"The desire is to do efficiently what we can do best: preserve and promote Ukrainian films,"

Oleksandr Teliuk

For the first POMIZH podcast episode about culture during the war, we talked to Oleksandr Teliuk, Head of the Film Archive at Dovzhenko Centre and a film expert. He told us about the situation in the Ukrainian film industry after the full-scale Russian invasion, the fight against the liquidation of Ukraine's largest motion picture archive, cinema heritage and its lost names.

Below you will find the talk's transcript.

About culture during the war

When the full-scale invasion began, I felt stupor and confusion, which I think many people are familiar with. It seemed to me that culture in general and we as cultural workers had not done enough to prevent this chaos and violence. I went through a crisis of perceiving culture: whether it is relevant at all, whether one should engage in this, or had better go fight or volunteer.

This turbulence, of the professional and personal kind, continued for a few months and continues still to some extent. But it became clear at some point that the cultural front was opened as well, that the media war that had been going on still continued. And that this is, among other things, a cultural war that has a long history—a war not only about territories but also about identities, about the cultural dimension, about the protection of the right to choose.

Dovzhenko Centre's work during the full-scale invasion of Russia in Ukraine

Quick info: Oleksandr Dozvhenko National Centre (Dovzhenko Centre) is the largest and the only internationally recognized film archive of Ukraine, containing over 10,000 Ukrainian and foreign feature, documentary and animation films and thousands of archive documents from the history of Ukrainian cinema.

Dovzhenko Centre does not only store and archive Ukrainian films but also promotes, studies and propagates the national cinematographic heritage among local and international communities.

On August 5, 2022, the Ukrainian State Film Agency issued an order on the "reorganization" of Dovzhenko Centre into several new legal entities, which de facto would have meant its liquidation, according to the Centre representatives.

The Ukrainian cultural community promptly responded to this event and rallied to the defense of Dovzhenko Centre. The petition to cancel the "reorganization" posted on the Cabinet of Ministers website gathered the required 25 thousand signatures in less than one month. And now the government must consider it.

At first, the operations of Dovzhenko Centre were paused. Some team members went abroad, some joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine. We had a significant load of responsibility for the Centre's collection comprising 10 thousand films stored on film and digitally, thousands of artifacts from the film archive collection and the Film Museum. There was a long period of uncertainty as to what to do with all that.

We consulted state authorities, the Ministry of Culture, the State Film Agency, but those institutions were also paralyzed at the time and did not function as they should have. Much international communication took place on the subject because the Ukrainian film collection is of global significance. We were offered support from abroad which we could not accept due to legal reasons—because the Dovzhenko Centre archive is property of the state.

Initially we attempted to organize evacuation to Lviv but encountered a number of bureaucratic obstacles. We then decided to take steps to ensure the safety of the film archive within the building of Dovzhenko Centre. But the film could not be transported anywhere because its preservation requires specific climatic conditions. So we left it in the storages and hoped nothing would "fly in." The danger level seems to have lowered now but that was quite a critical moment.

Previously, Dovzhenko Centre operated as a large hub where representatives of cultural industries created different things, organized various events. Our ideological vector has changed now, we revert from interdisciplinarity and focus as much as possible on cinematography, not to disperse the efforts since the team and resources lessened.

The desire is to do efficiently what we can do best: preserve and promote Ukrainian films.

Film production situation in Ukraine

In 2022 the Ministry of Culture, the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation and the State Film Agency froze all funding projects. So, movies are currently not financed by the state; they, including feature films, are made with private funds. The major part is not even documentaries but war chronicles.

It so happened that the principal film production investor in Ukraine is the state. The situation is not unique but most other countries boast more diversified funding, there are more foundations and other sources; the television also participates. In Ukraine, the state monopolized the matter. So these waves of activity emerging in film production often depend on specific people who work at the State Film Agency.

The state realized the value of cinematography in early 2010s and started allocating more money to make films. Open competitions and pitches emerged. Although they are questionable in several ways, the system created a certain free play for independent filmmakers. The number of producers, directors has increased.

The Revolution of Dignity significantly influenced the enthusiasm in this domain, the style of the Ukrainian cinematograph. The year of 2014 removed the ideological blinkers, more themes and films funded not only by the state came up.

The films due to be released in Ukraine in 2022 are now shown at international festivals. Distributors now have demand for classic Ukrainian films, and they arrange repeat premieres for those titles. Only Dovzhenko Centre had done this before. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Babylon XX, The White Bird Marked with Black are available for viewing by the general public in multiple Ukrainian cities.

It is too soon to outline any trends of how the full-scale war would change the Ukrainian cinematograph. Only one film, Sniper, was made and released during the war, and it is evidently a very quickly made film. Like with Maidan events, the transformation will certainly take place. There will be many war films, and this topic will become central to our culture for decades to come. There are a lot of things we need to reflect on.

The fight for Dovzhenko Centre

The state had never used the word liquidation. Every time different methods were applied to deprive Dovzhenko Centre of its agency.

On August 5 the State Film Agency very unexpectedly issued an order which envisaged the reorganization of Dovzhenko Centre into three separate entities, leaving a lot of questions unsettled and creating unprecedented risks for the Ukrainian film collection. Among other things, the order provided for the transfer of the Dovzhenko Centre film fund to the state institution "Scientific Centre for the Cinematography of Ukraine"—a fictitious organization existing only on paper and most probably used for various corruptive schemes.

Today's State Film Agency is people who have no cinematographic background, no authority in the professional industry and no experience in cultural management or film production projects. I suspect they do not entirely understand what Dovzhenko Centre is.

The abruptness and non-transparency of the "reorganization" decision make one think that someone may have influence on the State Film Agency. They are not capable of explaining why this is done, and what is meant by this. The impression is that this is simply some carve-up of property or land.

We are extremely grateful to the community for supporting us. Public petitions have been created protesting the Centre liquidation, colleagues from various sectors have written letters of support, and international film organizations have joined in. This illustrates that Dovzhenko Centre is not only our achievement, not just our institution and heritage: people understand the significance of this collection.

Lost names of the Ukrainian cinematograph

During Ukraine's pre-Soviet era, private filmmakers were the principal agents of the film industry. There were motion picture studios producing films, but those were very remote from what we now call films; they were rather short vignettes, around 10 minutes long. Theatre shows were often filmed and demonstrated without editing, this was an extremely popular format.

Films emerging at the time were called the "cinema of attraction." They were intended for viewing not in dark rooms but at some market, for entertainment and without sound. A good example is what Sakhnenko (Danylo Sakhnenko, a Ukrainian film director from Dnipro—editor's note) did in Katerynoslav then.

He participated in filming Zaporizka Sich, a blockbuster of the time, but the picture was lost. During the period, the culture of preservation and specialized institutions did not exist; there was not even an idea of that. Film was highly flammable and could blaze up at high temperatures. Besides, then the Bolsheviks came and destroyed everything rigorously.

The story of the four film frames which survived is slightly mythologized. None of the colleagues I talked to saw the frames or knew where they were.

Film production in Ukraine normalized in the 1920s; it was becoming marketed and received investments from the Bolshevik authorities. Sakhnenko did not continue to work in the cinematograph, possibly because the Soviets were very suspicious of everyone who had worked in the industry in the imperial times. But there is a feeling that this person could have given a lot to the Ukrainian cinema.

How Russia steals Ukrainian films

The original copies of all films released in the 50s and 60s were brought to Moscow, where the Ukrainian dubbing tracks were not taken for storage. Such films as Only "Old Men" Are Going Into Battle and Queen of the Gas Station had Ukrainian versions of the dubbing, but they were not preserved. There was one fantastic occasion when Ukrainian audio tracks for the film Chasing Two Hares were found in Mariupol.

Moscow had refused to return the films to Ukraine for a long time, giving the justification that we did not have the required storage conditions. Those conditions were later created in Ukraine, but after 2014, the communication became complicated.

We have a list of films stored in Moscow, including a dozen and a half of silent period titles and multiple titles dating back to the 60s. We made attempts to get them back until 2018. The films we find in European archives can be retrieved within one month, the process is straightforward there.

Ukrainian cinema abroad

The demand for Ukrainian cinema is crazy, this is certainly a trend. People abroad have a need to understand what Ukraine is; this is a new topic for them to research. They are just starting to grapple with the right rhetoric regarding Ukraine.

Over this year, Dovzhenko Centre organized 50 screenings overseas, another ten are scheduled in the coming months. Sometimes we show pictures the institutions request, and sometimes we give our recommendations. Kira Muratova is often asked for, as well as Earth and Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.

The podcast was recorded at the Media Laboratory of the Dnipro Center for Contemporary Culture.

Transcribing: Olia Vasylets.
Editing: Dinara Khalilova.
Design: Kateryna Skipochka.