Thursday, July 24, 2014

"In the Shadow" (on the Odessa Film Festival)

in the shadow


It may be hard to imagine ordinary life at the moment in the war-torn Ukraine. Certainly, it is a time of serious considerations among both its leaders and residents. In Ukraine’s decision to move forward to possible closer relationships with Europe, the country is also suffering financially and in need of Russian oil and gas resources, as some of their military and everyday citizens are being killed by separatist-Russian supported forces.     Despite these problems—or as the sponsors may argue “because” of them—a group of Odessa film enthusiasts, led by Julia Sinkevyich, determined to move ahead with a film festival in Odessa. 

     As the Los Angeles Times article by Steven Zeitchik reminded us, this Black Sea-side city of over one million citizens, was home to the 1905 worker’s revolution surrounding the Battleship Potemkin, where hundreds of its inhabitants were killed in side streets near the famed “Potemkin Steps.” Following the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, moreover, the city was occupied variously by the Ukrainian Tsentral’na Rada army, the French Army, the Red Army, and the White Army. The following year it became the capital of the Odessa Soviet Republic, and in 1920 was taken over by the Red Army, uniting it with the Ukrainian SSR to be swallowed up into the Soviet Union. Odessans suffered again from the famine of 1921-1922 caused by the Russian Civil War.      During World War II, the city was occupied by Romanian troops before being partially destroyed by retreating Red Army units. Just as Kiev, the city was land-mined. During the Axis occupation the city was put under siege (remembered as the Siege of Odessa), during which 25,000 citizens were murdered and 35,000 deported; eighty percent of the city’s and the region’s 210,000 Jews were killed. Fortunately, the Romanians refused to deport the remaining Jewish population to the extermination camps, allowing the survival of many Jews that would have been put to death in other regions of occupied eastern Europe.

     The Ukrainian city, in short, suffered throughout the 20th century, and the new signs of warfare are not lost on its citizens. Unlike other film festivals across the world, accordingly, the success of this festival was defined by the very fact that it occurred, surviving the criticisms of those Odessa citizens who opposed what they perceived as a frivolous art affair. Few major stars and directors showed up to the festival, but, as the Times article reported, director Stephen Frears, who came, in part, because of the city’s “immigrant-rich history.” Other directors such as Darren Aronofsky corresponded with the festival audiences through Skype, and acclaimed movies such and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and the 2014 Palme d’Or winner, Winter Sleep, were premiered. The festival favorite was the Ukrainian film, Blind Dates.          

     Sinkevyich herself admitted that the founders themselves almost got cold feet and were ready to cancel the event, particularly after the May 2nd clashes between Ukrainian supporters and Russian separatists in the city’s streets. Sinkevyich, feeling that Odessa citizens deserved some artistic distractions, launched a fund-raising campaign from it potential audience and called the director of the Sarajevo Film Festival, who had also dared to organize such an event during wartime activities, for advice. Balancing showings with moments of silence—particularly when news reached the celebrants that the Malaysian Airlines plane had been downed over the eastern city of Donetsk—the festival proved a blessed counter to the daily troubles faced by Ukrainians in general. 15,000 people showed up, so reports the Times, to a showing of a silent version of Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, accompanied by live orchestra, on the city’s Potemkin steps. The festival also showed several films dealing with revolutionary events within a non-competitive banner titled “Way to Freedom.” Among those films was Jehane Noujaim’s The Square on events in Egypt and Vlad Petri’s Where Are You Bucharest? on Romania.

     “We realized that with everything else going on,” concluded festival president Victoria Tigipko, “what people really might need is entertainment.”


Los Angeles, July 24, 2014

Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (July 2014).