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Discover Ukraine Through Film – Ukraine Under Foreign Empires & During the World Wars
30 April, 2020
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"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.

Looking at Ukraine’s earliest struggles for independence, these seven films will introduce you to some of Ukraine’s most important early 20th Century events and figures.

Can you name the Ukrainian ‘Robin Hood’? Which Ukrainian military figure had an episode of ‘Drunk History’ filmed about her? Which movie stars the grandson of Ukrainian acting legend Bohdan Stupka? Keep reading to discover these answers and learn about early modern Ukrainian history.

Ukraine Under Foreign Empires (1569 – 1917 CE)

Forbidden Empire (Viy 3D) (2014)

If it’s a stylish dark fantasy you’re after, then there is simply no better option than the Russian-Ukrainian production of "Forbidden Empire", based on Gogol’s horror novella ‘Viy’ (howl). A huge commercial success – even breaking opening weekend box office records in Russia – the film tells the story of an 18th Century cartographer that gets trapped in the impassible forests of the Ukrainian Carpathian Mountains. The film fuses Gogol’s original story of a young student battling a wicked witch at the behest of a group of Cossacks, with the true story of Guillaume Le Vasseur de Beauplan, the first foreigner to study and publish a book about the Ukrainian territory and its people. Full of secrets, riddles, and clever twists à la "National Treasure", "Forbidden Empire" is a wild and modern reimagining of one of Gogol’s most enthralling tales. Jason Flemyng stars as cartographer Jonathan Green, based on de Beauplan, landing the role over Hollywood heavyweights like Keanu Reeves, Pierce Brosnan, and Jason Statham. The film’s sequel starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan was released digitally in the USA on April 10 as "The Iron Mask."

Where to watch: On YouTube for free

Can I watch in English: Yes

Trailer: youtube.com/watch?v=CPcPtizGymc

Learn More: Mykola Gogol National Museum-Reserve, Gogoleve, Poltava region, 312 km east of Kyiv

Ukraine During the World Wars (1914 – 1945 CE)

Winter of the Braves (Kruty-18) (2019)

Modern Ukrainian cinema has begun to tell the stories that all Ukrainians know, but the world has yet to discover. Case in point – the Battle of Kruty, which is told in the ambitious "Winter of the Braves" project, filmed in Kyiv. The real-life battle is famed for uniting volunteer students, cadet forces, and free Cossacks under the Ukrainian banner for the first time – just days after the Ukrainian People’s Republic had announced its independence from Russia. A force of just over 500 students – some as young as 11 years old (!) – fought back Bolshevik forces of at least twice that size for over six hours. More than half of the Ukrainian heroes died or were executed afterwards, but they still managed to stall the Russian advance for several days, giving the Ukrainian government just enough time to ink the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers. The Battle of Kruty went unrecognised by Soviet historians and the Ukrainian state has made a conscious post-independence effort to educate the population about the importance of the events. The film was always designed to be more of a history lesson than a blockbuster, so you won’t find a lot of nuance in the script. That said, sometimes a history lesson is just that – a history lesson.

Where to watch: me On Megogo.net for with a 1 hryvnia 1-month trial or Oll.tv for free – megogo.net/ua/view/4193431-kruti-1918.html or oll.tv/uk/films/460757-kruti-1918

Can I watch in English: Not yet

Trailer: youtube.com/watch?v=IpO9ao3vTA4

Learn More: Kruty Heroes Memorial, Kruty, Chernihiv region, 175 km north-east of Kyiv

It’s all in the family: The actor that plays Symon Petliura, the President of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, is none other than Dmytro Stupka, the grandson of the great Bohdan Stupka!

Legion: Chronicle of the Ukrainian Galician Army 1918-19 (2015)

This fascinating documentary looks at one of the less-known Ukrainian military stories of the 20th Century – that of the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen, their incorporation into the Ukrainian Galician Army, and their role in the Russo-Polish War. Attracting many Western Ukrainian youth, including Plast co-founder Ivan Chmola, the Ukrainian Galician Army played a critical role in the defence of a young West Ukrainian People’s Republic. The film looks at the complicated relationship between Ukrainians and Poles at the beginning of the century and delves into character motivations for joining the armed struggle. With a screenplay penned by local historian Oleksandr Pahier, the story is based on eyewitness accounts and meticulous reconstructions. Ukraine’s first documentary to be filmed in 4K, the result is a beautiful history lesson on the oft-overlooked West Ukrainian People’s Republic and its army.

Where to watch: At Documentary.org.ua for free

Can I watch in English? No, but Ukrainian subtitles are available

Trailer: documentary.org.ua/en/legion/trailer/

Learn More: Museum of the Ukrainian Liberation Movement, 23A M. Lysenko St., Lviv, 543 km west of Kyiv

Indestructible (aka Battle for Sevastopol) (Nezlamna) (2015)

For any fans of sniper movies out there, the Ukrainian-Russian production of "Indestructible" is must-watch viewing. Set during the early days of the German invasion of the Soviet Union during the Second World War, it tells the story of the greatest woman sniper that ever lived – Ukraine’s Lyudmila Pavlychenko, better known as "Lady Death." While the film takes some liberties, especially regarding romance, the basic tenets of the real-life version are there. Lady Death killed 187 Germans in her first 75 days during the Battle of Odesa and by the time she was through, her 309 kills – 39 against fellow snipers in cat-and-mouse type battles – were the fifth-most of any Soviet sniper during the Second World War. Used later as a propaganda piece for the Soviet government, she toured the USA to drum up support for the war (before the American entry) where she became the first Soviet citizen to be received by an American President and visit the White House and famously befriended First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She also caused a stir by chiding American men, saying “I am 25 years old and have killed 309 fascist invaders by now. Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?” Released shortly after the Russian invasion of Crimea, the movie was still a success in both countries. Popular well after its release, it was one of the Top 100 most-viewed films on Amazon in January 2017.

Where to watch: On Amazon Prime from 34 hryvnias 

Can I watch in English: Yes

Trailer: youtube.com/watch?v=lpO9ao3vTA4

Learn More: National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War, under the famous Motherland Monument in Kyiv

Bits & Bites: For a quick version of the story, check out the "Drunk History" episode on Pavlychenko, starring actors like Mae Whitman, Rob Riggle, and Louie Anderson 

The Undefeated (Neskorenyi) (2000)

To be sure, any film about the radical independence group Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists and its leaders is bound to be controversial. But you’ll never learn what history teaches if you simply ignore the complicated and controversial. "The Undefeated" looks at the post-WWII life of Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) leader Roman Shukhevych. By focusing on his later life and struggle for independence against the Soviets, the film conveniently leaves out some of the more complicated material, including the group’s assassinations of Polish intelligentsia and ethnic targeting of non-Ukrainian groups. Still, Shukhevych is revered in some circles for fighting against all of Ukraine’s occupiers of the time – the Poles, the Germans (although the group famously worked with the Nazis for a time as well), the Czechs, the Hungarians, and the Soviets. The rather tame telling of Shukhevych’s later years ends with a dramatic standoff in his Carpathian "kryivka" (hideout). To get a taste of what UPA’s WWII-era "kryivkas" were really like, head to Lviv’s popular UPA-themed restaurant "Kryivka", located mysteriously “somewhere on Rynok Square”.

Where to watch: On YouTube for free

Can I watch in English? There are English versions of the DVD, but the online film is in Ukrainian, although interestingly – the film’s postface is in both English and Ukrainian

Trailer: youtube.com/ watch?v=YdQlKZwtKA8

Learn More: Museum of General-Lieutenant of the UIA Roman Shukhevych (Lviv Historical Museum),  6 Rynok Sq., Lviv, 543 km west of Kyiv

Homecoming (Haytarma) (2013)

Soviet Ukraine suffered its fair share of hardships during and between the two world wars, but among the most egregious episodes was the Soviet forced exile of the Crimean Tatars in 1944. "Homecoming" (Haytarma) tells this terrible tale through the eyes of Crimean Tatar pilot Amet-khan Sultan – twice a Hero of the Soviet Union. Sultan was home on furlough when the operation took place and witnessed it firsthand. In the span of 72 hours, over 180,000 Crimean Tatars were given just 30 minutes to pack before being herded onto overcrowded cattle cars and shipped on a nearly one-month journey to Uzbekistan, where they were forcibly exiled. With no windows or air, little food and water, and disease rampant, nearly 8,000 would perish before the journey was through. Produced by Crimean Tatar television station ATR, and directed by Crimean Tatar director Akhtem Seitablaiev, "Homecoming" is the first feature film to tell this story and showcases the culture and traditions of one of Ukraine’s least understood peoples, including the Crimean Tatar national dance, the haytarma. After being allowed to return only at the end of the USSR, history would repeat itself just one year after the release of the film when Russia annexed Crimea and many Tatars were again forced to leave. While not officially part of the film, Ukrainian-Crimean Tatar singer Jamala’s Eurovision-winning hit "1944" was inspired by these events, which her great-grandmother lived through, and has become intimately linked to the production.

Where to watch: On ATR TV’s YouTube channel for free

Can I watch in English: No. The film is in Russian with Ukrainian subtitles

Trailer: youtube.com/watch?v=Qar4cbHB53s

Learn More: Amet-Khan Sultan Museum, Alupka, Crimea (currently occupied by Russia, but one can enter from mainland Ukraine)

Dovbush – Lord of Black Mountain (November 2020)

Likely the most highly-anticipated film in Ukrainian cinema history, the newest story of the Ukrainian Robin Hood, Oleksa Dovbush, is set for release this November. With a budget of 90 million hryvnias (over $3.3 million), "Dovbush" promises to be a lush retelling of the classic tale of the leader and his band of merry "opryshky" (insurgents). Dovbush was known for fighting the evil Polish overlords and giving money to the poor, peasant mountain folk. Filmed in some of the most beautiful regions of the Ukrainian Carpathian Mountains – the band’s "Sherwood Forest" – with stunning costuming and cinematography to match, "Dovbush" promises to feature the ancient mystical traditions that make the Hutsuls one of Ukraine’s most fascinating ethnic groups. The film comes on the heels of a valiant, but flawed 2018 attempt to tell the story that featured the likes of Druha Rika’s Valeriy Kharchyshyn as Dovbush and Mariya Yaremchuk (Ukraine’s 2014 Eurovision entry) as his love interest in "Legend of the Carpathians". The newer "Dovbush" is in the talented hands of director Oles Sanin, known for his beautiful 2013 hit "The Guide".

Where to watch: Not yet released

Can I watch in English? Undetermined

Trailer: No trailer yet, but you can watch an interview (in Ukrainian) with the director

Learn more: Oleksa Dovbush Museum, Ivano-Frankivsk, 623 km west of Kyiv

/By Lee Reaney