our library. We are only allowed to buy films within the framework of this project, which also differentiates us from the Western archives. There are no limitations on buying films overseas there.