Ukraine Through the Eyes of Western Filmmakers

Photo: Ukraine Through the Eyes of Western Filmmakers, Source: Collage The Gaze
Photo: Ukraine Through the Eyes of Western Filmmakers, Source: Collage The Gaze

Today, no one would mistake Ukraine for Russia, but it wasn't always so: for many years, Hollywood struggled to distinguish between these two countries. Today, let's recall how Ukraine and Ukrainians were portrayed on the big screen in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Let's start with Ukrainian classics...

And finish with them, too, as the Hollywood adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's "Taras Bulba" barely resembles the source material, keeping only names, some toponyms, and Cossack hairstyles. The 1962 "Taras Bulba" with Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis in the lead roles has about the same connection to the history of Ukrainian Cossacks and Gogol's plot as Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Red Heat" does to the Soviet militia. 

Photo: "Taras Bulba", 1962, Source: Wiki

Such films were once called "kitsch," and now they are considered cringe. Ukrainian steppes were filmed in Argentina, and Ukrainian Cossacks sing the Russian song "Kalinka-Malinka" by composer Ivan Larionov, with the ending completely reworked for added melodrama. The exotic setting of Eastern Europe seems to be the only reason for making this film in Hollywood. Nevertheless, Yul Brynner is equally brilliant and brutal whether in a cowboy hat or in an absurd "Cossack" papakha more typical for Caucasian dzhigits or Don Cossacks of the Russian Empire.

Ukrainian Diaspora

Not many Americans visit Ukraine and see Ukrainians in their natural environment. Most only know those Ukrainians who can be found in the United States or Europe. On the American screen, such immigrants usually appear in a stereotypically negative context, often outside the law. Judge for yourself.

The theme of the "Ukrainian mafia" is played out in the series "Banshee" (2013), where a ruthless gangster nicknamed "Mr. Rabbit" operates.

In "Lord of War" (2005), an Odesa-born character, Andrei Orlov (Nicolas Cage), who moved to New York, traffics weapons internationally. The prototype for Orlov is considered to be the Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, and Odesa is likely included in the plot because the scriptwriter considered it a Russian city. Nevertheless, the film turned out to be interesting.

In the 13th episode of the 8th season of the TV show "House M.D.," the main character (Hugh Laurie) enters into a fake marriage with a Ukrainian immigrant named Dominika from Kremenchuk to help her get a green card and stay in the USA. To make it convincing, he hangs a portrait of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko on the wall.

The Netflix series "Emily in Paris" provides a highly questionable portrayal of a Ukrainian. In the fourth episode of the second season, the main character meets a former Kyiv resident named Petra (a name that is not common in Ukraine), who tries to teach her how to steal things from stores. Meanwhile, Petra herself suffers from an obvious lack of taste in choosing clothes.

An example of a Ukrainian migrant presented positively is the leader of the punk band "Gogol Bordello," Eugene Hütz. In Madonna's directorial debut, the dramedy "Filth and Wisdom" (2008), he played a version of himself—a musician from Ukraine promoting Romani punk rock in the West. Naturally, it is not without script conventions: in the film, he is called Andrei, and the setting is not the USA but London.

Photo: Eugene Hütz in "Filth and Wisdom" (2008), Source: Wiki

It is challenging to say whether Ukraine truly looks as troubled as portrayed or if it was simply lumped together with Russia, or perhaps this is a traditional attitude toward all post-Soviet countries, and Eastern Europe in general. However, it seems that Russia's invasion of Ukraine did compel filmmakers to rethink some stereotypes: in 2022, director Guy Ritchie removed Ukrainian gangsters from the completed comedy-action film "Operation Fortune" (2023) out of political correctness, explaining that it was done to consider the feelings of the audience.

Ukrainian Chernobyl

The Chernobyl theme deserves special attention. For many years, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster near the city of Pripyat was arguably the most significant event associated with Ukraine in the minds of Westerners. As a result, this neglected place seemed to captivate Hollywood scriptwriters, who somehow envisioned it as the perfect arena for armed clashes between fictional good and evil. What resulted?

Chernobyl can be seen in Michael Bay's "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" (2011) as the site of a battle between Autobots and Decepticons. In John Hyams' sci-fi action "Universal Soldier: Regeneration" (2009), the Ukrainian and American armies join forces to fight terrorists who have seized the reactor. In the "Fast & Furious" spin-off "Hobbs & Shaw" (2019), directed by David Leitch, the characters played by Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson unabashedly destroy the buildings of the nuclear power plant in a five-minute chase in armored cars.

The pinnacle of trashy creativity was reached by John Moore's blockbuster "A Good Day to Die Hard" (2013), in which the protagonist John McClane (Bruce Willis) arrives in Chernobyl from Moscow in a stolen car loaded with weapons to fight Russian gangsters who also flew in on a combat Mi-24 helicopter. Apparently, the scriptwriters forgot to inform the film's characters about the existence of the state border between Russia and Ukraine... 

The only glimmer of common sense in this ocean of unleashed fantasy is the excellent historical Netflix series "Chernobyl" (2019), which honestly attempts to delve into the 1986 nuclear catastrophe rather than thoughtlessly parasitize on it.

It is worth noting separately that none of the above was filmed in the actual Chernobyl. Although footage of the real Pripyat can be seen in drone shots used in the zombie film "The Girl With All the Gifts" (2016) as a panorama of post-apocalyptic London.

Ukraine on the Screen

References to Ukraine sometimes unexpectedly appear in films that have no direct connection to the country's storyline. Let's explore some of them.

In the crime film "The Italian Job" (2003), a seasoned criminal imparts wisdom to Mark Wahlberg's character: "Listen to me man... if there's one thing that I know, is never to mess with Mother Nature, mother-in-laws or mother 'freaking' Ukrainians".

In Tim Burton's stop-motion animation "Corpse Bride" (2005), the protagonists escape the afterlife using a Ukrainian incantation "Hop, skok," which is actually taken from a cheerful song by the famous Ukrainian poet Olena Pchilka.

In Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" (2005), Martians begin their Earth invasion in Ukraine, causing an earthquake as reported by the news anchor.

In the cult horror film "Hostel" (2006), a dubious character named Alexey advises American tourists in Amsterdam to go to Odesa for the most beautiful girls ("You have to go east my friend. Here is where the best girls are. The best. You can go as far as Ukraine, Odesa."). Later, these tourists sing the famous song "Dark Eyes," written by Ukrainian poet Yevhen Hrebinka. Director Eli Roth seems to have a peculiar attitude toward Ukrainians, as evidenced by the sequel where an American tourist reassures her father about Prague, saying, "It's not Ukraine" ("No, Dad. It's Prague, we're gonna be fine. It's not the Ukraine."). Perhaps due to such disclaimers, and not just for its intense scenes, "Hostel 2" (2007) was ultimately banned in Ukraine. Roth responded uniquely by having the third installment (2011), directed by Scott Spiegel, begin with a Ukrainian couple falling into the hands of sadistic maniacs in the United States.

Some positivity is found in Roland Emmerich's disaster film "2012" (2009), where the main characters escape on the world-famous Ukrainian aircraft An-225 "Mriya" – the largest in the world. Unfortunately, in reality, this unique plane was lost during the early days of the Russian invasion in 2022.

Perhaps the most subtle manifestation of Ukrainian culture in American cinema is the melody from the Christmas song "Shchedryk" by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych. Known to Americans as "Carol of the Bells," it appears in various Hollywood productions like "The Simpsons," "Family Guy," "The Muppet Show," "South Park," "Home Alone," "Die Hard 2," and more.

Ukrainian Heritage in Hollywood

Ukraine is also represented on the screen through its diaspora. Ivanna Sakhno, Milla Jovovich, Mila Kunis, Olga Kurylenko – actresses of Ukrainian descent, though often cast as Russians. The ancestors of Steven Spielberg, Sylvester Stallone, and Liev Schreiber were Ukrainian Jews. Occasionally, internationally renowned Ukrainian celebrities play themselves in Hollywood productions, like boxing champion Wladimir Klitschko in "Ocean's Eleven" (2001) and Eurovision 2007 finalist Verka Serduchka (Andriy Danylko) in the comedic thriller "Spy" (2015).

Ukraine Without Ukraine

Filming Ukraine within its borders proves inconvenient, leading to many productions being shot elsewhere in Europe.

The series "Chernobyl" (2019) by Johan Renck was entirely filmed in Lithuania. In Christopher Nolan's film "Tenet" (2020), the terrorist attack at the Kyiv Opera House was actually shot in Estonia. The Kyiv and Vinnytsia episodes in John Madden's historical thriller "The Debt" (2010) were filmed in Hungary. Instead of Kyiv, "Chernobyl Diaries" (2012) by Brad Parker shows Hungary, and Serbia stands in for Pripyat. In the action film "The Order" (2001), Jean-Claude Van Damme's character steals a Fabergé egg from an Odesa museum. The unconvincing Odesa is shot in Bulgaria, as is the equally unconvincing Kyiv in Todor Chapkanov's "Boyka: Undisputed 4" (2016).

Photo: Alternative Ukraine from "Outside the Wire", Source: Netflix

The motives of the Russo-Ukrainian war are clumsily addressed in the futuristic Netflix action film "Outside the Wire" (2021), directed by Mikael Håfström in Hungary. The film portrays a parallel world where Ukraine retained its nuclear missiles after the USSR's collapse. In 2036, Ukrainian resistance, supported by American peacekeepers, battles pro-Russian terrorists seeking control of nuclear weapons. The country's name is not mentioned, and recognition is only possible through Ukrainian-language signs.

The comedic road movie "Everything Is Illuminated" (2005), where an American descendant of Ukrainian immigrants travels through Volhynia with a guide named Alex, is filmed not in Ukraine but in the Czech Republic.

Notably, the first episode of the 23rd season of Matt Groening's animated series "The Simpsons" (2011) features a schematically drawn Kyiv and a portrayal of then-President Viktor Yanukovych as a mobster-politician. This crude and narrow-minded character, depicted as having constant security, keeping his wife locked up, throwing money around, and being computer-illiterate, provides a biased view of the unpopular president who hindered democratic processes in the country and eventually fled to Russia.

In summary, Ukraine's presence on the global cinematic stage is multi-faceted, ranging from direct references in plotlines to the heritage of Ukrainian talents in the film industry. However, challenges in shooting within Ukraine's borders often lead filmmakers to seek alternatives in other European countries.

Ukraine As It Is

Photo: "Death of Stalin" movie, Source: Web Screenshot

Are there films actually shot in Ukraine? Short answer - yes, but let's start with the fact that Ukraine is not always explicitly depicted in them as Ukraine. The Ukrainian capital is often mentioned when it's necessary to film Moscow, where obtaining filming permits involves significant difficulties and expenses. So, if you happen to watch the British political satire "The Death of Stalin" (2017) or the French spy detective "Farewell" (2009), know that their "Moscow" scenes were shot in Kyiv. The same happened with the German political thriller "The Fourth Estate" (2012): director Dennis Gansel started filming in Moscow but, after spending almost the entire budget in 4 days, moved the production to Kyiv. In these films, you can spot many recognizable locations: Kyiv streets, train station, airport, metro...

There aren't many Western films where Ukraine is integrated into the plot and honestly portrays itself. But they exist. In this lineup, we can mention the Italian "The Truce" (1997 - Kyiv, Lviv, Vinnytsia), the French "Möbius" (2013 - Kyiv), and the British "Mr. Jones" (2019 - Kharkiv, Kyiv). The last film, a success by Polish director Agnieszka Holland, tells the poignant story of the real Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, who secretly visited Ukraine during the Stalin-induced famine, was shocked by the scale of the genocide, and then unsuccessfully tried to convey to the world the idea that the communist ideology is not worth millions of human lives. The film features the real Ukrainian village of Leonivka, which seems to have arrived in a time machine straight from the 1930s.

Photo: "Mr. Jones" movie, Source: Web Screenshot

It's also worth mentioning the French-made "Transporter 3" (2008) by Olivier Megaton, where some crucial events not only unfold in Ukrainian Odesa but were partially filmed there - the airport, the Railway Square, and some other locations are entirely recognizable. However, the lead actor, Jason Statham, never actually came to Ukraine - in scenes where his character Frank Martin supposedly drives a car around the outskirts of Odesa, a stunt double was used. The Ukrainian girl Valentina in the lead female role was portrayed by Russian actress Natalia Rudakova. Overall, "Transporter 3," fitting the clichés of action films about chases and fights, is full of genre stereotypes, and if Ukrainian food is discussed, it's, of course, "chicken Kyiv." However, one of the dialogues unexpectedly hits the mark: when Frank declares that Valentina is a gloomy and depressive person, "like all Russians," the girl is offended, explaining that Ukrainians are an entirely different people, both mentally and spiritually. With these words, many residents of Ukraine today would undoubtedly agree.

Instead of An Epilogue

Centuries of being part of the Russian Empire and the USSR have left a noticeable mark on Ukraine's image in the eyes of the West: judging by films, even 30 years after gaining independence, many still consider it a depressing, dangerous, and unstable place, and its inhabitants - poor and prone to criminal behavior. The widespread myth that Ukrainians are essentially the same Russians, just more backward and corrupt, lacking in science and culture, is in many ways a horrific distortion of facts. This distortion is largely due to the colonial perspective imposed by Russian cultural institutions, which traditionally have more influence and are more commonly listened to. It's worth noting that in films and series produced by post-Soviet Russia, it's impossible to find a positive Ukrainian character. This optic is undoubtedly advantageous for a totalitarian empire, which, on the one hand, always shifted its own unsolvable internal problems onto the republics that separated from it, and on the other hand, never gave up the dream of re-separating these states from the Western community - both mentally and physically.

Today, we see firsthand what this has led to. Hopefully, the current war of Ukrainians against Russian occupation will deliver a telling blow not only to the fascist-ensnared nuclear empire but also to rooted Western cultural stereotypes associated with Ukraine. 

By the way, the first signs in this direction are already spreading worldwide, such as the documentary film "Superpower" by Aaron Kaufman and Sean Penn, which tells about Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Sean Penn himself witnessed the beginning of the invasion in Kyiv, allowing him to share his unbiased personal experience of witnessing Russian crimes and the heroism of Ukraine's defenders.

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