New films from Ukraine and Russia show how history repeats itself
The sight of a injured pregnant woman being evacuated from the rubble of a hospital earlier this week is one of the most gruesome images of the war in Ukraine to date. But as singularly awful as it was, it also felt oddly familiar to me – not of life, but of art. The film by Ukrainian director Maryna Er Gorbach Klondike, which premiered at Sundance in January, culminates with an eerily similar scene in retrospect. The film largely takes place in the bombed-out envelope of a house occupied by a couple who are expecting their first child. She is heavily pregnant and he is desperately trying to avoid being recruited by Russian separatists who want him to join the war in Donbass. The female perspective dominates the film; she wants men to stop bickering over territory so she can start a family in peace, but peace isn’t there. In the final scene, her husband is chased away by the separatists, while she gives birth to her own child in the rubble that was once their home, her pangs of childbirth ignored as the soldiers go about their business. In the end, she has to cut the umbilical cord with her teeth.
It would be going too far to call Klondike, which was the first Ukrainian film to compete at Sundance, is prophetic because part of its underlying argument is that in a place like eastern Ukraine, history keeps repeating itself. The film takes place in a specific time and place: July 17, 2014, to be exact, the day a Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down by a Russian separatist missile, killing all 298 people on board. But between the couple’s need to protect their own lives – it’s also a separatist fire that accidentally destroyed their home – and the difficulty of getting a clear answer about anything from anyone, this global tragedy s initially registered as a distant event. It’s just oily smoke on the horizon, flatbed trucks rumbling along carrying rocket launchers and twisted pieces of fuselage.
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In the documentary A house made of shards, who also performed at Sundance, history repeats itself on a family level. Simon Lereng Wilmont, director of 2017 The distant barking of dogs, returned to eastern Ukraine for this portrait of a home for children separated from their parents by the courts. During their stays, which are limited to nine months in a row, some are visited by relatives desperate to regain custody, while others use the communal mobile phone to try to reach them in vain. Many a child registers the disappointment of hearing that their alcoholic parent is drunk again with a mixture of disappointment and familiarity that is devastating to watch. There is no mention of the country’s recent history in the film, but the scenery is the same as Klondike‘s: barren, bombed out, full of people who endure because they have to.
The films of Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Losnitza directly address this history, often delving into and reorienting filmic evidence from the past. The war in Ukraine sparked a slight revival of interest in his work: two documentaries, Mr Landsbergis and Bab Yar. The contextscreened as part of the First Look festival at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens This weekend; the latter will open at New York’s Film Forum on April 1, and the belated American premiere of his 2018 fiction film Donbass will follow on April 8. Mr Landsbergis, a massive four-hour chronicle of Lithuania’s battle for independence from the crumbling Soviet Union, focuses on the former music teacher who became the first leader of the country’s new parliament. What resonates most strongly today are the images of Soviet troops brutally suppressing protests in Vilnius in January 1991, pushing tanks into crowds and ultimately killing 14 people.
Babi Yar, named after the site where more than 30,000 Jews were massacred during the Nazi occupation of kyiv, takes a trickier place, since Putin used the “denazification” lie as one of his justifications for the invasion. from Ukraine. But the film also includes footage of the Soviets turning the site into a lagoon of industrial waste in the 1950s, literally burying the country’s past, and eventually erecting a monument that honors “the Soviet people who perished” not to mention that he was Jewish. (According to Loznitsaany attempt to point this out in Soviet times would have you labeled a Zionist.) There is no better illustration of the tricky place an artist wanders into during wartime than the fact that Loznitsa leave the European Film Academy last month, in protest at its lukewarm response to the Russian invasion. He was too excluded of the Ukrainian Film Academy just yesterday for failing to support his calls for a total boycott of films by Russian filmmakers.
Two of those films screened at the True/False Film Festival earlier this month, alongside Loznitsa Mr Landsbergis. When Belarusian director Ruslan Fedotow took the stage to present Where are we going, which was filmed entirely in Moscow’s underground metro stations, he appeared physically shaken as he assured the audience that neither he nor his friends voted for “our current dictator and just wanted this war to end”. After the screening, he seemed even more shaken by his own film. His images of Russians listening en masse to Putin’s New Year’s speech or marching to commemorate Remembrance Day, dedicated to the dead of World War II, now carry an additional undercurrent of threat. The title question has been answered, and it’s not the answer Fedotow and his friends wanted.
An unrenovated section of the planet is briefly converted into an exhibition space for a single Kandinsky painting, guarded by a burly security guard who looks like a Russian Channing Tatute.
GES-2directed by Where are we going producer Nastia Korkia, began with a title card signed by Russian filmmakers protesting the war. The film, which follows plans to turn an abandoned Moscow mighty planet into a cultural hub, looks like the country’s attempts to modernize in miniature; the opening scene, set in a swanky mall, recalls more recent images of Moscow’s high-end boutiques with their shelves bare as European businesses pull out their wares. The film’s climax is a long, deadpan sequence in which an unrenovated section of the planet is briefly converted into an exhibition space for a single Kandinsky painting, guarded by a burly security guard who looks like a Russian Channing Tatum. The use of fixed camera angles vaguely reminiscent of a Donkey gag, the film focuses on art lovers entering the room in small groups and becoming instantly transfixed, not by the exposed canvas, but by the guard’s rippling muscles and tight shirt. It’s deeply hilarious, but of course there’s the nagging reminder that neither the guard nor his google-eyed clients have signed their own reassuring statements; it’s like looking at old family photos and remembering how everyone voted in the last election.
Unlike other venues which have attracted Russian products ranging from movies for mustardTrue/False kept the movies in the lineup, issuing a declaration stressing that they were not subsidized by “the Russian oligarchs or the government”. It gave Korkia and Fedotow a platform to condemn the war and to show the American public the faces of a country we understand so little, we can’t even understand. what to boycott. But Loznitsa canceled her plans to attend, so her film had to speak for itself.