If there are any two countries that have been hogging the headlines for the past couple of months now, it’s Russia and Ukraine. Ever since Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, support and attention for Ukraine from the West have surged dramatically. Over the past few months, love for the small country has become a popular trend in U.S. culture. However, despite the nationwide support for Ukraine against Russia, not everybody seems to understand what the two countries are really fighting for.
Apart from its current and past relationship with Russia, most people in the U.S. have a very faint knowledge of Ukraine’s culture and history. It almost feels less like Ukrainian support and more like Russian opposition, where the focus is more on this big, scary oppressor instead of on the little guy under threat of annihilation. This attitude is especially upsetting when considering Vladimir Putin has claimed there is no such thing as Ukrainian identity, a demonstrably false assertion.
Ukrainian identity, history and culture are not only unquestionably real, but also far too fascinating for anyone to simply pass up. If anybody would be interested in checking out Ukrainian culture, then there’s no better way to get started than with the universal art: film. Here are five Ukrainian films (made either as a member of the USSR or as an independent state) that everyone should watch.
1. “Chasing Two Hares” (1961)
Also known as “A Kyiv Comedy,” this vaudeville-comedy directed by Viktor Ivanov is based on the play of the same name by Mykhailo Starytsky. The story follows Svirid, a barber who faces bankruptcy due to his obsessions with drinking, gambling and women, and is threatened with incarceration if he can’t pay his bills. He devises a plan to act like an educated member of the upper class to marry a rich, unattractive woman named Pronya, all while he pines for a poor, beautiful woman named Halya who despises him.
The movie is just a blast and nearly perfect, as this is a fast-paced adventure filled with comical slapstick, energetic performances and delightful song and dance numbers from the characters. Though it does not intend to search for any higher truth or greater themes within its text and moral, a story does not need much of that to be good and “Chasing Two Hares” proves that in spades.
2. “Famine ‘33” (1991)
This historical drama directed by Oles Yanchuk follows a Ukrainian family during the Holodomor — a man-made famine and genocide from 1932-1933 that led to the deaths of anywhere from 7 to 10 million Ukrainians. What’s depicted is not only the struggle of the family to find just a bit of grain but also the thousands of suffering Ukrainians who’ve been forced to endure starvation by the USSR under Joseph Stalin.
This bleak but accurate depiction of a sadly not well-known history is one of the most historically significant Ukrainian films ever made, as it was illegal for decades to acknowledge that there even was a famine under the Soviet Union until after its dissolution. Apart from its excellent execution and sorrowful performances, the main reason to see this film is so that its story and its lessons will not be forgotten.
Also known as “The Lost Letter,” the film directed by Boris Ivchenko is an adaptation of the story of the same name by Nikolai Gogol. Told through the framing device of an old man telling a story about his grandfather, this musical-tragicomedy follows Vasyl the Cossack and his fantastical adventures to deliver a letter to the Tzarina in St. Petersburg, all the while facing rival Cossacks and an evil witch.
This light and short romp (only about 70 minutes in length) is a delight full of dry humor, fun songs and the sheer enjoyment that comes from watching the Cossacks — no words could dare to accurately capture the absolute awesomeness that are the Cossacks, especially Ivan Mykolaichuk’s main performance. If there’s an hour or so in need of killing, you can’t go wrong with this Cossack classic of Ukrainian films.
4. “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” (1965)
Also under the title of “Wild Horse of Fire,” the film directed by Sergei Parajanov is an adaptation of the 1911 book of the same name by Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky. In the Carpathian Mountains, Ivan falls in love with a local girl named Mirachka as their families feud after Mirachka’s father kills Ivan’s. After Mirachka drowns, Ivan is lost in the depression and tragedy that follow him as he tries to reconnect with society.
Initially banned in the USSR upon its release for being seen as a possible tool for Ukrainian independence from Russia, “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” is widely regarded by critics and movie buffs as one of the best Ukrainian films ever made. It’s a magical experience with wondrous costumes, surreal music that blends Carpathian folk or atonalism and jolting camera action that no one will be able to forget.
5. “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom” (2015)
The most recent — some would consider the most relevant — Ukrainian film on this list is directed by Evgeny Afineevsky. “Winter on Fire” follows the series of protests in 2013-2014 known as the Euromaidan after former President Viktor Yanukovych announced plans to sever ties with Europe and grow closer to Russia. After months of middling government response, emerging draconian laws and police brutality, the Revolution of Dignity took place on Feb. 18, 2014, ousting Yanukovych (who had recently fled the country) and eventually establishing a new pro-reform government.
Nothing is held back in this raw, emotional documentary compiled from footage from news outlets, interviews, smartphone recordings, dashcams and security cameras showing the full extent of Euromaidan and its effects. What is presented are the struggles, pleas, grieving, humiliations and losses of the brave Ukrainian people who are united and willing to die for their freedom. It is a heartfelt and inspiring experience that wholly shows, even back then, what the people of Ukraine have been fighting for: national sovereignty and personal freedom.