This summer there were no Ferrero Rochers in sight at the ambassador’s sumptuous Holland Park residence in west London. Just a sombre air and yellow and blue everywhere you looked under the grand chandeliers; napkins, miniature flags, Alice bands, flowers and a patriotic gathering of young and old, nonetheless exuding pride at an independence day ceremony.
Ukrainians in London have continued to keep the flag flying despite the simmering war at home in Donbas that has claimed thousands of lives and shows to signs of dissipating. But a group of cultural ambassadors comprising actors, film producers and financiers have just arrived this winter at the same address to banish the blues and deliver a more uplifting message about their country and change how outsiders continue to perceive it.
Pylyp Illienko, head of Ukrainian State Film Agency, spending only his second day on his first visit to London injects some comic relief into proceedings, “Mr Bean is bigger than James Bond in Ukraine,” he says of his country’s taste in British movies. But he swiftly moves on to the case of incarcerated Ukrainian film director and international cause celebre, Oleg Sentsov, 39, best known for his 2011 film Gamer, sentenced to 20 years in prison by Russia for his outspoken comments on the annexation of Crimea and the civil strife raging in the Donbas region of Ukraine. Illienko observes gravely: “They [Russian authorities] use him as a hostage in this conflict between Russia and Ukraine. I am deeply shocked that this could happen in 21st century Europe, this is absolutely something which cannot be tolerated that a person is imprisoned for more than 20 years for just being a citizen of Ukraine fighting for the freedom of his people, not fighting as a soldier, he was fighting as a civil activist who took part in the events of Maidan and after the Crimea was occupied by Russia.”
Sentsov, whose cause has continued to be championed by celebrities including Sir Elton John – who has agreed to discuss gay rights with President Putin – was arrested in Crimea in May 2014 and was tried in Moscow for terrorism. “He is not a terrorist, he is a filmmaker,” Illienko reiterates. Sentsov has become a living symbol of the struggle in Ukraine and Crimea for its sovereignty and independence. Illienko thinks lesser mortals would have done anything to regain their freedom but Sentsov has stuck to his principles and does not recognise the powers of the court and judge that tried him. He says listening to his declaration in court, “we are all proud of him and hope that he will soon be released”. He stresses the need to continue to put pressure on the Russian authorities to release Sentsov even though he cannot predict when this will happen.
But still, there is more to Ukraine than just civil uprisings and political turmoil, what about its soft power? Illienko says: “It is the art and cinema in particular that can best represent a country abroad. Events such as the Days of Ukrainian Cinema in London contribute to the promotion of Ukrainian cinema and strengthening the favourable image of Ukraine.”
Igor Iankovskyi is founder of Initiative for the Future, a charitable foundation behind Ukrainian Cinema Days in London, an event showcasing some of the best cinematic talents and productions emerging from the country. He says: “My opinion is that there is a lack of information about my country, all that you know is the corruption and war but there is so much more going on, we are doing very good movies which you will see in the films showing in London. I want people to know more about us from different sides, not only from one side that is in newspapers and on television.”
The government’s annual contribution to the country’s film budget is a paltry $4m but Iankovskyi believes though it is not big, it helps to start some projects and helps move them forward telling stories that might otherwise be forgotten. They have already taken the cinema roadshow to Paris and Munich where he says the offerings received rave reviews and showed to packed audiences. Even though he was not sure what moviegoers would make of the films, Iankovskyi says “people were sitting between the aisles”. “The interest was unbelievable not only from the Ukrainians who lived there but from the French and Germans,” he enthused. He hopes to get the same reception in London. He says his foundation, apart from projecting a positive image of Ukraine, wants to promote new film talent and fund new movies.
“The strategy of our foundation is to support talented young people. Modern, young Ukrainian cinema is able to produce a high-quality and inspiring product. We can see how each year the professional level of our young directors increases as they find interesting topics and creatively represent them in film.
“Therefore, our foundation for the third consecutive year, is financing, in Ukraine, the National Short Film competition, organising the young filmmakers’ trips to the largest film festivals in Berlin, Cannes and presenting the Days of Ukrainian Cinema in Munich, Paris and London.”
He is full of praise for Firecrosser, a story based on real-life events when a Ukrainian-born Soviet pilot captured by the Nazis in the Second World War, becomes a Gulag prisoner but later escapes to become an Indian chief in Canada. Iankovskyi wants the outside world to understand that despite the conflagrations in some parts of Ukraine, people still want to be entertained and still flock to the cinemas. He explains: “As you know we have different parts of Ukraine, and the people are different, we are complex like the UK, made up of different sensibilities so when people go to see the movies, that connects all parts of Ukraine, which is most important right now.
“So everybody must understand that Ukraine is a solid state and that we are different but we are Ukrainians. This is the most important thing. The films are made in different parts of Ukraine and the cinemas are full all the time because the people are interested in what is going on in different parts of the country.”
The foundation works with the Kyiv International Film Festival Molodist, Ukraine’s largest and most influential film event which has been held for 45 years in a row. For the third year running Molodist held the National Short Film competition with the support of Initiative for the future. Together they organised young filmmakers’ trips to the largest film festivals in Berlin, Cannes and presented Days of Ukrainian Cinema in Munich, Paris and London.
Bogdan Zhuk of Molodist said they brought to London a diverse programme of Ukrainian films – classic and contemporary, documentaries and fiction films as well as collection of shorts from Molodist ’45.
MUST SEES: Ukraine’s Blockbusters
THE LIVING FIRE [Zhyva Vatra, 2014]
A four-year project documenting the story of the Ukrainian-Carpathian shepherds trying to keep alive their age-old traditions in the face encroaching modernity. The film follows three generations living in the Ukrainian Carpathians. Ivan is a 82-year-old retired shepherd who lives a solitary life having recently lost his wife, nine-year-old Ivanko is just starting out in life and studying in boarding school while 39-year-old Vasyl is raising lambs at his farm. They all head for the mountains at Spring to recreate a centuries-old tradition that is slowly ebbing away.
THE GUIDE [Povodyr, 2014]
A film about love, loyalty, betrayal, and infamy is based on true events in 1930s Ukraine. American engineer Michael Shamrock [Jeff Burrell] arrives in Kharkiv with his 10-year-old son, Peter [Anton Greene] to help build socialism. He falls in love with an actress Olga [Jamala] who has another admirer, Communist Commissar Vladimir. Shamrock is tragically killed and his surviving son is cared for by a blind ‘Kobzar’ [Stanislav Boklan]. The boy becomes his guide as they navigate an existence full of dangerous adventures. Their travails unfolds against the backdrop of one of the most dramatic chapters of Ukrainian history
THE TRUMPETER [Trubach, 2014]
In this musical comedy for the family, a young trumpeter Mykola Shevchenko plays in a pop brass band. He composes his own music which attracts the attention of world-famous musician Eugene Gaisin. It is a story of rivalry between the two children’s orchestras and, just as in the adult world there is intrigue, love, jealousy and everyone lives happily ever after.
Join director Mikhail Illienko to discuss his film, Toloka on 12 December from 12.45pm at the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain, 49 Linden Gardens, London W2. Ukrainian Cinema Days in London takes place from 10 – 13 December, Rich Mix, 35-47 Bethnal Green Road London E1 6LA