The 39th Molodist international film festival that just finished in Kyiv injected its annual dose of joy into cultural life. But it disappointed in one sense: Not a single Ukrainian movie was good enough to get an award.
It has been seven years since a Ukrainian director received an award at this festival specializing in young directors’ movies. In 2002, the festival’s international jury named Stepan Koval, now a famous animator, and his clay animation short “Tram No. 9 was going” as the best in its category.
The gap is partially filled by others willing to tell Ukraine-related stories on screen, but often failing to mention Ukraine.
A case in point is the festival’s opening movie “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky,” a love story between the famous French designer and the great Russian composer. It was made by the star duo of director Jan Kounen (“99 Francs” was his previous work) and famous producer Claudie Ossard (“The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain”). A reference to Stravinsky’s Ukrainian roots was highly expected, but there was none of it on screen.
Stravinsky’s family had roots in Volyn Oblast. His father came from Chernihiv Oblast in the Russian empire, studied in Nizhyn, and debuted in Kyiv as a singer. He later became the lead bass at Mariyinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg.
His son Igor was born in a small town outside St. Petersburg, but every summer he went to visit his numerous relatives in the town of Ustyuh in Volyn. After getting married, he built a house in that town and spent seven summers there, writing his musical masterpieces, including the "The Rite of Spring" ballet mentioned in the film.
“I know he came from Ukraine,” Kounen told the Kyiv Post. “But frankly, why should we talk about Ukraine? At that time, it was a part of [the Russian Empire], and there is no way we could have squeezed this fact into the film.” He admitted, however, that he would find a way to “do it if I was a Ukrainian director. But for me as a director it is not important.”
In one episode of the movie, curious Coco is looking through the wardrobe of Katherine, the wife of the composer. Her eye singled out a long shirt with a string of embroidery around the neck and the sleeves. “It’s a Russian rubashka,” explained Katherine, despite it looking 100 percent like a Ukrainian national dress. Katherine presented it to Coco, and it is then, the movie says, that ethnic motives started appearing in Coco’s own creations.
Another historic misinterpretation might have happened in an episode featuring borshch. “How we missed the Russian borshch!” Stravinsky’s children exclaimed happily, when they were served this national Ukrainian soup at Coco’s villa in France. She hosted the Stravinsky's family one year, when the composer was a penniless refugee living in exile in Paris after the 1917 Soviet Revolution.
“Borshch is Ukrainian? I didn’t know that,” Kounen confessed to Kyiv Post.
Many other festival movies featured Ukrainian elements. “The Book of Masters,” the first project of the Disney studio in Russia, was supposed to introduce the genre of Russian fantasy to the cinema. But the movie itself had at least three Ukrainian elements.
One of the fantastic folk characters was played by Gosha Kutsenko, a Russian star with Ukrainian roots. “I am Ukrainian by my birthplace and in my spirit,” Kutsenko said in a televised interview. The horse in the film had the deep voice of Serhiy Harmash, another Ukrainian actor who became a star in Russia. Finally, some women in the fairy tale wore traditional Ukrainian headwear called ‘ochipok,’ a kerchief wrapped up around head in a special way. Traditionally women started wearing them after getting married.
In a different movie by French director Sophie Bartez, “Cold Souls,” a song by Ukrainian underground rock band “Mertviy Piven” became a part of the soundtrack. Ukrainian Olga Kurylenko, the latest female friend of James Bond, played the main part in the film “Walls” produces in Israel, France and the U.S. Both pictures were screened at Molodist.
Thirsty for a truly modern Ukrainian movie, the audience rushed to the premiere of the only full-length Ukrainian film that took part in the program of the competition. The tickets to “Vidtorhnennya” (Rejection) by Vladimir Lert were sold out hours before the premier, and dozens of people crowded the movie theatre hall hoping to get in without tickets to get a glimpse of the movie.
The premier was unexpectedly delayed by a day, but the crowds and hype repeated the next day. Moved by enthusiasm and persistence, the ushers did allow many people in for free to sit on the stairs. A fight even broke out among those lucky ones for floor space.
“That’s it!” thought the crowd cheerfully, as the film started with an impressive soundtrack and camera work. But as the plot unveiled, so did the disappointment. Starting as a good old tested doomsday scenario unfolding in a Soviet-style city, it came down to such a banal and unoriginal outcome, that all the high expectations were promptly destroyed. “Nothing new” seemed to be the general conclusion. Some in the audience also wondered why the Ukrainian movie was made in Russian.
Fewer people attended the festival’s closing ceremony on Nov. 1 than its opening, partly because of fears of swine flu, and partly from disappointment that Ukraine – once again – will have no awards. The main award with a prize of $10, 000 went to the creators of “La Pivellina” (The Girl), a joint Italian and Austrian production. Of the former Soviet republics, only a joint production of Georgia and Kazakhstan was singled out: Director George Ovashvili received an award and $2, 500 in cash for the best full-feature film “The Other Bank.”
One can only hope that the next, 40th Molodist festival, will bring more luck to Ukrainian directors. Perhaps, they can be inspired by Hollywood star Jean-Claude Van Damme, who took part in this year’s event, drank vodka and ate holubtsi, and promised to shoot a movie in Ukraine.
Another star visitor Kurylenko, who hosted the opening ceremony, said she received several interesting proposals in Ukraine. Perhaps, Ukrainian cinema is not dead yet.