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Coming-of-age tale of Ukrainian Shorts

Where do the short films stand in the overall Ukrainian film industry?

notes by Līga Požarska

Coming-of-age tale of Ukrainian Shorts

Is Ukrainian cinema on the verge of a renaissance? Film festivals are actively putting Ukrainian films on the map: Ukrainian Film Festival Berlin had its online edition earlier this month and the country was put in focus during this year’s Internationale Kurzfilmtage Winterthur. On top of all that, Lviv International Film Festival Wiz-Art recently launched the first large-scale online database for Ukrainian short films: The Big Short. All this and more served as an impulse to take a deeper look into Ukraine’s short film environment. Olha Raiter (Wiz-Art) and Olga Birzul (The Ukrainian Institute) walked us through it.

Although the Ukrainian short film community is strong, the short film scene is not really considered “to be a scene”. For now, it is too shy to proudly declare itself robust enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with its big brother, the feature film. To understand this relationship better, talking politics and history is inevitable. After regaining independence in 1991, Ukraine’s film industry became fragile and faced a challenge to rebuild and redefine itself. “The whole industry stopped,” says Olha Raiter, Wiz-Art’s Program and Marketing Director. In the nineties and early 2000s barely a couple of films were made. “One or two features per year,” Raiter estimates. She recalls Ukrainian shorts winning the Palme d’Or in Cannes: ‘Wayfarers’ (Podorozhni) by Ihor Strembitsky in 2005 and ‘Cross’ by Maryna Vroda in 2011. “But it was more as an exception to the rule.” These success stories didn’t gain a long term momentum.

Sure, several crucial names have put the country on the map of international contemporary cinema: Kira Muratova, Sergey Loznica and Oleg Sentsov. However, often these prominent directors didn’t receive funding, nor gained complete freedom to film. Muratova was censored by the Soviet regime. Loznica’s documentaries, which shed light on the Soviet heritage and the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, are principally co-produced or entirely produced by other countries. Lastly, Sentsov has become a symbol of anti-Putin resistance and a voice for the politically repressed and imprisoned.

Said examples (worth a separate article) not only illustrate some complex correlations between politics and art in Ukraine, but also introduces another crucial point: Russia’s interference. Bear with us, as brief political insight is essential for it affects policies and sets the thematic background for most filmmakers. “Before the war we had a lot of connections with the Russian film industry,” Raiter says. She reveals that many actors wished for a professional career in Russian TV and cinema industries. “But after [the attack] Ukraine developed a strict policy on integrating with the European market.” More and more actors are learning English to better orientate their career path towards the West.

In order to protect their cultural space from separatist moods and to increase the demand of Ukrainian content, the government has introduced language quotas. For instance, in 2016 lawmakers implied that content in the Ukrainian language should make at least 25% of radio stations’ daily playlist (the percentage is rising every year). Same goes for books, television and cinema. The majority of films should be in the official language or any other national minority (e.g. Crimean Tatar). Only documentaries are an exception to the rule, as they depict real events and people. Raiter recalls a Wiz-Art’s press conference where a journalist expressed their surprise about including Russian spoken films in competition. According to law, the programmers only need to add Ukrainian subtitles. Yet, Raiter explains that the current government is considering cancelling these quotas. She assumes that this has something to do with the growing populism and the president’s pro-Russia views.

Apart from casting aside the Soviet past and Russia’s shadow, the Ukrainian film industry has struggled between unstable financial flow and conservative and nationalistic viewpoints on culture. The Ukrainian State Film Agency (further in the text: The State Film Agency) — the main cinema institution in the country — was created in 2006. According to Raiter, they started organizing pitching sessions in 2012. Throughout the years, the film community has observed several contradictions in The State Film Agency’s public image: progress versus regress, nationalistic films versus artistic ones. Finally, a highly productive and patriotic (both a good and a bad thing) director Pylyp Illienko was followed up by the dialogue-reluctant Marina Kudercuk, who claimed the office before the pandemic. Rather than investing in new films, Kudercuk suggested that the resources could be distributed to the hospitals. It was her first official message as the head of the institution. Noble? As the voice of the main film institution, one could expect that she would protect cinema in these challenging times rather than proclaim it as redundant. Film professionals reacted and asked not to destroy the industry.

In these uncertain times of 2020 Kudercuk has failed to create a valid dialogue with the industry. “The film industry tried to organize open conferences to discuss the future strategy and new evaluation criteria for the system of state pitching sessions. Instead of having a critical analysis, we came face to face with the process of enforcing the existing rules,” explains Olga Birzul, the Head of the Film Department in The Ukrainian Institute. Talking Shorts tried getting in touch with Kudercuk’s office, but unsuccessfully.

Next to state funding, regional funding also exists. According to Raiter, it is definitely smaller, but the support can be a welcome push for some filmmakers. Today the industry is considered to be relatively well financed, but the money applies mostly to commercial and mainstream productions (“Not short films,” Raiter). Raiter and Birzul state that the quality of Ukrainian television is not at its peak, yet the institutional support for it surpasses the backing of auteur cinema, documentary filmmaking and short films. “There are a lot of experts from the television industry involved with the state pitching sessions. Somehow they slow down the artistic development,” claims Birzul. Given that Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky comes from an entertainment and television background, the film community fears that television will continue to be favoured more than films.

Eagerness to break through: shorts
Let’s dive deeper into the short film scene. Politics, history, identity and funding are directly affecting its growth and progress. Sadly, the general public and some film industry’s decision-makers fail to see shorts as a distinguished art form.

Short films play by the same rules as features. “We still don’t make a division between short films, documentaries and fiction,” stresses Birzul. Both Raiter and Birzul claim that shorts still cannot shake off the stigma that “it’s something for beginners”. Only in recent years shorts have gained some wider recognition. Dekel Berenson’s film ‘Anna’, shortlisted to compete at the 2021 Oscars, could theoretically set in motion said continuous progress. It depicts a middle-aged single mother Anna in Eastern Ukraine. Lured by an advertisement, Anna attends a party where foreign men search for Ukrainian lovers. The film has had quite an impressive festival run so far. Despite all that, both Raiter and Birzul are sceptical to predict that this will be the big breakthrough Ukrainian shorts need. Moreover, they are not quite agreeing with the message of the film, as it uses stereotypes showing how Westerners (or foreigners in general) tend to see the East. It is also shot from a foreigner’s perspective (the director is British-Israeli). “But it still works. It explains some crucial moments of our reality,” adds Birzul. Only time will tell if this recent success story will be able to boost our short film industry.

In general around 200 to 300 Ukrainian shorts are made per year — not enough, in Raiter’s opinion. Though three hundred short films a year is not that few, conversations with experts reveal that quantity does not equal quality. Moreover, it mirrors inconsistencies between the sufficient amount of filmmakers and the industry still not being “fuelled enough”.

Raiter explains that the majority of short films are made in film schools (the main one being The Kyiv National I. K. Karpenko-Kary Theatre, Cinema and Television University – editor’s note). A separate program for funding student films is inexistent, yet The State Film Agency can fund a debut film of a recent film school graduates. “The financing [of this program] is pretty good, producing around 20-25 films yearly, which is, in my open, still not enough. They are very expensive films, but usually not so good,” says Raiter adding that some films that qualify for festivals are self-funded, e.g., ‘The Surrogate’ (part of the Wiz-Art 2020, national competition).

Notable feature film festivals with short film programs are Odesa International Film Festival, Molodist International Film Festival and Docudays UA International Film Festival. Festivals just dedicated to shorts are Kyiv International Short Film Festival, Linoleum International Contemporary Animation and Media Art Festival (showcasing short independent animation films). And Wiz-Art.

Paradigm shift
Due to the pandemic, Wiz-Art’s 13th edition was pushed from June to September and took place as a hybrid festival, both online and offline. Under the given circumstances, the festival launched its own platform The Big Short. “Usually we have around 150 films, but this year it was more than 200 – online is endless,” informs Raiter. After the festival, The Big Short has transformed into a database for short films. Recently the team has finished working on the final touches of the English version and warmly welcomes the international audience to step over the virtual doorstep and explore all it has to offer. “We won’t put everything there. Just the films that could be potentially interesting for the [international and national] programmers.” Eventually, approximately 400 shorts will be available. The platform is supposed to fill a void: information about shorts is rather scarce and films usually difficult to access. Ukraine’s film history is rich with shorts (Kira Muratova also made several), but they aren’t gathered in one place.

Asked about her observations regarding the advancement of shorts over the years, Raiter, who is one of the co-founders of Wiz-Art, tells that thirteen years ago they saw short films as an underrepresented niche. In addition, there were pragmatic reasons to launch a short film festival, namely, it was easier to collect short films and the city already had an active feature film festival. Yet, back then shorts themselves were considered a bit old-school. Raiter remembers that many submitted films were screen adaptations of classical novels (“something that’s not connected to the real life”).

Later, Ukrainian directors started to reflect more on their own experiences and the society they live in. ‘Save me, doctor’ – a documentary by Dmytro Greshko, which took home the Best Film Prize at Wiz-Art 2020 — is a fitting example, mirroring ordinary citizen’s everyday struggles. The film shows the rawness of paramedics’ work and the loneliness of their patients. “It’s very timely,” comments Raiter.

Apart from social reflections, Ukrainian directors also confront the ghosts of Ukraine’s collective memory (e.g., ‘The Fall of Lenin’ by Svitlana Shymko). ‘In our synagogue’, Ivan Orlenko’s debut film, is another perfect example as it tells the story of a mysterious monster inhabiting the synagogue — the film got a special mention by the jury and won an Audience Award at Wiz-Art 2020.

The Ukrainian films showcased in Winterthur and Wiz-Art, serve as a concentrated essence of the Ukrainian soul. (Maybe you are familiar with the term ‘Russian soul’, which arose from literature.) Internationale Kurzfilmtage Winterthur screened a retrospective programme of the prominent Ukrainian filmmaker Maryna Vroda, as well as other notable films made between 2004 and 2019. Although different and unique in their own particular ways, there are some similarities in the aesthetics, atmosphere and themes. Before the Euromaidan and the Crimean crisis (2013- 2014) films focused on family, coming of age, the countryside, love and the dullness or beauty of everyday life. And youngsters, who are not only falling in and out of love, but also treating their boredom with addictions and aimless wandering around (e.g., ‘Cross’ and ‘Snails’ by Vroda). After the civil war, these themes lingered on in films, but at the same time they became more politically and socially aware. The films became an act of resistance (e.g., 'Integration' by Oleksiy Radynski).

“I’m glad that more short films talk to us here and now. And that they are understood by the viewers not only in Ukraine but also abroad,” says Raiter. Today Wiz-Art has become a lantern, which illuminates the current local and international issues. She describes this year’s national competition as more daring than last year’s. More debuts and experimental films, less love and coming of age stories. One comedy about corruption (‘The Call’ by Kadim Tarasov) and some stories about the war, (‘The Carpet’ by Natalia Kyselova and ‘Water’ by Dasha Volga): these films (accordingly) depict war’s sudden arrival and its traumatic imprint on a young ex-soldier’s psyche. “Every year we get plenty of films dealing with war. Ukrainian filmmakers are socially and politically active,” Raiter elaborates. ‘Mute’ by Kyrylo Zemlyanyi also takes a social stand, showing how the young Ivan tries to make it as an actor and dancer. Unable to talk, he faces countless discriminatory obstacles in his way. “I’m with you!”, was this year’s comforting festival motto.

This year 245 Ukrainian films were submitted to Wiz-Art, a number that is rising progressively each year. Moreover, a whole wave of filmmakers, who have previously shown their shorts in the festival, are already working on their second and third feature films.

Newfound energy
According to Olga Birzul, the Ukrainian film industry is in the midst of revolutionary activity. “The last five years gave Ukrainian culture a new wave of artistic cinema. Ukrainian films won several prestigious awards at the best international film festivals and Ukrainian producers got more involved in co-productions. It’s very important to support this progress and invest in strong artistic voices to raise our local Martin Scorsese or Jane Campion,” she says.

The international promotion has gained a notable force, emphasising that the films should travel and be accessible worldwide. The Ukrainian Institute, which is one of the flagmen in doing so, regularly organizes showcases of Ukrainian films for international experts. The showcases are organized in partnership with the Ukrainian film festivals, which have strong industry platforms, namely, Docudays UA IFF or Odesa IFF. This year the Institute started to collaborate with Cannes Film Festival, Arras Film Festival and Kyiv Critics' Week. Last year they teamed up with Dovzhenko Centre (State Film Archive) and organized a retrospection of Kira Muratova’s films in La Cinémathèque Française and the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna. They’ve also launched the proMOTION project, which is a long-term support program for the international promotion of Ukrainian films at their final production stages. Birzul explains that on the institutional level there has been a lack of similar initiatives. “It’s very difficult to advertise and promote your film abroad on a low budget. That’s why we opened a competition. An expert commission, consisting of independent industry experts and representatives of the Film Sector of the Ukrainian Institute, selects five films. This year, due to the pandemic, we didn’t receive many films. But in the future we plan to have two open calls per year. We don’t focus on the genre or duration: all projects are welcome to apply.” Previously mentioned film ‘Anna’ also got this promotional support.

Regarding networking, Birzul claims that “the new generation of filmmakers knows how to work with international and non-governmental funds.” The cooperation is especially active in the documentary field. “That’s because the budget from the state funds is quite small. For shorts, I’m afraid, it’s less developed.” Short film festivals certainly provide fertile soil for short promotion. The Big Short online cinema is expected to be an important chess piece, together with the annual Ukrainian Shorts film pitching organised by Kyiv ISFF.

What’s next for Ukrainian shorts? “Continuous progress”, hopefully, an optimistic sentiment expressed by Maryna Vroda in an interview with film critic Giona Nazzaro at Internationale Kurzfilmtage Winterthur. She says that waves of new filmmakers appear, but they cease to linger due to the unstable political and financial situation. Now, she feels, the film community is stronger and this generation of filmmakers won’t remain silent. Vroda also points out that more and more female filmmakers are making their voices heard. Nevertheless, she expresses her hope to see more women stories on screen.

If, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian (short) film industry was considered to be nearly erased, now it could be at the edge of its renaissance. Ukrainian shorts have plenty prerequisites for that – talent and eagerness, themes and diversity. Only the financing and moral backing fall short: on a state level television and mainstream content are prioritized higher. Luckily, in the midst of political chess and identity revaluation, Ukrainian short filmmakers and film industry professionals are more confident than ever. Numerous initiatives, a strong and growing short film community, international promotion and internationally recognized cinematic works provide a solid ground for this newfound energy.

© Images

1 'Fro' (Polina Kelm, 2008)
2 'Cross' (Maryna Vroda, 2011)
3 The Big Short (screenshot)
4 'Sisters' (Anna Scherbyna & Valentina Petrova, 2019)
5 'Snails' (Maryna Vroda, 2014)
6 'Integration' (Oleksiy Radynski, 2014)
7 Retrospective of Kira Muratova in Cinematheque Française in 2019