Chicago Hosts Breakthrough Polish Ukrainian Film Festival

Marta Farion, Ukrainian Weekly

"It is no coincidence that the first Polish-Ukrainian Film Festival took place in Chicago, which is the world’s second largest Polish city, and with a large Ukrainian population.  At the initiative of the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art and the progressive Chopin Theater, the August 24-26 event featured three days of showings, pre-screening receptions and post-screening discussions involving several ethnic audiences and international film aficionados.

The festival presented films and discussions about post - revolution experiences after the Solidarity Movement in Poland and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. These revolutions altered the fundamental political and social systems of their countries but they did not solve the multiplicity of challenges that the post-Soviet block is facing today, unmanaged issues of national and individual identity, globalization, and the social, economic and environmental problems created in the aftermath of radical political change.

Both countries held unrealistic expectations for change, both experienced disillusion and apathy and both continue to suffer from unresolved economic and social problems.  These are the post-revolution blues that are addressed variously in the Festival’s featured films in a rare setting of cinematic bilateralism which provoked honest discussion.

In opening remarks, Yuri Shevchuk, director of the Ukrainian Film Club at Columbia University said, “Poland had a long tradition of cinematographic creativity, but for Ukraine the festival underscored the country’s discovery and recovery of its own voice, a voice which was long denied by Soviet hegemony over culture.  Ukrainians now have the opportunity to tell themselves and the world their own story, to express their long suppressed aspirations, to celebrate their culture. It is nothing short of a miracle that over the last 16 years Ukrainian directors have made films despite an inapt or even hostile government, an indifferent private sector, and a foreign dominated distribution network.”

The program’s thematic progression provided alternative viewpoints about the region’s problems from the vantage point of film directors, producers and actors from other countries -- Canada, Spain, Sweden – and it became clear that foreigners often have a more dispassionately objective assessment than the natives.   

The festival opened with the feature narrative “Acts of Imagination” directed by Carolyn Combs with screenwriting by Michael Springate, both from Canada.   The film is well crafted with exquisite acting, and tells the story of brother and sister, Katya and Yaroslav, who as young Ukrainian immigrants to Canada face the struggle of finding their place and identities in a new country.  Settling in Vancouver, they are overcome by diminishing hopes for a democratic Ukraine as  they re-examine their Orange Revolution idealism; they are distraught by their country’s corruption, bureaucracy and privileged class, and the impossibility of achieving potential as individuals in the land of their birth. In Canada, they are faced with the challenge of finding a new identity and assimilate into a new culture shedding their former Ukrainian selves, and thus adopt a new language, a different culture and a different history. They struggle whether or not to forget about the Holodomor -  the Ukrainian Genocide of 1933, or sell the icon, the most sacred and personal of their symbols of home and the past, they inherited from their grandmother, survivor of the Holodomor.

These Canadian film makers successfully tackled difficult, intimate subjects that film makers in Ukraine have not attempted thus far, and they did so with an aesthetic eye.  They analyze the psychology of a young generation of Ukrainians for whom the period of independence shattered dreams, triggering the stark realization that there is no freedom without opportunities but they cannot decode themselves from their former country nor find spiritual comfort in their new land.

The film’s treatment of language is approached with extraordinary sensitivity - as both a practical matter of communication but also as a symbol of individual and national identity.  Yuri Shevchuk observed, “For Yaroslav, language is a curse that reminds him of the past, it was a reason for persecutions, for ridicule, for discrimination and he tries to speak English only as he wants to shed any trace of the past. He understands Ukrainian but he wants to lose it, he even changes his name to Jerry.”

His sister Katya is the antithesis to this concept and hangs on to her Ukrainian language even when it brings back painful historical memories, images of her deceased mother and family who perished in the Great Famine.  She dreams at night, imagines speaking with her mother during the day, and sings childhood songs - all in Ukrainian.  She symbolizes the traditional role of the woman who carries on the thread of history, the cultural traditions and the language to future generations.

Katya’s character is haunted by history, the history which was erased and repressed. The film tackles history, culture, past and present and like Faulkner brought to life the American south, it brings to life the stories of a region, which touch upon a universal experience. In bringing the past into the present like a psychosis and in the way Katya’s mysterious psyche is haunted by the Famine Genocide of 1933 the film reminds of Ingmar Bergman.
It is surprising that both brother and sister speak Ukrainian and English equally fluently and without any trace of accents and it is even more surprising that this movie is the film debut of Stephanie Hayes, originally from Sweden.  Ms. Hayes plays the role of Katya with sensitivity and intimate knowledge of the cultural and linguistic nuances involved.  Billy Marchenski is equally forthcoming and effective in his performance of Yaroslav.  

The post-screening discussion was titled “Global Identity” and it was led by Chicago film critic Zbigniew Banas, director Carolyn Combs, screenwriter Michael Springate, Alton Miller of Columbia College, and Yuri Shevchuk of Columbia University. Topics discussed included the meaning of nation, freedom and identity in a global world of quickly shifting boundaries.

The Festival’s second day featured the full length movie “Unnamed Zone” by Spanish director Carlos Rodriguez, the short features “Liza” by Ukrainian director Taras Tomenko and the black and white “A Man Thing” by Polish director Slawomir Fabicki, which received an Oscar nomination in 2002. All three films deal with current problems in Poland and Ukraine through the eyes of children.

The Spanish film “Unnamed Zone” presents the lives of three youngsters living in the Chornobyl zone, their outlook on the past, present and future in an environment of ethical, economic, social, cultural degradation and governmental indifference. Rodriguez focuses on the strength, beauty and hope of people living in this difficult environment. “Liza” tells the story of Liza Nikitina, a homeless child living in an orphanage and on the streets, filmed in the familiar walkways, metro stations and buildings of Kyiv. She is a survivor at great personal cost - overwhelmed, she cheats, begs, steals, sleeps in tunnels - she “owns” the streets. The hero of “A Man Thing” is a thirteen year old boy who lives in a home with both his parents and is a victim of his abusive father. The boy is engulfed with loneliness, with the feeling of being unwanted and unloved and he finds solace through his only friend, a stray dog.

The evening’s discussion was titled “Social Activism in Filmmaking”. Participants in the round table were Adam Ensalacoof Greenpeace, Stephen Steim ofHuman Rights Watch, director Carolyn Combs, Columbia University professor Yuri Shevchuk and film critic Zbigniew Banas. Discussions centered on the universality of the problems faced by children who cope with adults destroyed by environment and circumstances. The three films offered comparisons in approaches by different directors and striking similarities of the conditions in both countries.  

The Festival’s third day presented a short feature “There was a Woman who Lived in a Shoe” by Olena Fetisova. This film presents a more optimistic and hopeful message of a family that takes in eight homeless children and raises them up on their own with the help and moral support of their village neighbors. The festival ended with the full length feature “Retrieval” by Slawomir Fabicki, selected for the 2006 Cannes Film Festival and recipient of various international awards. The story presents the eternal question of whether the end justifies the means. Nineteen-year Polish old amateur boxer Wojtek searches for his independence and identity and falls in love with Katya, an older girl-friend who immigrated with her child from Ukraine to Poland looking for work. In his quest to prove himself as a man who can support her, he makes a deal with the devil and becomes an enforcer for a criminal loan shark. By making this Faustian bargain he sells his soul for the money which he believed would buy Katya’s love, but he loses her and his family in this moral struggle which absorbs and destroys him.

Katya is played by Natalia Vdovina, a Russian actress, her son is played by Dmytro Melnychuk from Kyiv. Fabicki had both characters speak Ukrainian in the scenes when they were alone or in conflicting situations. He could have easily allowed them to play their roles in Russian, but as a Pole he understood that often people resort to their native language in times of intimacy or conflict and when in search of identity. By making the two main characters Polish and Ukrainian, he touched on the problem of continuous migration of Ukrainians to Poland for work opportunities and the conflicts created by this process.

Fabicki’s cinematography, which won him an Oscar nomination, is filled with suspense.  It is highly focused and absorbs the viewer into the story with its intensity and tension. His precise, rapid, camera work make the intensity even more pronounced.  He is a master cinematographer with total command of the art and power of cinema.

The discussion of these last films was titled “Triumph of the Human Spirit”, but the resulting talk turned into “The Changing Concept of Family”. The post-screening reception and talk included topics on the diminishing role of parents in the upbringing of children, loneliness and dependency on computers and electronic games, and the loss of human interconnectedness, all tendencies which are universal.  

The audience was a true participant in this extraordinary festival, which took place in a creative atmosphere of thoughtful exchange, humor, wit and intellectual challenge. The festival received the attention of NPR radio with both Yuri Shevchuk and Zygmunt Dyrkacz  interviewed on the program World View by host Jerome McDonald. There was media coverage in the Chicago Journal and the Chicago Tribune, as well as wide distribution on the internet. Michael Springate said, “This festival is what other festivals aspire to, but very few achieve this level of involvement and informed discussion.”

The Festival’s films are not nostalgic about historical Ukraine or Poland.  They seriously focus on each country’s contemporary economic, social, and political situations without emotion and bias.  The films ask questions about each society, about who is making economic and political decisions in these countries, and how these decisions affect their entire populations.

Such a creative program would not have been possible without the support of sympathetic sponsors.  Selfreliance Ukrainian American Federal Credit Union, Heritage Foundation of First Security Federal Bank,  Kasia’s Deli, LOT Polish Airlines and others came forth with financial support.  But it was the enthusiasm and dedication of the organizers, the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, Chopin Theater and Columbia University Ukrainian Film Club, who had the vision to bring current films dealing with Poland and Ukraine and linking them in common themes".


Marta Farion
Sister Cities International Program and
Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art Chicago
This article originally appeared in the Ukrainian Weekly on September 30, 2007.