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Corona 1-Culture 0: The New C Word Takes the Stage in Ukraine
31 March, 2020
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State-owned film company Derzhkino to lose some funding through government plans to boost coronavirus budget. Photo: depositphotos

Ukrainian musicians, filmmakers, artists, theatrical workers have lost the opportunity to make a living with the introduction of quarantine: concerts, exhibitions, and festivals in Ukraine have been canceled or postponed due to the epidemic. As the initial shock began to wear off, artists went online: for the second straight week, concerts, theatrical performances, exhibitions, and other cultural events are taking place on the Internet. But Ukrainian cultural institutions hadn’t even recovered before the Cabinet threw even more shocking news: they want to cut spending on culture.

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A bill has been registered by the Ukrainian government that proposed changes to the 2020 state budget due to the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and the consequent quarantine.

"The draft Law of Ukraine stipulates for the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine to be provided with financial resources to take prompt action to counteract the negative effects of the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus infection and support economic activity in the country," reads the explanatory note to the bill.

The Cabinet proposed reducing budget revenues by UAH 122.9 billion ($4.4 billion). There are also plans to create a special coronavirus fund to the tune of UAH 97.1 billion ($3.5 billion): the funds will be spent on purchasing medical equipment, social protection of the population and replenishment of the reserve fund.

Part of the money was to be taken from the Ukrainian Cultural Fund (UCF), Derzhkino (the State Film Agency), the Book Institute, the Holodomor Museum, the Museum of the Revolution of Dignity (not yet built), and the tourism industry. Yet, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal was insistent that cultural expenditures will be spared.

During an extraordinary session of the Ukrainian parliament on March 30 where proposed amendments were considered, the parliament failed to adopt the proposed changes and the bill was annulled.

Online rally against funding cuts

A few days after the news emerged, cultural figures organized an online rally. A thousand people joined the event – with only technical capacity preventing many more.

The director of the Odesa International Film Festival and co-founder of the Ukrainian Film Academy, Julia Sinkevych, moderated the virtual meeting. Directors in attendance included Nariman Aliev, Marysia Nikitiuk, Nadiya Parfan, Pavlo Ostrikov, Yaroslav Lodygin, Maxim Kurochkin and many others. Pylyp Illyenko, Irma Vitovska, MPs Mykola Knyazhytskyi and Pavlo Sushko also took the floor.

In the comments, people wrote: "No to the destruction of culture!", "The cultural process is the basis of societal progress." However, the bewildered and shocked speakers failed to make any concrete statements – their main message being: the authorities should engage in dialogue with cultural institutions and figures.

READ MORE: “Coronavirus Took My Job”: People Who Lost Their Jobs During the Quarantine

"It's like [back to the ‘90s for the film industry]. We have been nurturing it – four decent pieces came out in January, competitions on film quality have appeared, and now it may all just collapse. One year of downtime is minus ten years. A compromise must be sought. Culture, which we’re constantly degrading, motivates and creates a person, it creates a moral code and forms critical thinking. It is the fundamental basis of any society. Medicine, of course, should come first, as should police, firefighters, but let's talk. It is very strange to me that they don’t come to talk, and culture is just axed,” said the actress Vitovska.

Toward the end of the rally, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Humanitarian and Information Policy Oleksandr Tkachenko joined the conversation. The only thing he said was that UAH 200 million ($7.1 million) has been added to the new draft budget for Derzhkino, and UAH 50 million ($1.8 million) for capital construction, although he allegedly did not even know the construction in question.

"The discussion will be difficult, I know that many committees seriously oppose this approach in discussing the budget, so I hope that they will listen to us," the former head of 1+1 media group concluded.

A new post appeared on Tkachenko's Facebook page on March 29:

“Over the course of the night, the draft budget has undergone [some negative] changes for culture. The film industry will get UAH 450 million ($16 million) (although UAH 50 million ($1.8 million) debt was lost along the way) and there will be no cuts for the theaters, plus everything is also ok for museums." But he noted that "the funding of the UCF (Ukrainian Cultural Fund – ed.) and the Book Institute is almost completely gone, and that the UA:PBC (National Public Broadcasting Company of Ukraine – ed.) will be in danger of being closed."

What does the cultural sphere have to say?

In response to the Cabinet's initiative, cultural luminaries wrote several letters to the government asking them not to make such drastic moves and seek a solution to the situation together with cultural curators.

When the director of the Mystetskyi Arsenal (Art Arsenal), Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta, spoke to hromadske, she said that a letter from cultural curators was intended to initiate a dialogue with the authorities. However, that did not happen:

“Experts should be involved in such decisions. We are ready to engage intellectually to develop a smart plan of action. The point is not that spending cuts should not go ahead. The point is that the reduction should be reasonable. It is crucial that we do not end up with ruined institutions after the quarantine. Culture is like an iceberg. If you are not involved in the production, you only see the tip. But there are a lot of things underwater, and they are worth keeping. ”

A similar appeal to Parliament was made by the State Cinematographic Support Council, which was published by its signatories on Facebook. Among them was the founder of the legendary "Zhovten" cinema in Kyiv, Liudmyla Gordeladze. “We demand that the destruction of Ukrainian cinema is stopped and that the government change its approach to the revision of the 2020 budget articles. Without national cinema, Ukraine will have no future!” the appeal reads.

What will become of the cultural projects?

Ukrainian cinema has just started to get back on track, and cultural institutions are actively working with foreign partners. However, there is not enough money for full-fledged development. And if MPs decide to cut the budget to the institutions, it could roll Ukrainian culture back by a decade.

READ MORE: Are Foreign Filmmakers Key to Boost Ukrainian Cinema?

According to the latest figures, the Ukrainian Cultural Fund should receive UAH 150 million ($5.3 million) from the budget instead of the previously stated 400 ($14.3 million). UCF Director Yulia Fediv said the following in a comment to hromadske: “It is sad and painful. But we will exist in spite of everything even in the new conditions. It will be our task to fight for the 2021 budget.”

In the case of budget cuts, many cultural projects will either be "frozen" or not be implemented due to a lack of funds.

Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk's film “Pamfir” was the winner of last year's 11th Derzhkino Pitching. Some of the money – 30% – was received just before the end of 2019. The team was already casting, rehearsing, and in the spring they had plans to start building scenery. But then the quarantine began.

Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk says that if the project does not receive the next tranches from Derzhkino, it will result in a number of problems:

"Our film is co-produced with Poland and Switzerland. The biggest danger for us is that if Derzhkino does not give the second portion of the money, other countries may also refuse funding. In 2-3 years they will cancel the grants we have won and we will have to do everything from scratch. For the international community, it will seem like Ukraine is an unreliable partner who should not be given money. It will be a significant reputational loss that is difficult to recover."

Another winner of last year's pitching was Maksym Nakonechny’s film "Spas" (‘Savior’). The team also received part of the budget that was subsequently spent on pre-production. At the end of March, they had to report on their work to Derzhkino. The next shootings are set to begin in May but work was suspended due to the quarantine.

“It would be good if the state at least supported the financing of those projects for which contracts have already been signed. If we do not receive the next installment and now postpone the work for a year, it will turn out that we have wasted 30% of the money given to us,” Nakonechny told hromadske.