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Inside Out with Yuliya Popova: Ukrainian filmmakers missing the great stories

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Sept. 23, 2011, 2:08 a.m. | About Kyiv — by Yuliya Popova
A two-act ballet performance lasts at least two hours. A documentary is usually half that length. To watch a documentary about ballet presented by French culture festival “Paris As It Is” on Sept. 19, I carved two hours and 40 minutes, or 1/10, out of my day, but it was certainly worth it.

Filmed in 2009, “La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet” is a journey through famed Opera Garnier, its dancers, instructors, directors and even cleaners.

It has no voice-over; director Frederick Wiseman let the camera speak for itself while traversing through rehearsal studios, administrative offices and actual performances. Sometimes he would peep into a staff meeting when dancers discuss pensions and strikes; another time he would drop into the office to follow the gritty business of selling tours to Americans.

This story of modern livelihood of the opera house told in the present tense – without curtsies to its Napoleonic history – got me thinking about Ukrainian film industry and the stories we choose to tell. Sadly, most of the modern films and documentaries I can recall dwell on history, and usually the bitter side of it.


Minimalism and simplicity drives modern ballet. (www.moviepilot.de)

During a recent movie pitching session organized by the State Film Agency, young and old film directors brought their ideas along to win a partial subsidy from the government. A good number of the pitches were about war, Chornobyl, Stepan Bandera and other famous historic figures and events.

While I am not diminishing their importance in the world of cinema, I would have liked to see more films about present-day Ukraine. There are tons of ideas floating around.

How about immigration stories? There are at least three million Ukrainians living abroad. What initially was intended to be a one- or two-year sojourn for many of them to make money has become a permanent solution.
While I am not diminishing their importance in the world of cinema, I would have liked to see more films about present-day Ukraine. There are tons of ideas floating around.

Then, how about the story on Kyiv Mayor Leonid Chernovetsky? His “space” adventures, flirting with babushkas and current fall from grace, spiced up with a dirty divorce, could provide a good plot for a melodrama. Zooming in on his time in office would turn into a colorful base for a political thriller.

And what about a love affair from Lviv? This charming city has a swath of love stories to rival thousands of pictures filmed in and about Paris.

But no, from the long list of history-strewn stories presented at the pitching session, I weeded out a bloody thriller at Obolon, a senseless comedy about sex in space and one art-house picture about family dynamics in Lviv over Christmas (this one I actually thought was excellent). But it was not enough.

Films, of course, are a very subjective issue to discuss even with your friends, let alone with thousands of readers. And yet, how many films about modern Ukraine can you remember? The Orange Revolution inspired a couple, but the euphoria of filming a picture on contemporary issues seems to have died as quickly as the Orange leaders fell out.

There are, however, a couple of films made by foreign directors about modern Ukraine that really inspire.

“The English Surgeon,” the award-winning documentary by Australian director Geoffrey Smith, was released in 2008. It made a star out of London-based neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, who has been coming to Ukraine for more than 15 years to donate his skills and operate on patients that the Ukrainian medical system considers hopeless.

His Ukrainian co-star, Dr. Ihor Kurilets, in the documentary exposes Ukraine’s outdated medical system, poverty and ignorance in his daily work at a hospital in Kyiv.

The 2010 film by German director Jacob Preuss, “The Other Chelsea. The story from Donetsk,” shows Donetsk as a place where rich and poor share the same passion – football. Miners with their miniscule wages and a handful of oligarchs with millions of dollars – all converge on a stadium.
Some may argue that it’s hard to get inspired in Ukraine’s corrupt reality (and it may not be safe at times). And so young writers find it easier to sell the kind of stories Soviet-born film directors feel comfortable with.

Oh, and don’t forget that documentary “Klitschko” about Ukrainian brothers’ humble beginnings and astounding boxing success was also filmed by a German. It premiered in New York this spring, and we are still waiting to sample it in Kyiv.

Some may argue that it’s hard to get inspired in Ukraine’s corrupt reality (and it may not be safe at times). And so young writers find it easier to sell the kind of stories Soviet-born film directors feel comfortable with.

At least this seemed to be the case with the State Film Agency that approved financing for films about Ukrainian philosophers, church leaders and Chornobyl.

Predictably, everything new (unless the invention is in the Silicon Valley) is treated with a great deal of skepticism pretty much anywhere.

Even the young ballet dancers in “La Danse” are reticent to accept that ballet today is no longer just “The Nutcracker.” Opera artistic directors in the French documentary encourage staff to take modern dance classes and leave their tutus for a special occasion.

The audience wants those spiky new works by younger choreographers, in which ballet stars look almost like gymnasts – modestly dressed, sharp in their motion and realistic in their story-telling.

If the French can break from the past, so can Ukrainians.


Kyiv Post lifestyle editor Yuliya Popova can be reached at popova@kyivpost.com
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