Discover Ukraine Through Film – Independence to Revolution
11 May, 2020
"Discover Ukraine Through Film" is a project by journalist Lee Reaney teaching Ukrainian history through cinematography.

Stuck at home and looking for something to watch? Why not use the time to brush up on your Ukrainian history? We’ve compiled the definitive list of 50 films to guide you through 1,000 years of Ukrainian history.

For millions of Ukrainians here and around the world, the 1991 act of independence was a dream that seemed almost too good to believe had come true – and you know what they say about things too good to be true… In this episode of "Discover Ukraine Through Film," we’ll discover the euphoria of independence, the growing dissatisfaction that things weren’t turning out as planned, and how Ukrainians learned to cope. From the joy of the Ukrainian diaspora exploring their ancestors’ homeland, to overcoming the "Russification" of the state, to the massive social movements that captured the world’s attention, let’s take a look at the first quarter-century of Ukrainian independence.

Independent Ukraine (1991 – 2004 CE)

He Who Awakened the Stone State (Toy, Shcho Probudyv Kamyanu Derzhavu) (2006)

Perhaps no figure ties together the periods of Soviet Ukraine and Independent Ukraine better than dissident, freedom fighter, and presidential candidate Vyacheslav Chornovil. While many of Ukraine’s most important events and figures have received a modern cinematic treatment in Ukraine’s Golden Age of film, Chornovil isn’t yet one of them. To date, the best portrayal of this crucial figure is the "He Who Awakened the Stone State" documentary commissioned by the party he led, the People’s Movement of Ukraine (Rukh). Using as a motif a traditional Ukrainian folktale about a boy who awakes to a frozen state around him and must discover how to wake everyone, the film chronicles the people and events that shaped this patriot’s life. From his emergence as a dissident hero while protesting at the premiere of "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" alongside other dissidents like Vasyl Stus (both the film and Stus were featured in the Soviet Ukraine feature of this series), to his time in exile at a Soviet camp for political prisoners, to his election as Lviv region’s first governor and run for president in 1991, to his tragic death in 1999, "He Who Awakened the Stone State" uses archival footage and actors to re-enact key moment’s of the leader’s life. Not as sleek as some of the other documentaries we recommend, the film is at any rate reflective of the state of Ukrainian cinema in the 2000s. Often considered Ukraine’s Lech Walesa, Chornovil is famed for popularising the protest slogan "Glory to Ukraine" (Slava Ukrayini) and was instrumental in supporting 1990’s student-led Revolution on Granite, the successful forerunner to future revolutions featured later in this article.

Where to watch: On YouTube for free

Can I watch in English: No, the film is in Ukrainian without subtitles

Trailer: No trailer

Learn More: Vyacheslav Chornovil Estate-Museum, Vilkhovets village, Zvenyhorodka disctrict, Cherkasy region, 200 km south of Kyiv

Everything is Illuminated (2005)

In Hollywood’s first treatment of Ukraine since 1962’s "Taras Bulba" (featured in the Kyivan Rus & Cossack Ukraine feature of this series), "Everything is Illuminated" focuses on a popular pastime of the Ukrainian diaspora – a return to the motherland in search of ancestors and answers. Directed by Liev Schreiber from the cinematic Marvel Universe and TV’s "Ray Donovan", and starring Elijah Wood, fresh from his role as Frodo in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, and Eugene Hütz, lead singer of iconic Ukrainian punk band Gogol Bordello, the story was adapted by Schreiber for the big screen from Jonathan Safran Foer’s bestselling novel. Mixing the odd with the poignant, the film explores Ukrainian tropes of the day – the love for dated American pop culture, comically hackneyed English from so-called “gopniks”, and complete confusion at the concept of vegetarianism – with profoundly more complicated concepts, like Ukraine’s relationship with anti-Semitism. While a hit with critics – Roger Ebert gave it 3 of 4 stars saying it was worth a second screening – "Everything is Illuminated" was a box office flop. That said, the film’s fabulous soundtrack remains popular today and features Hütz’s Gogol Bordello, famous for their collaborations with Madonna, and other bands still popular today. So, if you’re wondering what it was like to explore the newly open Ukraine, there are few surer films than this.

Where to watch: On YouTube from 50 hryvnias or on Amazon Prime or Apple TV

Can I watch in English: Yes


Learn More: Jewish Memory & Holocaust in Ukraine Museum, Dnipro, 480 km south-east of Kyiv

The Nightingale Sings (Solovey Spivaye) (2019)

Language in Ukraine – where Ukrainian is the only official language, yet many speak Russian daily – has often been used in political contexts leading to a divide in societies. To see for yourself, just ask a Ukrainian for their opinion of language in Ukraine. That’s exactly what the 2019 documentary "The Nightingale Sings" does, becoming the first film to take a detailed, academic look at this complicated issue. Producer and writer Lesya Voronyuk was inspired to explore the issue in an effort to counter modern Russian narratives and disinformation. She assembled a team of prominent academics to help with the research, including Ukrainian professor Larysa Masenko, known for specialising in "linguicide" (the death of a language through political means). This patriotic film compares Ukraine’s experience with language to other countries where language has been a defining modern political issue – like Belarus and Israel – and explores how both the historical efforts of Ukrainian invaders and current Russian disinformation affect modern Ukrainian language. Aimed primarily at Russian speakers in Ukraine, the film is shown for free to the Ukrainian soldiers who fought in the Donbas, school students, and university classes. Though not yet available in English, "The Nightingale Sings" is required viewing to fully understand how Ukraine continues to build its modern identity.

Where to watch: The film is expected to be released online soon. Follow the film’s official Facebook page for more details

Can I watch in English: Not yet, although an English translation is expected


Learn More: Institute for the Ukrainian Language, Kyiv


The ‘Forgotten’ Revolution: For readers interested in another prominent protest, 2001’s Ukraine Without Kuchma movement, check out the Ukrainian-language 2003 documentary "The Face of Protest" (Oblychchia Protestu) on YouTube here.

A key dress rehearsal for 2004’s Orange Revolution, the Ukraine Without Kuchma protests were led by future Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko and future Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko who also participated in Ukraine’s future revolutions.

Revolutionary Ukraine (2004-2014 CE)

Orange Revolution (2007)

It’s often overlooked now because of the tragedies during the Revolution of Dignity, but when Ukrainian protesters were able to peacefully overturn fraudulent elections during the 17-day Orange Revolution, there was elation and a sense that Ukraine had finally turned the page on its undemocratic recent past. Ukrainians were proud to have done something that no other post-Soviet state had done – limit the power of politicians through popular protests – and a few documentarians have attempted to tell their story. We recommend Steve York’s crisp "Orange Revolution", the festival darling featured on the International Centre for Nonviolent Conflict’s website. York ably guides us through the story of Viktor Yushchenko’s poisoning, the initial vote that was rife with fraud, the millions of Ukrainians that took to Kyiv’s freezing streets in protest, and the political pressure applied to election officials. Taking its name from Yushchenko’s party colours, the Orange Revolution was a special time for Ukrainians, who were just beginning to experiment with the freedoms they had won through independence. Strangers slapped hands in the streets, stores sold out of anything orange, and even the protest’s anthem, Green Jolly’s earworm "Together We Are Many" (Razom Nas Bahato), was the country’s strange selection for Eurovision.  Yushchenko would eventually claim the presidency in a special runoff vote but, as Ukraine-watchers are well aware, he was unable to implement many of the democratic changes he promised. Still, the events of the second successful Maidan revolution (after the Revolution on Granite) paved the way for the bravery, confidence, and coordination that the next major revolution would require.

Where to watch:

Can I watch in English: Yes, in Ukrainian with English voiceover


Learn More: National Museum of History, 3rd Floor, Kyiv

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (Zyma u Vohni: Borotba Ukraiyini za Svobodu) (2015)

Like the previous revolution, several filmmakers have had a go at the Revolution of Dignity (aka Euromaidan), Ukraine’s third successful revolution in 25 years. While there are several that are worthy of your time, we recommend starting with Netflix’s Oscar- and Emmy-nominated "Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom". The film competently chronicles the 93-day revolution, from its beginning as a student protest of President Yanukovych’s abrupt turn away from Europe to its emergence as a fully-fledged human rights revolution. An audience pleaser at festivals from Toronto to Telluride, "Winter on Fire" still holds a 93% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, making it one of the most popular documentaries of all-time. For those that experienced it, the remarkable mobilisation of much of the country behind clear shared ideals was an emotionally captivating and unforgettable experience. Ukraine’s powerful message of protest to power has inspired movements the world over – from the streets of Caracas, Venezuela to the uprising in Hong Kong. The protesters who lost their lives at the hands of the government are now labeled the Heavenly Hundred and there are several emotionally moving museums and monuments in their honour. Their sacrifice is perhaps best marked by the confidence Ukrainian people gained in knowing that it is them – not the government – that hold the power in Ukraine and by the blossoming of a true, modern Ukrainian identity that has led to cultural renaissances in many Ukrainian industries – including inspiring Ukraine’s Golden Age of film.

Where to watch: On Netflix with a 235 hryvnia per month subscription.

Can I watch in English: Yes, the film was made for an English audience


Learn More: National Memorial to the Heavenly Hundred Heroes and Revolution of Dignity Museum, Kyiv


/By Lee Reaney