Odessa boasts an impressive although often overlooked film history and the idea of staging Ukraine’s major international festival in this city is certainly a fortuitous one. Indeed, the festival organisers were quick to use the iconic Potemkin Steps to their advantage by annually holding there the largest free public event during the festival, namely a screening of a silent film classic (this year it was the 1923 film classic Safety Last! starring Harold Lloyd) with a live orchestra. This most recent incarnation of the city’s international festival (I was told by staff at the Odessa Film Studios several years ago that there was an festival here in the late 1980s) was first set up at the beginning of this decade and, now in its ninth edition, has remained close to the original conception. Persevering with a large-scale international festival given the dramatic events of the country’s recent history has been an amazing feat in itself. Being back at the festival and in the city after a four-year absence, I didn’t feel as though the festival had undergone major changes. In 2014 the festival was criticise for occurring (as it took place only months after violence struck the city with almost 50 deaths on a fateful May day after clashes between pro- and anti-Maidan activists; so some suggested that the festival was “a feast in the time of plague”) but, thankfully it survived and has continued to this day. The Way to Freedom program, dedicated to radical political subjects , has since been dropped (arguably the human rights documentary-based Docudays festival in Kiev is a better forum for these kind of films), but otherwise the festival programmers have kept to the same broad direction (one could still designate it as being focused on the “art mainstream” film) since the festival’s inception.

Odessa’s program line up includes national and international competitions, a European documentary competition, a festival of festivals section, gala premieres, a Ukrainian or Odessan-based retrospective and other special screenings and focuses with the occasional retrospectives of filmmakers invited. Screenings are supplemented by film industry events, masterclasses and Q&As. While the stated long-term game plan of the organisers is that to become one of the major Eastern European festivals, if not a “Cannes of the East”,1 it hasn’t managed to replace what is probably still the most important film festival in this part of the world, namely Karlovy Vary. In earlier years, Odessa’s film program seemed to overlap rather too much with that of the Moscow International Film Festival, though this year there were few repetitions (maybe also because Moscow took place two months earlier than usual). Certainly, the recent traumatic conflicts between the Ukraine and Russia has meant that there are now discernable fractures in terms of programming (there were definitely fewer Russian films shown this year compared to the early years of the decade). Major figures such as Sergei Loznitsa – a regular attendant of the Odessa Film Festival – now avoid travelling to Russia.2 He has become outspoken in opposition to Russia’s designs on the Ukraine and his most recent films reflect this renewed political focus of his films. The case of Oleg Sentsov (the Ukrainian filmmaker imprisoned in Russia on what many see as trumped-up terrorist charges and who is now well beyond a hundred days into a hunger strike) remains a particular bone of contention between the two countries.3 Though doing so has the potential to poison further the relations between the Ukrainian and Russian film communities, it should be noted that there are, however, many in the Russian film community willing to speak out and organise a campaign of solidarity with Sentsov.4

Odessa is the main Russian-speaking city of Ukraine, and one that is confident in retaining its cultural autonomy within the country without feeling the need to leave it and, although splits emerged in the city between pro- and anti-Maidan movements breaking out into open violence in 2014, there is little likelihood here of any separatist “People’s Republic” (emerging elsewhere in Eastern Ukraine with the tacit help of Russian nationalists and the Russian state) taking up root here. With its strongly multi-cultural history it was always an anomaly, embodying a very distinct ethos from the norm in both Russian Imperial and Soviet times. Though not resembling a city state, Odessa has always remained one of those centres belonging more to itself than to any nation. The city was the subject of one of the films at the festival, namely, Alexander Brunkovskiy’s Into_nation of Big Odessa. The film painted a rather unique portrait of the city by giving voice to those Odessans who had emigrated from the city and who reflect on how Odessa played a part in their post-Odessa world. Certainly, a loving portrait of the city, as well as an interesting way of imagining the city film. It did not try to skirt away from the most sensitive theme of the eruption of civil violence in May 2014 but neither did it make this a central theme. Lusciously filmed (by one of Russia’s most impressive camera operators, Irina Uralskaya5), it may speak more to those who already know and love the city but given its intention to highlight the international contribution of Odessans it could draw a more international audience.

If Brunkovskiy’s film was an unashamed declaration of love for the city, it was another region in Ukraine, the Donbass, that became the centrepiece of some of the most provoking and provocative films of the festival, accompanied by some fascinating discussions at the festival on the image and reality of the Donbass. Both Sergei Loznitsa (Donbass) and Igor Minaev (Cacophony of Donbass) were to use this region to narrate a tale of a territory emerging into a nightmarish form of absurdist reality. While Loznitsa’s feature concentrates on the present war in the separatist region, Minaev’s documentary, mixing archive footage with contemporary interviews, concentrates on the collapse of myth as the origin of the current moment in the region.

Donbass (Sergei Loznitsa, 2018)

Much has been written about Loznitsa’s Donbass and it has certainly led to many opposing readings of the film. In this journal, Daniel Fairfax has argued that Loznitsa discredited himself through the “flagrant tendentiousness” that he displays given that his “procedure becomes heavy-handed and contemptuous, and his one-sided view of the conflict tips over into full-blooded Russophobic propaganda”.6 On the other hand, one of Russia’s most well-known critics Anton Dolin has suggested that Loznitsa’s take was not as partisan as one might be led to believe.7 In Odessa, while not denying that it was an openly political film, Loznitsa himself suggested that the film, rather than a black comedy, was a tragi-farce with grotesque elements,8 and that which he depicted in Donbass was also a universal condition (from comments at the festival he saw the events in Donbass as a representing a newly emergent reality). Beyond the purely political message of the film it is also worth concentrating on the narrative and formal experiments that Loznitsa pursues. This series of vignettes (thirteen in all) with minor characters in one scene reappearing in different guises in subsequent scenes, the film was very much based on the narrative structure of Luis Buñuel’s Phantom of Liberty (1974). Moreover, these vignettes in Loznitsa are often traceable back to actual footage occasionally found on YouTube or other similar platforms 9 (Loznitsa’s creative recreation of these scenes is, arguably, taking the fascinating Oleg Mavromatti YouTube collages one step further).10 Loznitsa’s portrait of the almost complete breakdown of institutions and their replacement by a turbo-charged society of spectacle, farce and horrendous deceit taken to monstrous extremes is not so much a nod to Kusturica’s Underground 11 but feels more reminiscent of Dušan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie (1974). Whether Donbass is a departure by Loznitsa or a development of concerns in his previous films still feels an unresolved question. The pounding sense of unavoidable doom and inescapable defeat in all his feature films12 means that this is not necessarily his ultimate word in pessimism, but it does feel that he is now (as though confirming a suspicion first detected in his 2017 film,  A Gentle Creature) moving into a much more overtly political space and a more denunciatory filmmaker is emerging. Nonetheless, Loznitsa also still seems able to reformulate his old concerns in new forms.

If Loznitsa’s film on Donbass was an attempt to picture the grotesque reality of the present, Igor Minaev made a far more genealogical film overtly trying to deconstruct the major foundation of the self-mythology of the region. Minaev’s choice of title for his film Cacophony of the Donbass explicitly alludes to Dziga Vertov’s Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (1930) (and is, indeed, in open polemic with the film and its purported myth-building). Whatever one may think of Minaev’s discourse (he certainly doesn’t want to let images from the archives speak for themselves and explicitly argued at the festival that it was impossible to avoid a running commentary in order to deconstruct the Soviet myth of the nobility of proletarian labour present in Soviet-era films), it is hard not to be impressed with some of the footage that Minaev has unearthed, especially that of the miners strike in the late 1980s when the myth of the Donbass as a bastion of the Soviet self-image based on a mythological image of the proletariat suddenly came tumbling down. Minaev also explores the wreckage of this myth in post-Soviet times, mentioning and interviewing the author of the scandalous photographic project of Arsen Savadov entitled Donbass Chocolate (1997) in which Donbass miners back from their shifts were dressed as ballet dancers,13 as well as wedding this together with contemporary stories of Donbass residents who found themselves opposing the ruling separatists intent on resurrecting the old Soviet myths and have in turn suffered humiliating and often violent punishment. Certainly, Minaev’s is an important accompanying film to the Loznitsa feature, offering a much-needed historical context. Whether one agrees with Minaev’s reading of this history and the central mythology of this region, he has certainly done filmgoers a service by including some extraordinary found footage and archive material in a film relevant to a much wider and knowledgeable re-reading of the Soviet.14

Delta (Oleksandr Techynski, 2018)

It is arguable that apart from Loznitsa, now the central figure in Ukrainian cinema after Muratova’s death, and Minaev, almost its veteran, there are some extremely promising emerging young  filmmakers. Myroslav Slaboshpitsky was not present but the accomplished documentary filmmaker Oleksandr Techynski (who worked on Loznitsa’s Donbass, and, like Loznitsa, has made a highly praised documentary on Maidan entitled All Things Ablaze) presented his painterly film Delta, which justifiably won the main award in the national film competition. Techynski’s film portrayed yet another Ukrainian landscape, the Delta of the Danube near Vilkovo which is still in the Odessa region but around 300 kilometers from its capital. This is one of the most suggestive landscapes in the country and referred to as Ukraine’s Venice. Techynski has given as unforgettable a portrait of this landscape and its populace as Michelangelo Antonioni once had with his documentary Gente del Po (1947) and the film has earned its plaudits as one of the most authentically immersive documentaries of recent years. Techynski manages to paint a portrait of an entirely different physical and social landscape of Ukraine in total contrast to Loznitsa’s powerful, denunciatory grotesque.

Yet another film in the festival – a first feature film by another documentary filmmaker, Roman Bondarchuk, entitled Volcano – foregrounds another southern Ukrainian landscape, namely that of the Pontic-Caspian steppe. Bondarchuk’s relationship to his landscape is a strange mixture of Loznitsa’s theoretical merging of landscape and the fateful grip it has on its human protagonists and Techynski’s more loving fascination with the painterly forms of the location and the sheer harshness of everyday life. There’s both the beauty (especially the original sequence and in the frequent tableaux-style moments dotted throughout the film) along with the hopelessness and Loznitsian beziskhodnost’ (no way out-ness) of the narrative. Like Loznitsa, Bondarchuk has also cast non-professional actors and his origins in documentary filmmaking has added a real grounding to the story. It certainly feels as though Ukrainian filmmaking now reveals its most powerful stories through an attention to the documentary. Other films from the Ukraine that impressed were Alisa Kovalenko’s Home Games, awarded the main prize in the European Documentary Competition, and a kind of “dented fairytale” of a young female footballer who grapples to persevere in her sporting career amidst the poverty and chaos of family life, and Andrei Zagdansky’s powerful documentary portrait entitled Michail and Daniel about an artist working on a series of portraits entitled “Franz Kafka’s Diary” and his deaf and mute son who also suffers from cerebral palsy. Returning to the subject of a short film shot two and a half decades earlier Zagdansky provides us with a meditative and observational masterpiece on the heroism of this striking family.

Nikon Romanchenko’s Tera, the story of a female factory worker and her search for her son in the war zone attempted to add naturalistic sound to give his narrative cinema a more documentary feel and may not find audiences outside of the festival circuit but Marisyia Nikitiuk’s astoundingly accomplished mixed genre debut feature length film When the Trees Fall, which premiered at Berlinale’s Panorama program and was produced by one of Ukraine’s best talent-scouters of debut filmmakers, Igor Savychenko, certainly should do so, at least in the Ukraine and the surrounding region.15

Michail and Daniel (Andrei Zagdansky, 2018)

Coming now to the highlight of the Festival of Festivals section, Pawel Pawlikowski with his masterpiece Cold War has returned to the epoch and in some ways to the style of his previous Ida to develop a subtle rereading of the era through what may seem like an unlikely romance. Elliptic in the extreme, the film takes us on a historical, geographical and above all musical journey through the bleakness of the first post-war decades. Certainly, the most sophisticated film of this section (and shot in a luscious monochrome), it managed to bring new nuances to the filmic imagination of the Cold War in its tale of the romance of an ill-matched couple. Clearly about to become one of the major fixtures of the coming festival season, its central fascination with the sounds of the Cold War (and its focus on the folk ensembles of the Soviet bloc) was nicely intertwined with another program in the Festival. The program dedicated to Soviet musical comedies from which some of the main characters of the ensemble in Cold War could almost have sprung. Odessa in this way produced a cinematic and historical context to Pawlikowski’s film that no other film festival would have imagined.

The Soviet musical comedies from the Ukraine ranged in period and quality but did include one of the first musical comedies, namely Igor Savchenko’s 1934 masterpiece, The Accordion. Intensely disliked by Stalin, it has impressed future generations of film scholars and fully deserves its reputation. Savchenko was also an accomplished pedagogue at the Soviet film school VGIK and his students included such great masters as Sergei Parajanov, Marlen Khutsiev, Aleksandr Alov, Vladimir Naumov and another filmmaker of great potential, Genrikh Gabay, who, after filming two neglected masterpieces and one of the ill-fated shelved trilogy of short films dedicated to the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution (the other films were shot by Larisa Shepitko and Andrei Smirnov) never fulfilled his immense potential after his emigration to Israel and the United States.16 The annual program in the Odessa Film Festival devoted to Ukrainian (and sometimes Odessa-based films shot mainly during the Soviet or early post-Soviet period) may be one of the least visited programs of the festival, gathering only small crowds of enthusiasts, but taking the trouble to watch some of these films can be immensely rewarding.

When the Trees Fall (Marisyia Nikitiuk, 2018)

Coming up to its tenth edition next year, the Odessa International Film Festival can at least boast about having firmly established itself as a permanent fixture in what must be one of the city’s and the country’s most difficult decades for some time. The festival merits international interest from film critics and the film world in general as does the emerging Ukrainian cinema which it helps showcase. It is clear that the festival is becoming a conduit by both introducing the best of global cinema in the Ukraine (many of the films shown at Odessa still do not have hope of national distribution in Ukrainian cinemas beyond this festival) and the best of Ukrainian cinema to cinemas outside of the country. One major qualm about the festival remains, and it lies in the fact that in its nine years of existence it never suitably honoured Kira Muratova, the city’s greatest filmmaker, while she was alive. It is truly a mystery why it never screened a major or a full retrospective of her work in her lifetime and even this year after her death only showed a short film and an early full-length feature on the first day of the festival. Film and Odessa will in years to come surely continue to be associated with Muratova’s name and her posthumous reputation can only grow and grow. Hopefully, the Odessa Film Festival next year will remedy its woeful neglect of one of the greatest filmmakers ever associated with the city. This aside, the Odessa Film Festival has played a very positive role in attracting attention to this all too-neglected part of the geographical and cinematic world.

Odessa International Film Festival
13-21 July 2018
Festival website: https://oiff.com.ua/en

Endnotes:

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2014/jul/22/odessa-film-festival-crash-mh17-ukraine.
  2. Some courageous festivals in Russia such as ArtDocFest ­– one of Russia’s major documentary festival and one of the targets of ire of Russia’s Culture Minister – do doggedly include Loznitsa’s (documentary) films in their program. However, an attempt by the Garage Museum in Moscow to show his film Donbass (of which more below) was blocked by the authorities.
  3. The amount of days that Sentsov was on hunger strike was announced at each screening before the opening credits, nearly always accompanied by applause from the audience for the embattled filmmaker.
  4. Among those who have publicly spoken out are Aleksandr Sokurov who took an opportunity at a conference where Putin was present to directly request the President to release Sentsov, as well as others, including actress and documentary producer, Maria Chuprinskaya and others, who mounted a campaign to attract the attention of international football fans by leafletting them about the case during the World Cup. This activity on their part earned Chuprinskaya and her colleagues persecution from state-sponsored “civic activists” and “anti-extremist” police. See https://therussianreader.com/2018/07/05/зож-civic-activists-assault-and-detain-theater-doc-members-in-moscow/.
  5. Irina Uralskaya’s magnificent work on Marina Razbezhkina’s Harvest Time in the 1990s still looks impressive and fresh years later. It was recently shown at the Moscow International Film Festival.
  6. http://sensesofcinema.com/2018/festival-reports/cold-wars-the-2018-cannes-film-festival/.
  7. He opines that “Russian and Ukrainian viewers will probably dislike it as it’s less than complimentary to all sides of the conflict”, see his take here https://www.calvertjournal.com/articles/show/10209/donbass-sergei-loznitsa-film-theatre-of-war.
  8. This is how Loznitsa characterised his film in an interview with Larisa Kozovaya when asked to comment on film critics at Cannes reacting to it as black comedy, https://www.unian.net/society/10197900-sergey-loznica-nad-golovoy-mechom-visit-voyna-krivoy-rog-gde-snimali-donbass-ne-tak-daleko-i-poka-my-snimali-film-v-gorod-dostavili-neskolkih-ukrainskih-soldat-horonit-eto-vse-uzhasno.html.
  9. For example, the much talked about marriage scene (one often criticised by critics for its length) whereby Loznitsa was reshooting from existing YouTube footage which can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-e28L1ramY.
  10. Oleg Mavromatti’s No Place for Fools (2015) and Monkey, Ostrich and Grave (2017) are some of the most fascinating experimental films based on adapting vlogs found on YouTube into quite extraordinary “post-cinematic” (the term belongs to Mavromatti himself) experiences.
  11. As The Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw has argued https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/may/10/donbass-review-cannes-2018-sergei-loznitsa.
  12. Fully captured as a study of the rather untranslatable Russian notion of beziskhodnost’ (“nowayoutism”, as it were).
  13. The work can be viewed here: https://photographers.ua/topic/skandalnyy-proekt-hudozhnika-arsena-savadova-donbass-chocolate-4169/.
  14. Minaev’s choice of Vertov’s Enthusiasm: Symphony of Donbass could have been supplemented by at least one other extraordinary classic, that of Albert Gendelstein’s 1935 classic feature film Love and Hate set in the mines of the Donbass during the early Soviet Civil War after the October Revolution (this film would surely offer extraordinary new vistas on gender as well as class). A film rarely shown or mentioned but which originally premiered in Paris alongside Buñuel’s now classic Las Hurdes / Tierra sin Pan “documentary”. A truly fascinating double bill.
  15. Neil Young in his review for Hollywood Reporter gave it a very positive review stating that in terms of arthouse names “it could be possibly positioned as Carlos Reygadas crossed with Andrei Zvyagintsev” and stating that now for Nikitiuk the “sky was the limit”: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/trees-fall-koly-padayut-dereva-1088332.
  16. The compelling tale of his life though would require a biography one day. Some of the salient points are mentioned in Vadim Kostromenko’s two-volume history of the Odessa Film Studios (in Russian only) and which I have summarised in a post on Odessa and film on my blog http://giuvivrussianfilm.blogspot.com/2011/07/odessa-and-film.html.

About The Author

Giuliano Vivaldi is a translator, writer and blogger on film, cultural history and philosophy. He has written on various aspects of Russian and Soviet film and is preparing a volume on Boris Barnet (to be published by Cygnnet). He has translated subtitles for dozens of films and curated film retrospectives and events linked to the figure of Pier Paolo Pasolini. As well as writing on critical Russian philosophy emerging in the late Soviet period, he has translated texts by the dissident Soviet Marxist philosopher Evald Ilyenkov.