Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
This week seemed a good time to present this film festival report, written in July 2018 after I had been a member of the FIPRESCI (federation of international critics) jury at the Odesa Film Festival. (I was told that the Russian spelling of the city is Odessa, and the Ukrainians prefer Odesa, so I’m going with the latter.) For some bothersome technical reasons, this report has not actually been published on the FIPRESCI website yet. The jury was tasked with giving awards for Best Ukrainian Feature and Best Ukrainian Short, as mentioned here.
It was a wonderful experience, and our hosts were delightful. As I suggest in my report, the state of Ukrainian cinema seemed robust. My fellow jurors were Bosnian-born Sanjin Pejkovic, who lives in Sweden, and Kiev-based Sergii Vasyliev, excellent comrades in movie-watching and conversation. I sent a message to Sergii over a week ago, and haven’t heard back from him.
Odesa Steps Up
The Odesa International Film Festival can claim the most evocative site for an outdoor screening in the world: the Potemkin Stairs. On the place where Sergei Eisenstein staged a massacre and perfected the art of montage in Battleship Potemkin, the OIFF this year screened the sparkling Harold Lloyd comedy Safety Last! It was a lovely evening: Expert slapstick, the spritely sounds of the Odesa Symphonic Orchestra performing Carl Davis’s jazzy score, the summer breeze coming off the Black Sea, and the sight of the next generation of filmgoers laughing their heads off at a 95-year-old film.
Ordinarily, it would be difficult to top an event like that. But this well-programmed festival, now in its 9th year, offered a daily menu of top-notch international titles and various special programs. Lunches and dinners allowed jury members from different categories to mingle, and in one instance to be joined by the down-to-earth (but nevertheless glamorous) presence of Jacqueline Bisset, one of the festival’s honorees.
Both the FIPRESCI jury and the National jury selected Oleksandr Techynskyi’s Delta as their top Ukrainian feature. This beautifully cinematic documentary examined the habits and rhythms of the residents of the Danube Delta; the wintry months covered in Techynskyi’s film are depicted as harsh indeed, but with an abundance of beauty as well.
The programs of Ukrainian short films were, if anything, stronger than the feature selections. A number of filmmakers demonstrated that they have already “arrived” at a level of accomplishment that qualifies as world-class. Kateryna Gornostai’s Crocodile, for instance, is a beautiful study of young people navigating an emotionally fraught New Year’s Eve. (Gornostai won the FIPRESCI short award in 2017.) Maryna Roshchyna’s In Joy tracked the lost nature of a less-than-responsible single mother, superbly played by Svitlana Libet. Pavlo Ostrikov’s Mia Donna, about the inexplicable metamorphosis that overtakes a grown man, garnered well-deserved guffaws from the audience, and Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s Weightlifter took an ice-cold look at a professional athlete. Add some bold documentaries and Dana Kavelina’s ingenious animated film Mark L. Tulip, That Spoke with Flowers, and the shorts menu truly distinguished itself.
The FIPRESCI award for short film went to Ihor Hanskyi’s The Magnetic Storm, a film that—while it did not match or even attempt the technical polish of others in the competition—offered a brilliant conceptual idea and hilarious execution. It’s almost entirely shot from the perspective of a malfunctioning TV screen, a limited perspective which nevertheless allows a comprehensive look into the messy apartment and particular world of the mother and daughter who attempt to fix the balky device. Their relationship comes into clear focus despite the film’s 8-minute running time. On the wall behind them, religious calendars depict the saints staring back at us, withholding their miracles from this ramshackle living space. Meanwhile, occasional cutaways to YouTube footage of a daredevil “space dive” seem to suggest the distance between mankind’s technical achievements and the actual day-to-day realities of how things work. Or don’t work.
Prize-winner Hanskyi, whose first film this is, was apparently not expecting his award, as he was in the washroom when the announcement was made in the Festival Palace. A few minutes later he was back in the hall and accepted his prize. The filmmaker, born in 1995, is evidently still studying film in Kiev, and we hope to hear great things about him in the future.
As for the immediate future of Ukrainian film, based on the abundant talent in the shorts competition and the popularity of the competition features—and very much including the non-competition festival entries, Roman Bondarchuk’s Volcano and Sergey Loznitsa’s Donbass—the prospects appear promising.
This year’s retrospective series included “70 Years of Israeli Cinema,” a tribute to Naomi Kawase, and a selection of Ukrainian Music Hall films from the Soviet era. I managed to attend only one of the music films, Oleksii Mishuryn’s Years of Youth (1958), but it was a real gem, a frantic and colorful tale of theater dreams.
One of the benefits of a film festival is the opportunity to whipsaw from one style (or subject or country) to the next. As an example, take the afternoon in Odesa when Terry Gilliam’s highly anticipated (and legendarily delayed) The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was followed, in the same Festival Palace, by Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War. The first film was raucous and madcap, in the usual Gilliam manner, and finally a mess. The second film was precise, controlled, shot in austere black and white, a series of discrete scenes that built to a very moving end. The juxtaposition of these two different modes was challenging and delightful.
Every screening at OIFF began with the reminder that Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov has been imprisoned by Russian authorities since 2014. He was two months into a hunger strike as the festival played out, so each day the slide honoring Sentsov changed its number: 64 days…65 days…66 days…. It was a somber reminder of the stakes involved in speaking out. One hopes Sentsov will attend the 2019 festival in person.
An update: Sentsov was released in a prisoner swap in September 2019.
March 18, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.