10 Films to Get to Know Ukraine

From music and architecture to comedy and horror, these films showcase Ukrainian culture and its long-held ethos of resistance.

by Oleksandra Kalinichenko
From Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964), dir. Serghiy Paradzhanov (image courtesy Dovzhenko Centre)

The ongoing full-scale invasion by Russia began with the pretext from Russian president Vladimir Putin that Ukraine is an artificial nation and therefore an artificial country, created by Vladimir Lenin. The denial of Ukraine’s independence and the right to build its own future is a repetitive pattern in the Ukrainian-Russian relationship. For instance, policies that ban the Ukrainian language date back to the early 17th century.

Nevertheless, the Ukrainian intelligentsia has never stopped fighting back. Through different art forms, they have been establishing Ukrainian culture and identity. Cinema has played an important role in this fight, both in Soviet times and in independent Ukraine. The Ukrainian online cinema Takflix.com has collected ten films to showcase Ukrainian culture in its different aspects and genres, from music and architecture to comedy to horror. All films are available worldwide with English subtitles.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

Drama, director Serghiy Paradzhanov, 1964

In the 1960s, a period that was later known as the “Khrushchev Thaw,” Soviet policies towards the national cultures of the republics began to ease. Ukrainian artists felt this light breeze of freedom and began to step away from the strict principles of socialist realism. In film, this movement was consolidated in Ukrainian poetic cinema. Unlike any other USSR films, poetic cinema was full of symbolism and national Ukrainian motifs, which manifested in the choice of colors, costumes, songs, and plots.

The first, and perhaps the most famous illustrative of this trend was the film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. It is the love story of a Hutsul Romeo and Juliet, Ivanka and Marichka, who meet as children during a fight between their warring families. The two grow up together, exploring the Carpathian Mountains, and their friendship grows into a love that finds its climax in unforeseeable tragedy.

The Lost Letter

Comedy road movie, director Borys Ivchenko, 1972

The Lost Letter is representative of Ukrainian poetic cinema, but it is also one of the last films of the movement. The film depicts an adventure of the Cossack Vasyl, who was entrusted with the crucial task of delivering a letter from the hetman (military commander of the Cossacks) to the Russian tsaritsa (female monarch) as soon as possible. Within the format of a road movie, with comedic and often absurd sketches, unfolds Vasyl’s journey to the tsaritsa. On his way, he meets a chort (a servant of the devil), witches, and even a “talking stone.”

This film serves as an ethnographic study of Ukrainian culture. Traditional characters of folklore, Ukrainian cuisine, and costumes are included in the film. However, in the early 1970s, national culture was again severely censored and as the film did not “ideologically” meet the demands of the censorship, it only had the chance to reach audiences ten years after its making.

Hunt for the Cossack Gold

Comedy, director Vadym Kastelli, 1993

From Hunt for the Cossack Gold (1993), dir. Vadym Kastelli (image courtesy Dovzhenko Film Studios)

Legend has it that in 1723, hetman Pavlo Polubotok left an enormous amount of gold in an English bank on the condition that it would only be released upon the independence of Ukraine. The film’s creators based its plot around this tale. But in the film, the year is 1993, shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and a suspected descendant of the hetman is phlegmatic and dimwitted Ivan. Nevertheless, the KGB (Committee for State Security in Russia) and other foreign spies have no doubt that Ivan is the one who knows the secret code to the gold.

Hunt for the Cossack Gold is a satirical comedy that aims to reinvent the patriotic adventure genre in Ukrainian cinema with cossacks in the center of the plot. However, cossacks — or one of their descendants — are unusually interpreted not as symbols of independence, but as comedic elements. Overall, the film reflects on the Ukrainian past in the Soviet Union and weaves it into the narration of Ukrainian identity.

The Living Fire

Documentary, director Ostap Kostyuk, 2016

In the Carpathian Mountains, the profession of shepherding has long existed. But for the Hutsul people of the region, it is more than just a job — it’s a calling that is strongly linked to their way of life and culture. Every summer, shepherds go to the mountains for months to graze their sheep. There is an ancient tradition of lighting a “living fire,” which is believed to protect the shepherds and animals from evil.

For four years, the film director Ostap Kostyuk and his team researched this vocation and the people who chose the path of old traditions in a modern world. The Living Fire tells the stories of the lives of three men of different generations: 82-year-old Ivan who is already preparing for his funeral, 39-year-old Vasily who is trying to keep his animal farm in business, and ten-year-old Ivanko who has just begun to learn about life. The film examines the challenge of the preservation of old crafts in the modern world and gives the opportunity to admire the landscapes of the Carpathians to the tune of beautiful flute music.

Gateway

Mystical Drama, Horror, director Volodymyr Tykhyy, 2017

In the center of the plot of the mystical drama Gateway is grandma Prisja, who lives in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone. She shares a house with her daughter Slava, who was abandoned by her husband, and her adult grandson Vovtshyk, who has a mental disability. Grandma Prisja believes that she has extrasensory abilities and can talk to mermaids, who have told her that something horrible is about to happen, which must be prevented at all costs.

At first glance, Gateway is a family drama with elements of mysticism, horror, and conspiracy theories. However, the film explores how the Chornobyl disaster affected the lives of many families who were forced to flee their homes and could not adapt to their new location because they were forced to live with the Chornobyl label. It is also the story of the few who, despite the threat to their lives, decided to stay and become cut off from the world.

Heat Singers

Documentary, director Nadia Parfan, 2019

From Heat Singers (2019), dir. Nadia Parfan (image courtesy 86PROKAT)

One of the most successful documentaries at the Ukrainian box office, Heat Singers is a lyrical film about the daily life of the TeploKomunEnergo, a municipal heating company in Western Ukraine. The film documents the beginning of the heating season, the struggle of workers with worn-out Soviet heat systems, and the search for a common language with irritated and cranky people who are waiting for warm batteries.

The main character is Ivan Vasyliovych, who heads the trade union of the TeploKomunEnergo. He adores the trade union choir “Chornobryvtsi,” which represents the Soviet tradition of art groups within different companies, which was mandatory in Soviet times. However, all members of the choir are so sincere and dedicated to their work that it is impossible not to admire them. Heat Singers is a feel-good story about heat, in all its manifestations.

My Thoughts Are Silent

Tragicomedy, director Antonio Lukich, 2019

From My Thoughts Are Silent (2019), dir. Antonio Lukich (image courtesy Arthouse Тraffic)

Vadym Rott works as a freelance sound engineer and receives a work task that may change his life and help him emigrate to Canada. As he himself says: “This is my new dream.” To succeed, he only needs to record the sounds of Ukrainian animals and birds, including the singing of the semi-mythical wild mallard duck. On his hunt for these sounds, Vadym has unexpected company — his mother, who wants to persuade her son to stay in Ukraine.

The film is a tragicomedy about a mother-son relationship full of unconditional love, misunderstandings, and clashes between different generations and worldviews. Two close people, who in their efforts to talk honestly with each other, constantly get into comic situations. My Thoughts Are Silent examines modern Ukrainian young adults, their lives, and their search for themselves in the world.

Train: Kyiv-War

Documentary, director Korniy Grytsiuk, 2020

From Train: Kyiv-War (2020), dir. Korniy Grytsiuk (image courtesy EasyLiving Films)

The war in Ukraine has been ongoing since 2014 and during this time many films have been created based on this topic, examining aspects such as the lives of families in the grey zone, as well as the daily life of the military and their rehabilitation after returning from the front. Train: Kyiv-War is unique in that it depicts the attitude to the war of a large social group of Ukrainians: the passengers of the train that runs from Kyiv to the city of Kostiantynivka the eastern province of Donetsk Oblast.

Kostiantynivka is a small industrial town near the front line. In the film residents of Donbas, volunteers, the military, and a film crew travel daily by train from Kyiv. People share observations, discussions, arguments, and dreams of a peaceful future. Within the carriages of the Ukrainian railway, completely different experiences collide, and the director empathetically gives everyone the space to be heard.

Enter Through the Balcony

Documentary, director Roman Blazhan, 2020

From Enter Through the Balcony (2020), dir. Roman Blazhan (image courtesy Minimal Movie)

What is a balcony? Each of the heroes of the short documentary Enter Through the Balcony will answer this in their own way: It is a place to be alone with your thoughts, to hang out with friends, or keep things dear to your heart. The authors of the film visited eight Ukrainian cities including Kyiv, Lviv, Odesa, and Kharkiv to study the phenomenon of Ukrainian balconies, which goes far beyond architecture.

In post-Soviet Ukraine, the phenomenon of balconies, which shapes the face of the cities, has a social, economic, and anthropological character. All these layers, along with personal stories and reflections on the struggle between private and public space, arise in the film. As the film’s director notes: “Our film is an ode to love for Ukraine and its people. And balconies can tell much more about us and our time than we can. ”

Moustache Funk

Documentary, director Oleksandr Kovsh, 2021

From Moustache Funk (2021), dir. Oleksandr Kovsh (image courtesy Т.Т.М.)

Until 1991, Ukraine was part of the USSR and therefore its culture was then subject to censorship. Certain cultural trends, such as Ukrainian poetic cinema, are widely known but music has always remained in a secondary role. Moustache Funk raises the iron curtain on the Ukrainian stage of the 1970s, both acquainting the viewer with it and showcasing its successes and actualizing and fitting it into the narrative of modern Ukrainian culture.

It was extremely difficult for Ukrainian music in the 1970s to feature in the global spotlight. However, according to the film’s authors, foreign hits from Beatles songs to James Brown still found creative listeners in the USSR, who went above and beyond to listen to foreign music. And then VIAs began to appear (vocal and instrumental ensembles, because the word “band” was banned). VIA’s music, with its ragged Carpathian rhythms, could be put on a par with African funk, Turkish psychedelic rock, and German kraut.

Oleksandra Kalinichenko

Oleksandra Kalinichenko is a freelance journalist based in Kyiv. More by Oleksandra Kalinichenko

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