Culture : Ukrainian Filmmakers’ Lot Goes From Bad to Worse : Under communism, censorship kept movies off screen. Now, capitalism is problem.
Moviegoers could be forgiven for their frustration with the giant billboard urging them to see “The Hunt for the Cossack Gold!"--a film about a gentle beekeeper, bumbling secret agents and a legendary treasure.
For weeks after the advertisement for Vadim Castelli’s lighthearted comedy went up in a Kiev square, Ukrainians were more likely to find a barrel of Cossack gold than a theater where the movie was playing.
“That’s because it wasn’t playing anywhere,” explained Castelli, who conceived the film in the still-Soviet summer of 1990 and completed it three years later in the independent Ukraine of his dreams.
Unfortunately for Castelli and other Ukrainian filmmakers, that dream has come true with some harsh realities. One hundred years after the birth of Ukrainian filmmaker Alexandr Dovzhenko, whose “Zvenygora” and “Zemlia” rank among the world’s silent film classics and earned him the title “the first poet of cinema,” filmmaking here is grinding to a halt.
The mammoth Kiev film studio that bears Dovzhenko’s name once churned out 15 full-length theatrical productions and an equal number of television movies a year. In 1994, just three films were in production and the studio’s sound stage, one of Europe’s largest, was a cavernous graveyard for sets from productions past. Studios in Odessa and Yalta are also idle.
The problem is money. With its budget burdened buying commodities once subsidized from Moscow, Ukraine can no longer afford the monolith that was its Soviet-era film industry. And as the state-run monopoly withers, the growth of a private industry to replace it has been hampered by a dearth of laws on vitals such as copyright enforcement and licensing, a tax structure that hinders the high-risk industry by treating film enterprises like any other private venture and a lack of infrastructure for distribution.
As a result, the few films that actually do get made do not get seen. And American movies, sometimes pirated and usually less expensive, have been quick to fill the vacuum.
For example, the Ukraine movie theater in central Kiev, where “Cossack Gold” premiered for one night in October, is now showing “The Last Action Hero,” with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“We can’t afford our own copy of Castelli’s film, and it’s a shame because it’s a funny movie that should be seen,” theater administrator Alla Oleksandrivna said.
The only way the theater can afford to show “Cossack Gold,” or any other Ukrainian film, is if a distributor offers it for a cut of the ticket sales. Even licensed foreign films can be cheaper to buy than domestic productions, because big movie studios can subsidize losses in Ukraine with profits elsewhere. In Ukraine’s nascent film distribution business, domestic productions can’t compete.
Although the Ukraine theater’s 60-cent admission price may sound like a bargain, it is out of reach for the average Ukrainian, who earns $15 a month. Ukrainian television stations can get away with showing pirated videos of the same films playing in the theaters, and viewers stay home and watch them for free. Theater attendance is plummeting, even for American films.
So, while images of Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone flicker in their unheated, mostly empty auditoriums, theaters survive by leasing their huge, also empty, lobbies to furniture showrooms, discotheques and restaurants. That leaves little room for the few Ukrainian filmmakers who have not changed careers in despair.
Mikhailo Ilienko, whose historical romance “Foudzou” has been gathering dust for over a year, said bitterly: “The only way it will be seen in Ukraine is if someone smuggles in a pirated copy.”
His older brother Yuri’s bleak, anti-Soviet tragedy, “Swan Lake: The Zone"--winner of the 1990 International Critics Prize at Cannes--has been shown in more foreign theaters than in Ukrainian venues. That would certainly have been the case for both the anti-Communist Ilienko brothers and Castelli if Kiev were still in the Soviet Union, whose leaders pronounced film the most influential of all arts and kept its makers ideologically shackled.
Censorship was especially harsh in Ukraine. Its film industry was subordinated to Moscow, and “poetic cinema” was replaced with “socialist realist” celebrations of revolutionary heroes, industrial machines and the idyllic (and idealized) life on the collective farms.
More than a generation passed before the post-Stalinist political thaw of the 1950s gave rise to a filmmaking renaissance. Dovzhenko--whose cinematic creativity suffered measurably under his forced exile in Moscow in the 1930s and 1940s--started it with his 1955 demand for “the expansion of the creative boundaries of socialist realism.” He died a year later and never saw the spectacular results when his student, Sergei Paradjanov, stretched those boundaries so far they broke down entirely.
In his 1964 masterpiece “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors,” Paradjanov took Dovzhenko’s monochromatic poetic tradition and fired it with a riot of color and sound that earned “Shadows” 16 international awards and regard as a modern classic when it was released in the West in 1965.
In the same year, however, a new political chill followed Leonid Brezhnev’s rise to power in Moscow. Prominent Ukrainian intellectuals were arrested. Even Paradjanov, a Georgian-born Armenian, was accused of Ukrainian nationalism, and “Shadows” was shelved.
The same fate met other films that violated the strictures of socialist realism, earning some directors tickets to the Gulag--where Paradjanov himself spent three years--instead of ticket sales.
Even after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s mid-1980s glasnost policy led to the release of many previously mothballed Ukrainian films in Russia, they were often deemed too provocative for Ukrainian viewers.
“They were afraid, correctly as it turned out, that we were all underground rebels,” said Andrij Kalapakhtchi, director of Kiev’s annual Youth Film Festival.
When that rebelliousness erupted into Ukraine’s 1991 declaration of independence, filmmakers hoped for a revival of their art. Instead they discovered that commercialism can be even less forgiving than communism.
“Even if ‘Cossack Gold’ were free, it would still have to overcome the attitude that American movies are better,” Castelli said.
Indeed, few past Ukrainian productions qualified as art or entertainment. Even brilliant exceptions, such as “Shadows” or “Swan Lake,” are too elliptical and in the latter case, bleak, to satisfy most tastes after a steady diet of Hollywood. Happy endings are rare.
Perhaps because Castelli set out to make people laugh, the “Cossack Gold” saga finally got its own happy ending in November, when a distributor purchased a single copy for limited engagements in Kiev. Eleven other Ukrainian regions have also purchased the rights, and a version was dubbed for sale in Russia.
Although the domestic releases will probably lose money and his American co-producer owns all of the foreign rights, the 37-year-old filmmaker is not discouraged.
“I still think, maybe stupidly, that I can do something for my people,” he said.