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“Pushing Hollywood aside” – renaissance in Ukrainian cinema

The film Cyborgs was voted best film at the Golden Dzyga Awards. Photo:
“Pushing Hollywood aside” – renaissance in Ukrainian cinema
Article by: Olena Makarenko
Edited by: Michael Garrood
On April 20 this year, the Golden Dzyga film award ceremony, Ukraine’s own “Oscars,” was held in Kyiv. The top award went to a film about the heroic defense of the airport in Donetsk.Yet just a few years ago, the country had no film award ceremony, nor for that matter enough films to be presented at one.

During the last few years, the Ukrainian film industry has experienced nothing short of a revolution. Following the 2013-2014 Euromaidan protests, Ukraine has produced scores of quality documentaries, with Ukraine’s films now being shown at the world’s best festivals.

In Ukraine itself, the country’s films are now pushing Hollywood movies aside. The feature film “Cyborgs,” which tells the story of the brave defenders of Donetsk airport in 2014, set a record for box office sales, bringing in more than UAH 23mn ($875,610). More than 320,000 cinemagoers watched it, while it gained the Best Film award at the “Ukraine Oscars,” the Golden Dzyga film award ceremony.

In order to establish the reasons for the Ukrainian film industry’s boom, Euromaidan Press talked to Anna Palenchuk, a producer, film academic, and the founder of the Ukrainian film company 435 Films.

In her blog, Anna once wrote: “Thank you Ukrainian cinema that you exist.” To realize the scale of changes let’s first take a look at how the situation was in the past.

Before and after

Dzyga Awards. Photo:

The producer recalls that for a long time the Ukrainian film industry had served as a raw material appendage for Russia. Cheap TV series were shot here, while the best professionals – actors, directors, and cameramen – would move to Moscow.

“Also the amount of state funding was very small. It was a closed corruption scheme. Even very talented people would find it impossible to get any money,” says Anna.

Compared to then, the situation has changed dramatically.

Anna Palenchuk, film producer. Photo from Anna Palenchuk’s archive

To support her optimism, the producer provides an example from the Golden Dzyga, the Ukrainian Film Awards:

“The number of bids which were submitted affords us the right to say that there already is a Ukrainian film industry, not just that there will be one in the future. That people are working on it. There are companies which produce films every year, there is an audience.”

The producer says that three to five years ago, the prospect of having such a situation would have been a dream.

“During the last 2 years there haven’t been any world A-class film festivals without Ukrainian films challenging or in parallel programs,” adds Palenchuk.

For example, last year the film “School #3,” by the Ukrainian Yelyzaveta Smith and Georg Genoux from Germany, which depicts the life of Donbas teenagers, won the Berlinale Grand Prix.

Read more: The Berlinale Grand Prix film from Ukraine tells a different story of the Donbas

Anna Palenchuk also mentions the film “Ridni” (Close Relatives), by Vitaliy Manskiy. This film, a joint Ukrainian, German, Latvian, and Estonian production, has been screened at four A-class film festivals.

The producer sees three main reasons for the improvement in the industry. These are the introduction of the procedure of pitchings, society’s thirst for Ukrainian films, and money for the industry being made available by the state.

The need for Ukrainian films

“The nest of the turtledove” is an internatinally-acclaimed Ukrainian-Italian film dedicated to the evocative topic of work migrants

The Euromaidan Revolution awakened Ukrainians’ desire to watch their own films. Anna recalls that during the revolution she was working on a standard TV series on one of the Ukrainian channels.

“The channel decided to do an experiment and not show series about some city X, or St. Petersburg or Moscow, but about Kyiv. With Golden Gates, with Maidan. And despite the awful events which were being broadcasted on all the TV channels, the series suddenly became popular.”

Anna sees the reasons for this being that people in Ukraine really needed to see real stories happening in their country:

“After this, my and I colleagues realized that the audience felt a need to watch Ukrainian stories. The Revolution of Dignity gave a push for many stories which really deserved to be filmed. At first, documentaries became hits thanks to the Babylon13, a group of young cinematographers that despite all the risks filmed at the Maidan and then in the war zone. They did not do it for commercial use, but immediately uploaded the films to the Internet. Many people appeared who, despite the absence of big state funding at that time, continued to shoot films.”

Watch some Babylon’13 films here: Babylon’13 film ‘Heaven’s Hundred’ with English, Italian, French, Spanish, Russian subtitles

Pitchings and state money

The system of pitchings had already been introduced in 2012. Thanks to it, film producers, directors, and other members of the market started to find out about each other.

After the revolution, the state finally started to allocate more funding to film production. Anna emphasizes that the process of selecting films is totally transparent – all the presentations are shown live on the Internet.

Only debuts and films for children are fully covered by the state by default. Others mostly look for additional funding.

For the 78 films that won, UAH 600mn ($22.8mn) should be allocated.

Oleksandra Chuprina is a young director who received full backing for her film project. After graduating in 2016, she with her colleague Elmira Asadova applied for state funding to create a documentary on the environment in Odesa and won.

Oleksandra Chuprina (from her private archive)

“When I graduated and came back to Odesa, I noticed how it changed. The old historical buildings had been demolished and replaced by new ones. Initially, Odesa was conceived as a city with no more than five-story buildings, wide roads, and a lot of space. Now it’s far from that. Yet the environment shapes us. I wanted to do something about that. The only thing I can do is to shoot a film.”

Oleksandra found activists who were dealing with the problem and trying to save old Odesa from destruction by using creative tools. The young director started to shoot a film about what they do:

“At first I started to do it fast – the lack of good equipment did not matter to me at that time. Later I understood that it should be done in a more serious way.”

Before, Oleksandra did not have any experience in attracting money for a film. Her friend Elmira, who is a producer, suggested applying for state funding.

The pitching takes place twice a year. The process has two stages: in the first stage, teams present their projects with supporting documentation, after which the projects are ranked. Ratings are released publicly. The second stage is a public defense of a project:

“It was important to me that thought I was just a 22-year old girl who had just graduated from university, I could take part in it head-to-head.”

The defense lasts for 15 minutes, with the process being broadcast online via social media.

“As there is no culture of pitchings in Ukraine, all people do it differently. Some present some visuals, some recite verses, while others even sing,” recalls Oleksandra.

A part of Oleksandra’s documentary is devoted to ugly balconies. Photo: Oleksandra Chuprina

Their project got the funding. Within a year, the film should be finished.

“I think it is great that we have a pitching process which is completely public. I know that colleagues in Belarus also have state funding. However, there the selection process is closed and is rather an imitation of a competition. But we have journalists who write about it. At the end of a pitching day, film critics write about it. The budgets are open,” Oleksandra notes.

Still, there are things which spoil the picture. For example, in March 2017 Ukrainian cinematographers released their concern that the State Film Agency has a deficit of about UAH 200mn ($7.6mn). It means that the agency would not be able to fund all the projects which won the last pitching. They suggest obtaining the money required from the Ministry of Culture, which itself receives money to be allocated for patriotic films. And this is another topic of discussion in the industry.

Patriotic films

“Eastalgia” was shot in Ukraine, Serbia, and Germany, and recounts the story of young people who didn’t go to Germany when their parents decided to move there. The producer considers it as patriotic.

In 2017, instead of increasing financing for the State Film Agency, it was decided to divide the money and to give half of it — UAH 500mn ($19mn) – to the Ministry of Culture, for the production and distribution of patriotic films. Critics deemed this to be problematic in many ways, the first of which is the Ministry of Culture’s inexperience with film production. Apart from that, it’s not clear how it the patriotism of a film would be judged – discussions about the criteria are still ongoing.

Anna Palenchuk does not see a problem in the concept of patriotic films itself:

“I read the criteria for patriotic films and I agree with many of them. Of course we need films on great Ukrainians who we don’t know much about. So of course I agree with such films being made according to the concept of patriotism.”

The producer says patriotic films don’t carry the risk of becoming propaganda:

“A film can’t just be made by some person on the street. Films are made by professionals. We have a lot of professionals who have already proved their status. Their films have been at many world festivals. However, in films, you broadcast your own values. Many would refuse to shoot a propaganda film even if they were offered a lot of money. But there is nothing wrong with films which tell our stories – that is what I recognize in the term ‘patriotic film.’”

Anna recognizes that all the films made by her were focused on Ukrainian stories and can be considered as patriotic. As an example, she provides a film, “Eastalgia,” which she produced in 2012. It was shot in Ukraine, Serbia, and Germany, and tells the story of young people who didn’t follow their parents to Germany:

“The character lived in Kyiv: he had everything he needed to go to his mother who was waiting for him, yet he stayed. And it was my personal view as a citizen of Ukraine that you shouldn’t leave. You should build your future here even if the circumstances are not very pleasing.”

Also, the producer is confident that there is a kind of film which Ukrainians need here and now. For example, ones like “Cyborgs”:

“Of course as there are a lot of discussions about us, Ukrainians, in the film, it might not be that comprehensible for the foreign audience. But this film was produced for us. It would be super ambitious to say that as we shoot a film about the war it will become a super hit in all the cinemas in the world. We don’t have the budgets to compete with Hollywood blockbusters.”

Nevertheless, the preparations for screening the film abroad are ongoing. Also, the producer is confident that in near future there will be a film about the Donbas War directed towards a Western audience. She also confirms that there is an interest in Ukraine abroad:

“Even the participation of Ukrainian films at film festivals abroad shows that these stories are relevant in the West. In general, in Europe there is a trend towards Eastern Europe. Many advertisements and showreels are shot here. Because there is a request for such a reality. Our country is a total mix. We have 16-storey buildings near Gothic cathedrals. We have wonderful locations. Aside from this we also have great talents.”

The professionals

Still, the producer expects that next year many films of low quality will appear due to the big amount of state funding:

“You can’t expect that all the works will be quality. It’s impossible. The financing should be raised, but the professionalism should also become higher.”

Anna doesn’t have a degree in filming, but she studied at the New York Film Academy. She is convinced practical experience is the most important thing in the film industry and that it’s better to get it on special courses abroad:

“The state can create a program for sending talented people to study in the world film schools. This education is very expensive and prestigious, but our state can do it.”

Oleksandra Chuprina, who studied to be a director at a Ukrainian university, gained practical experience working with Babylon’13. Although she also participated in a program for filmmakers in the US, she does not underestimate the value of the education she received in Ukraine:

“In the US you can get any equipment you need. In Ukraine it can be very problematic, our university did not have it. Also, there were many organizational, creative and other everyday problems. But it helped me learn how to solve tasks. Also, the university gave me a lot of contact, and is a place where you can practice and make mistakes. If you are going to work here, it’s better to learn how to solve all the problems here. Getting used to the good conditions in a film school abroad, it might be difficult to adapt to the work here.”

Oleksandra herself likes to work in Ukraine:

“Here you can be a butterfly which spreads its wings and makes a hurricane. I feel that it is my place and that I can do something here and not be lost in the crowd. We have something to build here. In Europe, everything is already built.”

Edited by: Michael Garrood
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