Discover Ukraine Through Film – Modern Ukraine
16 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. 

The Revolution of Dignity fundamentally changed Ukraine and continues to shape its future, so this week we look at how the country has changed and what contemporary Ukraine really looks like. Discover Ukraine’s different people and places through the "Ukraïner" project; explore how fighting a war with Russia impacts Ukrainians through films like "Julia Blue" and "The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov"; get inspired by the successes of Ukraine’s Paralympians; and view the show that turned a comedian into a President with "Servant of the People 2". After viewing this week’s films, you’ll have a clear understanding of what Ukraine is like right now and where Ukrainians hope to see the country go in the future. 

Modern Ukraine (2014 CE – Present)

Ukraïner: The Movie (2019)

Contemporary Ukraine is more than just war and revolution; and the "Ukraïner" multimedia project was specifically designed to showcase modern Ukraine and Ukrainians. Save for living here yourself, there is simply no better way to discover the country. Starting in 2016, Ukrainian journalist Bohdan Logvynenko and his team set about discovering their own country and putting their experiences to video. The YouTube page now features nearly 400 videos of some of the most interesting people and places in Ukraine. Simply put, it is the single best way to experience Ukraine without traveling here yourself. You can learn about ancient professions, one-of-a-kind folk traditions, off-the-beaten-path tourism ideas, famous companies, and Ukrainian celebrities. Along the way, you are guaranteed to discover something new. The "Ukraïner" website divides these videos by region and theme, allowing you to focus on what area of Ukraine you are looking to discover. The project has inspired a book, "Ukraïner: The Country Inside", and a feature-length film – "Ukraïner: The Movie", which takes viewers on a journey through the lives of six Ukrainians from different parts of the country. Combining their ways of life, livelihood, and culture into a single story, the film shows an ordinary day in Ukraine through the lives of these six extraordinary Ukrainians. For his work on the project, Logvynenko has been nominated for the prestigious 2020 Georgiy Gongadze Award for independent journalists. No matter whether you’re looking to discover Ukraine’s history, modern economy, cultural traditions, current celebrities, or find interesting travel ideas, "Ukraïner" should be the place where you begin your journey.

Where to watch: For free on the Ukraïner website or on YouTube

Can I watch in English: In Ukrainian, with English subtitles


Learn More: There is plenty of content to discover on the Ukraïner website and YouTube page. For regular updates, including new material, be sure to follow the Ukraïner Facebook page

Servant of the People 2 (Sluha Narodu 2) (2016)

There is simply no post-independence media property that has influenced Ukraine more than "Servant of the People", a show about a schoolteacher who unexpectedly gets elected president of Ukraine after his political rant goes viral. The show didn’t launch the career of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who was already a popular celebrity, but it is difficult to imagine him becoming the real President Zelenskyy without it. Launched post-Maidan, "Servant of the People" serves as both a satire of the contemporary political environment and an ideal world where Ukrainians can imagine a president they elected take on corrupt political and economic interests. The success of the first season, which you can find on Netflix, is unprecedented. Not only was it the No. 1 show in Ukraine, but it spawned two more seasons (with another in the works), an American reboot on Fox (in development), and the political party that launched Zelenskyy’s political career. It also led to a film, "Servant of the People 2", that has the likable fictional president forced to work with his political enemy to take on corrupt oligarchs – a situation inspired by real-life events between former Presidents and Prime Ministers Viktor Yushchenko, Viktor Yanukovych, and Yuliya Tymoshenko. Set after season one, the film was nominated for three Golden Dzygas (Ukrainian Oscars), for Best Film, Best Actor (Zelenskyy), and Best Supporting Actor (Yevhen Koshovyi). "Servant of the People" is required viewing to understand contemporary Ukrainian politics and the hopes and dreams Ukrainians put in their political leaders. 

Where to watch: For free on YouTube

Can I watch in English: The film is in Russian / Ukrainian, but YouTube provides unofficial subtitles


Learn More: Try to watch season one of "Servant of the People", which comes with Netflix’s-own subtitling, before watching the film. No word yet on when seasons two and three will be added.

Julia Blue (2018)

"Julia Blue" is one of those films that could have been featured in several of our articles. Directed and produced by Roxy Toporowych, an American director from the diaspora, the film tells of a love story between an idealistic volunteer nurse from western Ukraine and a grizzled soldier with PTSD from eastern Ukraine. Exploring how hopes and dreams are impacted by current events, the story hits home for far too many Ukrainians, which is why we feature it here instead of the Ukraine at War or Ukrainian Diaspora articles. Less a movie about war or politics, Toporowych has crafted a charming character-driven story that looks at how revolution and war really impact the lives and dreams of Ukrainians. Starring Dima Yaroshenko, who played Vasyl Stus in "Forbidden" (featured in the Independence to Revolution article of this series), and newcomer Polina Snisarenko, the film was shot entirely in Ukraine and produced in the United States. A festival favorite, it has already picked up awards at the prestigious Gotham Independent Film Awards and the Arctic Film Festival, where it won Best Film. Beautifully shot and featuring many modern Ukrainian traditions, "Julia Blue" is a great way to discover how the war impacts your average, everyday Ukrainian citizen.

Where to watch: On from 145 hryvnias ($5.45)

Can I watch in English: The movie is in Ukrainian with English subtitles


Learn More: To learn more about how Ukraine helps its war veterans, check out the website for the State Service of Ukraine for War Veterans & ATO Participants

The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov (2017)

A simple reality in post-revolutionary Ukraine is just how rapidly relations with Russia have deteriorated. While we looked in detail at the causes in our Ukraine at War feature, the poor relations have reached all spheres of life – from sports and technology to culture and art. Take, for example, the case of Oleg Sentsov, the Crimean film director who was imprisoned in Russia for five years. Arrested in post-annexation Crimea for “plotting terrorism acts”, the director was sentenced to 20 years in prison in Russia before his release in September 2019. After the release of Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko, Sentsov was Ukraine’s highest-profile prisoner in Russia. In fact, he was involved in Ukraine’s most prominent prisoner exchange, along with the sailors detained in the 2018’s Kerch Strait incident (see the Ukraine at War article of this series), in a deal that saw key MH17 (see the Ukraine at War article of this series) eyewitness Volodomyr Tsemakh, a Ukrainian citizen, turned over to Russia. "The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov" recaps the events that led to his capture, his detainment and alleged torture, and his trial – labeled a “judicial farce” by Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a “show trial” by the E.U, U.S, Amnesty International, and European Film Academy. For a fascinating and frustrating look at how easily justice can be selectively applied – a fact known all too well to Ukrainians – "The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov" is a good place to start.

Where to watch: From 124 hryvnias ($4.66) on Vimeo 

Can I watch in English: In Ukrainian, with English subtitles


Learn More: Museum of Political Prisoners, Ternopil

READ MORE: Oleg Sentsov's First Interview Following Release From Russian Prison

Pulse (Spring 2020)

It may come as a surprise, but Ukraine has emerged as a modern Paralympic powerhouse. This comes despite poor infrastructure for people with impairments, an ongoing war that drains the state budget from fully supporting activities like Paralympic sport, and the annexation of Ukraine’s Paralympic training base in Crimea. While Ukraine had its poorest Olympic showing in Rio in 2016 with just 11 medals and two gold (31st place), the Paralympic team had its best: 117 medals and 41 gold – 3rd best in the world! This has inspired hundreds of stories of Ukrainian Para athletes overcoming some of the biggest barriers anywhere in the sports world, including that of Paralympic champion Oksana Boturchuk, told in the upcoming film ‘Pulse’. Portrayed by Nataliya Babenko, who needed six months to get into shape to play the athlete, Boturchuk was training to become an Olympic athlete when she lost most of her sight in a car accident.  Instead of giving up, she learned how to run "blind", thanks in part to the support of her coach, played by Stanislav Boklan (Zelenskyy’s Prime Minister in the "Servant of the People" series). She then went on to become one of Ukraine’s most decorated Paralympic athletes, winning seven medals at three Paralympic Games, including gold in Beijing in 2018. The success of Ukraine’s Paralympic movement is largely due to wise investment in Paralympic sport by Ukraine’s Paralympic President Valeriy Shukhevych, so it’s easy to picture more full-length Para sports dramas like "Pulse" in the future. The film’s debut was set just days after quarantine began, so expect to see this film in cinemas as soon as they reopen.

Meet a Paralympic champion! If you’d like to meet Paralympic champion Oksana Boturchuk, she will be hosting the ‘Running & Willpower: A Conversation With a Paralympic Champion’ event online on 20 May at 7 p.m. Kyiv time

Where to watch: For updates on the new release date of the film, follow the film on Facebook

Can I watch in English: Undetermined


Learn More: West Sports Centre (Paralympic Training Base), Yavoriv, Lviv region

Killing Pavel (2017)

While the Revolution of Dignity has impacted many parts of modern Ukrainian culture, it has yet to significantly impact the trust Ukrainians place in their systems – politicians, police, judges, and even journalists. Press freedom as an issue in Ukraine dates to long before independence, but has been a continued struggle in independent Ukraine. Take, for example, the 2000 assassination of investigative journalist and Ukrayinska Pravda (Ukrainian Truth) founder Georgiy Gongadze. He was killed after looking into corruption in the presidential entourage, with some speculation falling on then-Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, leading to the Ukraine Without Kuchma protests (featured in the Independence to Revolution article of this series). What the Revolution of Dignity provided, though, was a space for new independent news organizations like Hromadske and Espresso to compete with oligarch-controlled national media channels. What the revolution didn’t change, however, was the desire from certain circles to silence some journalists. Like award-winning investigative journalist Pavel Sheremet, who was murdered in a July 2016 car bomb. To date, no one has been tried or imprisoned for the crime. At the time, Hromadske’s investigative unit, in cooperation with the International Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, looked at the evidence and produced the findings in the documentary "Killing Pavel". The film shows both the talent of contemporary investigative journalists in Ukraine and the unsafe environment in which they are forced to work and is a testament to the talent of journalists like Gongadze and Sheremet that gave their lives for their profession. Today, Ukraine’s leading award for investigative journalists is named for Gongadze, while the E.U’s Eastern Partnership offers an award to “courage in journalism” in honor of Sheremet.

Georgiy Gongadze Award Ceremony: For the first time, this year’s ceremony will take place online. You can watch the ceremony on May 21 at 7.15 p.m. Kyiv time here.

Where to watch: For free on YouTube

Can I watch in English: In Ukrainian, with English subtitles

Trailer: No trailer

Learn More: You can find Hromadske International’s announcement of the film here

/By Lee Reaney