Monday, 10 November 2014

The Seventh Annual Cambridge Festival of Ukrainian Film, 2014


The Festival of Ukrainian Film is organised annually by Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, part of the Department of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge, and kindly hosted by the city’s Arts Picturehouse.  The two films shown in this year’s Festival are both pertinent to current events in Ukraine, despite one of them being set in 1944.

On the Friday night we watched Maidan (2014), a documentary directed by Sergei Loznitsa charting the occupation by protesters of Kiev’s Ma├»dan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square, from December 2013 to February 2014, defiance which culminated in the fall of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.  This is documentary almost as fresh as last night’s news, yet the viewer who keeps up with what is going on in Ukraine is conscious that much has happened there since, as the fall-out from those months last winter reverberate both nationally and internationally.

From the start we are in the thick of the action – or often inaction, as the camera takes in all aspects of what goes into managing a protest, which includes a lot of sitting around.  In trying to make sense of it the viewer is not guided by a commentary or interviews with a few representative types.  There is only the occasional basic caption with facts about the progress of the occupation and the political situation, plus the information we glean from speeches and announcements made over the public address system.  We see the participants acting collectively, but we do not know who the leaders are, nor how decisions are made

Instead the camera is generally static, seemingly pointed randomly to capture whatever passes in front of it in mostly long shots, carrying on even when people’s backs obscure the view.  The cumulative approach, if not the technique, puts one in mind of Dziga Vertov’s Kino-Pravda in its efforts to draw a deeper meaning from the fragments that pass in succession.  It is this effect that justifies the running-time.

There are only a couple of exceptions to the film’s stately style, when the camera becomes mobile and we are made conscious that it has an operator who is making decisions about framing: when the camera swings round jerkily to show riot police at the edge of the square and the operator retreats as someone shouts ‘they’re shooting at journalists, the scoundrels’ (possibly something lost in translation there, but a stark indication of the risks reporters take, and how like a war zone the square had become); and there is a pan when the riot police are shown with rifles.  The transitions from stillness to movement are all the more startling for being unexpected.

A major theme of the film is the suffering of Ukraine historically. The occupation is shown as deeply patriotic, with music ubiquitous, and flags everywhere, mainly the blue and yellow of Ukraine, but also the odd EU flag, and even anarchist red and black.  During the gathering for the funeral of those killed by the security forces a folk song, achingly poignant, is sung while the camera stares at a section of the crowd: in ‘A Duck is Floating down the River Tisza’ a son talks about dying in a foreign place and being buried by a stranger. It sums up the pain experienced by the country, and the fortitude that is still required:

Oh, how can I not weep with sorrow my son?
How can I not weep with sorrow my son?
You were part of my heart.
You were a piece of my heart.

The camera stares at the crowd staring back, we contemplate them and we see, from our comfortable cinema seats, how very like us they are.  Russian propaganda would have it that this was a coup organised by fascist gangsters, but it is hard to sustain that interpretation when seeing ordinary people moved to brave snipers in order to argue for a better life, one of dignity, equality and self-determination.

If this sounds a dull artless record punctuated by bursts of frantic action, it isn’t.  There is a narrative arc, from the peaceful mass demonstrations with people of all ages to the sense of siege as the barricades go up, the demonstrators’ headquarters strangely reminiscent of the Bolshevik HQ in Sergei Eisenstein’s October.  Then the violence starts, and the age profile of the occupiers changes, with the old and middle-aged giving way to young men throwing cobbles and Molotov cocktails, the square filling with smoke and explosions that cause the night-time scenes to take on a hellish appearance.

The camera may gaze dispassionately at all this, but it is not a neutral film.  The fact that we are focused on the square for over two hours, and see the authorities only in the form of sinister black-clad riot police in the distance, means that we identify with the protesters.  It is their anger we see, both at the corrupt Ukrainian political class generally, but more specifically at the determination of Russia to keep Ukraine within its sphere of influence, to which end Yanukovych had refused to sign an agreement with the European Union.

What we don’t see, through the decision to avoid having the protesters speak for themselves, is differences between them, whether they had different reasons for participating, and diverse notions for the future of their country (for example, were there really anarchists there, or were the black and red merely considered an expression of contempt for the regime?).  There is another film to be made examining the wider context and interviewing those who risked so much to make their voices heard.  And perhaps there were those too who felt that the way Yanukovych was toppled led to a lack of legitimacy for his successor.  They need to be heard as well.  For all its merits, Maidan only scratches the surface of this momentous event.

Saturday’s film was Khaytarma (2013), directed by Akhtem Seitablaev.  Set in the Second World War, it is at times difficult to watch.  It tells the story of the mass deportation of the Crimean Tatars, a Muslim people indigenous to Crimea, to Central Asia and into the Gulag system in May 1944.  The film’s focus is Sultan Amet-Khan (1920-71), a Tatar, but also a highly-decorated Soviet fighter pilot, twice named ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ (and as the final titles tell us, the Tatars supplied several more Heroes of the Soviet Union to the Great Patriotic War).  The deportation was a huge tragedy for the Crimean Tatars, and the film is unsparing in showing the harrowing way it was carried out, all the more so as it is contrasted with the peacefulness, and loyalty to Stalin, that the Tatars display beforehand.

Played by Seitablaev himself, who judging by the old photographs is a pretty good likeness, we follow Amet-Khan’s flying exploits and gain a sense of his independent spirit, before his commanding officer sends him on a three-day leave to his home village, Alupka, after some friction with an NKVD officer (who we learn later has a particular interest in Amet-Khan).  The scene switches to the village, and the lives of Amet-Khan’s family and neighbours, but what they do not know is that orders have been given for all of the Crimean Tatars to be deported as traitors to the Motherland.  In all, almost a quarter of a million people were removed from Crimea in just a few days, with enormous suffering and huge numbers of deaths as a consequence.

As the villagers are forced from their homes and herded onto trains, parallels are obvious, and disturbing when for so long the Red Army has been admired for the way it fought the Nazis.  Here the military are shown as no better than Nazis themselves, just following orders as they behave criminally, rounding up the Tatars with violence as enemies of the state.  An old man who had given his precious water to a soldier and his detachment on a mountain road is treated with contempt by that same soldier.  Inside the wagons people can’t breathe, and a small boy is held up to try to give him some fresh air.  In the background, picked out by shafts of light, we see other small children being held up, showing graphically the vulnerability of the Tatars’ future.

It is difficult to say how accurate the depiction is, and how far it might have been filtered through films dealing with the Holocaust.  As we heard in remarks after the screening, there was an element of collaboration with the Germans by the Tatars, and Amet-Khan’s brother, whose Soviet allegiances may not have been so clear-cut, is airbrushed out of the story entirely.  But even so, the treachery of a few cannot justify the criminalising of an entire population and their brutal exile.

At a time when there is a huge nostalgia in Russia for Stalin (and it would seem amnesia for his tyranny), it is important to remember these historic crimes, as well as the difficulties faced by those Tatars who have returned to Crimea since Perestroika in the 1980s, difficulties that have become even more acute since the Russian land-grab this year.  The film provides an important service in raising the profile of the injustice meted out to the Tatars, one far less known than the barbarisms the Germans were carrying out in their occupied territories.

While it is a historical drama, and a memorial, it also has a contemporary purpose.  ‘Khaytarma’ translates as ‘Return’, and such a film serves to reinforce national identity, especially important for a people who are trying to re-establish themselves after their dispersal.  We learn at the beginning that the film shares its name with that of a traditional folk dance which is performed as a prologue, an elegant declaration that the Crimean Tatars have faith in their continuity, and a resolve which they believe will weather all vicissitudes.

 So a major theme of the festival was heroism: heroism in war and peace against oppressors foreign and domestic; heroism by the residents of Kiev in protesting against a government that they felt was not acting in the country’s best interests.  What better way to sum up the feelings evoked by these two fine films than to quote the words passionately declaimed at the end of the national anthem each time it is sung in Maidan:

Glory to Ukraine!
Glory to the heroes!