September 23, 2022

9 Movies That Show Why Ukrainians Are Fighting

Although Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began last Thursday morning Kyiv time, President Vladimir Putin launched his campaign against Ukraine’s legitimacy as a nation years ago. He argued that Ukraine was an integral part of Russian civilization and blamed the country’s ruling class for convincing the world that Ukrainians were different from Russians. But this denial of Ukraine’s existence has a long history in Russian culture and politics. In the 1870s, Tsar Alexander II made it illegal to publish anything in the “little Russian dialect”, believing that the existence of the Ukrainian language threatened the very claim that Ukraine was Russian. Perhaps indicating how much Russia has remained in denial of the country’s existence, former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma even published a book titled Ukraine is not Russia in 2003.

Ukrainian filmmakers have been at the forefront of this struggle for cultural recognition, first during Soviet times when Ukraine was a constituent republic and more recently since the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the emergence of the Donbass separatist movement in 2014. The father of Ukrainian cinema, Oleksandr Dovzhenko, made his most famous films under the suspicious eyes of Joseph Stalin. In the 1960s, a movement called “poetic cinema” emerged in Ukraine which drew inspiration from Dovzhenko alongside New Wave movements in Western Europe. After 2014, a new generation of Ukrainian cinema has matured under the threat of Russian aggression, but also in the hope of a national revival born of the Euromaidan revolution. These 10 works in particular – nine films and a television series – are excellent primers of a rich artistic tradition and are all available for streaming online. New subscription services, Soviet Movies Online and Eastern European Movies, are bringing subtitled access to many of these important films to a wide audience for the first time.

Zemlia (Earth); 1930, directed by Oleksandr Dovzhenko

Earth This is where Ukrainian cinema really begins. Dovzhenko, one of the main figures of the Soviet avant-garde alongside Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Dziga Vertov, tells a story about the collectivization of the Ukrainian peasantry. Dovzhenko privately denounced this Stalinist policy for its violence and seizure of peasant property, but he used it as a narrative device to frame a series of vignettes of Ukrainian village life. Under the intrigue of wealthy peasants (known as kulaks) struggling to undermine a collective farm is a beautiful imagery of Ukrainian nature and the unique qualities of Ukrainian popular culture. Dovzhenko’s film set the tone for much of Ukrainian cinema, centering on the peasantry and rural countryside emblematic of the nation as a whole.

Watch it on: Soviet Films Online

Za Dvoma Zaytsiamy (Chasing two hares); 1961, directed by Viktor Ivanov

Although most important Ukrainian films of the last century focus on the village, Chasing two hares is one of the few to explore Kyiv as a multicultural and multilingual urban space. It is set at the turn of the 20th century and centers on a petty bourgeois trickster who woos two women at once. Kievans revere Ivanov’s film, and a statue of the protagonists even stands in downtown Kiev, where some couples have their photos taken before getting married. Unlike most movies on this list, Chasing two hares is more a phenomenon of popular culture than a work of great cinematic art.

Watch it on: Soviet Films Online

Tini Zabutykh Predkiv (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors); 1965, directed by Sergei Parajanov

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is widely regarded as the best Ukrainian film ever made and was recognized as such by the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Center’s Top 100 Ukrainian Films poll. On the surface, Paradjanov’s film is a simple, timeless love story that evokes the themes of Romeo and Juliet, but it stands out for its location in the Carpathian Mountains along the Ukrainian-Romanian border. The film features the indigenous culture and music of the Hutsuls, an isolated hill tribe of herders (the production employed real members of the community to perform as extras). Shadows sparked wider interest in the Carpathians as a space that affirmed Ukrainian cultural difference, of Russians in particular. At the film’s premiere in Kiev in 1965, Ukrainian literary critic Ivan Dziuba (who died two days before the invasion last week) took to the stage to denounce the Soviet policy of Russification. A massive riot in downtown Kyiv ensued.

Watch it on: Eastern European Films

Kaminnyi Khrest (The stone cross); 1968, directed by Leonid Osyka

from Osyka stone cross is a quiet, minimalist film that follows a poor peasant family at the end of the 19th century in the Galicia region of western Ukraine. The family patriarch, Ivan Didukh, decided to move his family to Canada, an experience common to Galician peasants at that time. Most of the film takes place at a going away party hosted by the Didukh family prior to his departure. Osyka’s black-and-white imagery carefully balances the protagonist’s despair at having to leave his native land with the joyous songs and intricate folk costumes of the villagers. Like so many Ukrainian films of the 1960s, stone cross functions as a larger allegory for the destruction of the Ukrainian peasantry from the late 19th century until the Holodomor of 1932-33, when Stalin staged a mass starvation that killed millions of Ukrainians. Of course, because this was a Soviet film, Osyka merely alludes to this reference with his camera focusing on the barren, unproductive landscape.

Watch it on: Eastern European Movies, Amazon Prime Video

Dovzhenko Film Studios
Propala Hramota (The lost letter); 1972, directed by Borys Ivchenko

Another historical film, this one adapted from the book of Ukrainian tales by Mykola Gogol, The lost letter takes place in the middle of the 18th century. Ivchenko’s film follows the comic escapades of two Cossacks – one sent to deliver a charter from the hetman (the Cossack head of state in eastern Ukraine) to a Russian Empress, and another whom he encounters along the way. Vasyl the Cossack loses the charter (his wife had it sewn into his hat) and faces evil demons on his way to Russia. The film is full of folkloric motifs that also poke fun at Russians. Like many examples of poetic cinema, the Communist Party blocked the film from reaching theaters, claiming in this case that The lost letter possessed “elements of nostalgia” for Ukrainian “Cossack antiquity”.

Watch it on: Amazon Prime Video

Povodyr (Guide); 2014, directed by Oles Sanin

Although many Ukrainian films made since the fall of the Soviet Union have explored Ukraine’s fate under Stalinism, none have done so well as Sanin’s. Guide. The film centers on an American communist man and his son who travel to the USSR full of idealism in the 1930s and start a family with a local woman. Both the man and the woman end up being killed, but the son is saved by one of the blind musicians known as kobzari and becomes his guide. the kobzar is a key figure in Ukrainian popular culture, who is blind by definition and plays a large lute-like instrument called a bandura. Many were killed in the 1930s because of their connection to pre-Soviet Ukrainian nationalism. Guide is the first major film to explore this lost culture that once faced such heavy persecution.

Watch it on: Soviet Films Online

Maidan; 2014, directed by Sergei Loznitsa

Although several documentaries were made about the Euromaidan movement in 2013-2014, Loznitsa’s film stands out for its fly-on-the-wall approach. While other documentaries approach events in typically heroic fashion, Maidan looks at them through a more everyday lens, capturing people eating in cafeterias, tending to the injured in makeshift hospitals, and just sitting around trying to figure out what’s going on. It’s basically a film about the people of Kiev going through a revolution. The documentary shows the multilingual nature of Kyiv, as well as how political ideas are born and transformed as events on the ground change. The film is both hyper-specific in its subject matter and universal as a document of a successful movement to overthrow an oppressive government.

Watch it on: Apple TV

Sluga Naroda (servant of the people); 2015-19, directed by Aleksey Kiryushchenko

Although not a movie, this work is too essential not to be on the list. One of the most popular post-Euromaidan TV shows in Ukraine, servant of the people stars the current president, Volodymyr Zelensky, as a high school history teacher in Kyiv who becomes the country’s president. The sitcom boosted the lead actor’s campaign to defeat incumbent President Petro Poroshenko in the 2019 presidential election and become Ukraine’s current wartime leader. In many ways, President Zelensky’s platform draws on themes explored in this TV show, such as fighting corruption and detente with Russia. At the same time, the series shines a light on the real spaces of Kyiv – the small apartments where most Ukrainians live with their extended families, as well as the crowded yet vast spaces of the capital.

Watch it on: Soviet Films Online and YouTube

Volodymyr Zelensky in
Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty
Ukrainians’ki Sheryfy (Ukrainian sheriffs); 2015, directed by Roman Bondarchuk

In this documentary about the village of Stara Zbur’yivka, just north of Crimea in the Dnipro River delta, Bondarchuk focuses on daily life during the Russian annexation of the peninsula in 2014 and the sustained separatist movement by Russia in the Donbass. Focusing on two ordinary citizens of the economically depressed community who have been deputized as sheriffs, this tragicomic ethnographic work explores contemporary rural Ukraine and how these “little fish in a big pond” are coping with larger geopolitical events. important ones that take place right next to them. The film sheds light on how Ukrainian patriotism works in a linguistically and ethnically mixed village.

Watch it on: Amazon Prime Video

Donbass; 2018, directed by Sergei Loznitsa

The second entry on this list from award-winning director Loznitsa, Donbass is a series of vignettes from the separatist regions of Ukraine. Loznitsa was inspired by, and in some cases directly quoted from, amateur videos taken in the Russian-backed republics. In one scene, young thugs lined up with an older woman beat up a captured Ukrainian soldier; in another scene, a drunken rebel soldier is getting married, but the garishly decorated wedding chapel descends into violence and chaos. Although some Russian film critics have denounced the film as a snobbish dismantling of the working-class culture of Donbass, Loznitsa treats this part of eastern Ukraine as a distinct ethnocultural space that is neither Ukrainian nor Russian.

Watch it on: Eastern European Films