294: Kyiv Film Archive in War

Archival Spaces 294

Ukrainian Film Archives in Peril

Uploaded 29 April 2022

Subway Refuge in Kyiv, March 2022

When the Giornate del cinema muto got its start in 1982 in Gemona, Italy, it was partially in response to a devastating earthquake that had rocked the area of Friuli in 1976, leaving its residents shell-shocked. I was reminded of that fact when recently reading about the Aleksandr Dovzhenko Center, the Ukrainian Film Archive, which has been organizing screenings in the subways of Kyiv and Kharkiv to cheer up shell-shocked residents.  According to several published reports, curators from the archive have been projecting Ukrainian silent animated and live-action comedy shorts, like Grandma’s Gift  (1920s), the silent feature, Adventures of Half a Rubel (1929, Aksel Lundin), as well as recently produced comedy features, like The Best Weekend (2022, Vladyslav Klimchuk) and Star Exchange (2021, Oleksiy Daruha).  As Maria Glazunova from the Dovzhenko Center noted on the Ukrainian website, Real Cinema, “These shows in the subway… help us survive in these difficult times.”

Aleksander Dovzhenko Center
Earth (1930, Aleksander Dovzhenko)

Named after Aleksandr Dovzhenko, the pioneering Soviet-Ukrainian film director of Arsenal (1929) and Earth (1930), the Aleksandr Dovzhenko Center was founded in Kyiv in 1994 on the site of the country’s largest film laboratory, taking over responsibility for Ukraine’s moving image preservation from Gosfilmofond, the Soviet/Russian film archives. According to the Archive’s website (https://dovzhenkocentre.org/en/about/), the Center houses more than 7,000 feature films, documentaries, Ukrainian and foreign animated films, and thousands of archival records from the history of Ukrainian cinema. The Archive now maintains modern climate-controlled film vaults, the only surviving film laboratory in Ukraine, a Cinema Museum, a non-film archive, a multimedia library, and a publishing department. Its mandate, like that of many archives in the Federation Internationale des Archivs du Film (FIAF), which it joined in 2003, is to promote, research, and distribute Ukraine’s national film legacy at home and abroad. Since 2013, the Center has been distributing films abroad and recently made In Spring (1929, Mikhail Kaufmann), an avant-garde documentary by Dziga Vertov’s brother, available to George Eastman Museum, which organized a benefit screening for victims of the Ukrainian war.

In Spring (1929, Mikhail Kaufmann)
The Man With the Movie Camera (1929, Dziga Vertov)

Ukraine has of course had a rich history of cinema. Mikhail Kaufmann shot Vertov’s avant-garde masterpiece, The Man with the Movie Camera (1929), in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Odesa, as well as several other documentaries.  The films were produced by VUFKU, the All-Ukrainian Photo Cinema Administration  (Всеукраїнське фото кіноуправління), which had been founded in 1922, but was closed down on orders of Stalin in 1930, its infrastructure becoming part of “Ukrainafilm” the Soviet owned Ukrainian Cinema Industry Trust. Other important directors of this period of Ukrainian national cinema included Petr Chardynin, Vladimir Gardin, Favst Lopatynsky, Marko Tereshchenko, and Ivan Kavaleridze.  According to Olena Goncharuk, the director of the Dovzhenko Center, many of the studio’s leading figures were imprisoned or executed (Lopatynsky) as Stalin suppressed the Ukrainian national revival. Kavaleridze and Dovzhenko were censored as Ukrainian nationalists, and Dovzhenko was forced to move to Moscow, basically in exile for the rest of his life. Until the death of Stalin in 1953, only a handful of Ukrainian language features were produced, but a new generation of Ukrainian directors then arose, including Leonid Bykov, Viktor Ivchenko, Yuro Illenko, Mikhail Vartanov (who I hosted at George Eastman Museum in the 1990s), Leonid Osyka, and Mykhailo Ilienko. However, the most famous Ukrainian film before the country regained its independence in 1991 was Sergei Parajanov’s Shadow of Our Forgotten Ancestors (1964).

The Guide (2014, Oles Sanin)

In the 2000s, Ukrainian films have gained increasing international attention, including Firecrosser (2011, Mikhail Ilenko), Such Beautiful People (2013, Dmytro Moyseyev), The Guide (2014, Oles Sanin), Julia Blue (2018, Roxy Toporowych), and the Academy Award-nominated Netflix documentary, Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom (2015, Evgeny Afineevsky).  

Until the founding of the Dovzhenko Center, Ukrainian film history was housed in Moscow. As Goncharuk noted: “All the films that were shot in Ukraine or with the participation of Ukrainian directors were moved to Russia to the Gosfilmofond archive.” Until the Ukrainian “Maidan Uprising” in 2013-14, removing Putin’s puppet from power, Gosfilmofond and the Dovzhenko were cooperating on the restitution of Ukrainian films to Kyiv, especially the films of Vertov and Kaufmann. However, communication between the organizations then stopped.

Dovzhenko Center Film Vaults
Aleksander Dovzhenko Film Center Exhibition Space

The war has had a devastating effect on the Dovzhenko Center. While a skeletal staff has been trying to protect the archive and organize film screenings at home and abroad, many of the Center’s curators and archivists have dispersed across Europe among the four million-plus Ukrainians who have been forced from their homes. As Goncharuk notes, a big part of the team, works distantly, including lawyers, the finance department, and researchers. One can only hope that the indiscriminate Russian bombing of civilian targets will spare Ukraine’s film history.

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (2015, Evgeny Afineevsky)

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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