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Films with Ukrainian Character

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Photo: The films that help understand something about the national character of contemporary Ukrainians. Source: Collage The Gaze/by Leonid Lukashenko.
Photo: The films that help understand something about the national character of contemporary Ukrainians. Source: Collage The Gaze/by Leonid Lukashenko.

David Lynch created a cinematic myth about American heartland populated with colorful eccentrics in no hurry, where ancient forces of nature are as real as a cup of coffee with cherry pie for breakfast. Aki Kaurismäki's myth revolves around Finnish proletarians, heavily drinking, life-beaten rock'n'roll fans with big hearts. And Emir Kusturica invented Yugoslavs who never existed: colorful mustached bandits, dancing with wine bottles and shooting revolvers into the sky.

So The Gaze decided to review those films that help understand something about the national character of contemporary Ukrainians. And concluded that Ukrainian men are indecisive, inert, slow to adapt to change, but being elemental existentialists, find meaning in life precisely in crisis situations. Like in war. Which can't be said about Ukrainian women – decisive and energetic, always ready to fight for their place under the sun.

The Alien Girl


A brutal crime thriller about rampant criminality in the 1990s, known in history as the Great Criminal Revolution. Bandits kidnap a young woman to force her brother, a hitman for a criminal gang, to keep silent about the murder contractors. And they soon realize they've encountered a much stronger and smarter enemy.

The main character, played by Natalia Romanycheva, is one of the most powerful portrayals of a Ukrainian woman in cinema. Angela grew up in inhuman conditions of a Soviet shelter, so she's used to stepping on heads and taking everything from life. Manipulating the bandits, she skillfully turns gang members against each other, destroying them one by one, until the very "godfather" himself. Beautiful, smart – and superhumanly ruthless, Angela got her nickname "Alien" in honor of the xenomorph from the famous series of sci-fi action movies.

Actually, from the very beginning, Angela was a Kyivan, and the script by Kyivan Volodymyr Nesterenko also took place in the capital of Ukraine. But during the search for shooting locations, it turned out that Kyiv had changed forever since 1993, the time depicted in the film. The only more or less large city in Ukraine where time froze back in the nineties turned out to be Sevastopol. And that's where the events of "The Alien Girl" were relocated.

A Friend of the Deceased


This loose remake of Aki Kaurismäki's film "I Hired a Contract Killer," based on the script by the prominent Kyivan writer Andriy Kurkov, became a sensation not only in domestic cinema but also in the global film industry. Produced with French money, "A Friend of the Deceased" by veteran director Vyacheslav Kryshtofovych received numerous prestigious awards, was screened abroad, and even was Ukraine's submission for the Oscars.

Today, "A Friend of the Deceased" is practically forgotten, although it's the last work of the legendary Ukrainian cinematographer Vilen Kalyuta and undoubtedly the best role of Oleksandr Lazarev Jr. And it's a shame: this film is not only a cinematic monument to Kyiv of the nineties but also a parable about the Kyivan character and national mentality, disguised as a crime melodrama.

An intellectual who, at first glance, is bewildered in the new post-Soviet reality, decides to die at first. But then, feeling the taste of a new, previously inaccessible life, he so skillfully pits two professional killers against each other that he ends up with the jackpot – an apartment, a woman, and the business of one of the hitmen.

Falling


The first "swallow" of the short-lived "Ukrainian wave" in cinema, which, it must be admitted, never fully materialized. The hopes of Ukrainian cinema enthusiasts were tied to the tenure of the head of the Ukrainian State Film Agency from 2014 to 2019, Philip Illienko. During his five-year term, a certain number of young (and not so young) Ukrainian directors got the opportunity to shoot their first major film.

"Falling" by Maryna Stepanska became one of the most significant phenomena of the new Ukrainian cinema, raising its head, precisely with the film everyone was waiting for. The short film "Man's Work" received a deserved heap of awards and vividly demonstrated that the director knows exactly what she wants to see on screen. When Stepanska was asked what her first major work would be about, she replied: "About love during turmoil." The events of 2014 - the occupation of Donbas and Crimea and the beginning of the ATO - can be considered as an initial stage of the situation in which Ukraine and Ukrainians currently find themselves: with occupation terror of peaceful civilians and daily shelling of residential areas with rockets.

The film's heroes are young Kyivans who find themselves in a life crisis situation at the moment when the whole country is at a turning point in its history. The main character (Daria Plakhtii) is preparing to emigrate to Germany when she meets a young alcoholic, broken by his inability to fulfill his family's hopes (played by Andriy Seletsky). It accurately depicts the characters and the time, with frustrated, bewildered men who find new meanings in war - yes, the main character is getting ready to go to the ATO. And active, spirited women who take everything life throws at them.

And, of course, the reflection of the place: Austrian cinematographer Sebastian Thaler captured the sleeping districts of Kyiv, which Kyivans had never seen before.

Innocent Saturday


The legendary practicality of Ukrainians has spawned many jokes, both funny and not so much. But this notorious pragmatism paradoxically combines in Ukrainians with irrationality. An example? To sell a business, nurtured and flourishing for years, to go to fight in Donbas.

This paradox of our mentality is quite vividly illustrated in the film by the respected Soviet screenwriter Alexander Mindadze, who actively worked in Ukraine. (Mindadze, along with director Vadim Abdrashitov, created 11 films, including the first Soviet gay drama "A Fox Hunt" in 1980 and the grand metaphor about the infernal nature of power - the film "The Servant" in 1988).

In his second directorial work, Mindadze turns to the tragedy of the Chornobyl disaster, showing the chronicle of one day in Prypiat on April 26, 1986. The main character, a minor Komsomol functionary played by Anton Shagin, is the first among the townspeople to learn the terrible secret and strives to get out of doomed Prypiat as quickly as possible, but a series of minor unfortunate circumstances forces him to run in circles. Initially, the main characters go to the local department store for a pair of new shoes, then - to the restaurant where friends are celebrating a wedding, and so on.

The maximally rational main character, who builds his personal life based on career plans, turns out to be an elemental existentialist. He experiences the sharpest and most important hours of his life at the epicenter of the catastrophe, finally becoming himself in a situation of the end of the world. Remember the informal tagline of Maryna Stepanska's film "Falling" and, of course, your own feelings during the first months of the full-scale invasion.

***

Despite Ukrainian films continuing to be released - just in the last month, there have been three premieres, including one of the main novelties of the new Ukrainian cinema, "Slovo House" by Taras Tomenko, the full-scale war has put this very Ukrainian cinema on an alarming pause.

Many filmmakers are at war, many of them have given their lives, and those who thought it better to leave are well settled in Europe. But the Ukrainian audience hasn't gone anywhere - they're just scattered around the world now. This gives Ukrainian producers reason to look to the future with optimism: after all, now every new film will be oriented towards the global market.

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