Discover Ukraine Through Film – Ukrainian Diaspora
18 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. 

Political suppression, lack of economic opportunity, family reunification – there are some good reasons why the Ukrainian diaspora is believed to be up to 20 million-strong. For over 125 years Ukrainians have been sharing their work ethic, food, and culture with the world around them. These groups of Ukrainians abroad experienced their own problems, including discrimination and even internment, as "That Never Happened" delves into. Yet, through it all, the Ukrainian diaspora looked at preserving traditional Ukrainian culture as its raison d’être. The diaspora became home to many of the most outspoken critics of empires that occupied "the motherland" and focused on preserving folk traditions like Ukrainian dancing, which we look at in "Folk!". Some of these Ukrainians – like Jack Palance, Kvitka Cisyk, and Wayne Gretzky – became legends in their respective fields, which director Volodomyr Mula looks at in his documentary trilogy on recent Ukrainian emigration. The Ukrainian diaspora is notable for their ability to retain Ukrainian language – even generations after immigrating, their passionate love of Ukrainian folk culture, and the relentless craving to visit their homeland and meet their ancestors. With vast differences between diaspora groups based on where and when they emigrated, they share at least one thing in common – their love of Ukraine.

Ukrainian Diaspora (1880 CE – Present)

Ukrainian-Canadians: A Time to Remember (1988)

Aired in 1988, near the end of the Soviet Union, "Ukrainian-Canadians: A Time to Remember" provides a unique look at how the diaspora viewed Ukraine before the country won its independence. Produced by Canada’s state broadcaster CBC, the documentary provides a fantastic starting point to understanding the diaspora experience. Using interviews with prominent academics, celebrities, and community organizers, the film documents the experiences of Ukrainians emigrating to Canada – from the first settlers in 1891 through the internment of Ukrainians during the First World War (see below) to the emergence of Ukrainians as a crucial part of Canada’s multicultural fabric. Thanks in part to a targeted effort by the Canadian government to attract Ukrainian farmers to open the Canadian prairies, more than 1.4 million Ukrainians now live in Canada. Released to mark 1,000 years since the Christianisation of Kyivan Rus, the film walks you through a brief history of Ukraine, the reasons why Ukrainians settled in Canada, and what their experiences were like – both during the move and while establishing roots. It works its way through the first wave of settlements, where Ukrainians sought unclaimed Prairie lands; to the second wave of immigration, where Ukrainians looked for economic opportunity and to escape the horrors of the Holodomor and World Wars, to the third wave of mainly political refugees and academics that sought refuge during Soviet Ukraine. Just three years after the release of this film, Canada would become just the second country in the world to recognize Ukrainian independence. 

Where to watch: You can find the film, divided into eight parts, on YouTube 

Can I watch in English: Yes

Trailer: No trailer

Learn More: Museum of Ukrainian Diaspora, Kyiv

That Never Happened: Canada’s First National Internment Operations (2017)

Early Ukrainian settlers faced all kinds of hardship when they uprooted their families in the hopes of a better economic future. Harsh climates, unfamiliar customs, alien languages – and even arbitrary internment. Director Ryan Boyko has become the go-to specialist on the internment of Ukrainians in Canada during the First World War. His "That Never Happened: Canada’s First National Internment Operations" serves as a succinct, 78-minute summary of Boyko’s award-winning 32-part TV documentary series "The Camps" that outlines each of Canada’s 24 internment camps. Nearly 8,500 Ukrainians were sent to labor camps to be put to work building some of Canada’s major industries – steel mills in Nova Scotia, logging in Quebec and Ontario, agriculture on the Prairies, mines in British Columbia, and even the development of Banff National Park. The film combines visits to the sites with interviews from academics, government officials, and descendants of the internees to provide the definitive look at one of Canada’s darkest historical skeletons. The film was the Canadian Mission to the UN’s “Official Selection” in 2018 and was screened at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights – where a special exhibition to the Ukrainian internment is featured – as part of the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day. Boyko is nearing completion of the third part of his audio-visual series on the subject, the feature film "Enemy Aliens". Working with Ukraine’s Pronto Film, producers of "The Guide" – the highest-grossing film in Ukrainian history – the still-in-development feature became the first Canadian project to receive funding from the Ukrainian State Film Agency. 

Where to watch: Starting from 160 hryvnias ($6) on iTunes or from 133 hryvnias ($5) on Google Play

Can I watch in English: Yes


Learn More: Canadian Museum of Human Rights (Internment of Ukrainian Canadians exhibition), Winnipeg, Canada, 7,798 km west of Kyiv

Firecrosser (2011)

Our next film comes from “Tryzubwood” royalty and tells the extraordinary tale of one war hero’s journey to becoming leader of an Aboriginal tribe in Canada. Directed by none other than Mykhailo Ilyenko, the former chairman of the Ukrainian Film Academy and brother of Yuri Ilyenko, the esteemed director of "A Prayer for Hetman Mazepa" (featured in the Kyivan Rus & Cossack Ukraine article of this series), "Firecrosser" was Ukraine’s nomination for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 2013 Academy Awards. The film is one of the rare examples of a quality post-independence picture made before Ukraine’s current cinematic Golden Age. Like a Ukrainian version of the Pierce Brosnan-led "Grey Owl", "Firecrosser" tells the story of Ivan Datsenko, a pilot and Hero of the Soviet Union that overcame stays at both Nazi and Soviet prisoner camps before ending up the chief of a Canadian Aboriginal tribe. Unlike Brosnan’s character, however, there is doubt as to whether Datsenko ever made it through the war alive and academic debate on the subject still rages to this day. Whether fact or fiction, Datsenko’s fantastic fable remains one of the most bizarre tales from the Ukrainian diaspora. 

Where to watch: From 133 hryvnias ($5) on Vimeo

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


Learn More: Of course, not all Ukrainian emigrants stay abroad. Some move back to Ukraine – even generations later. Perhaps none as famous as recent Acting Health Minister Ulana Suprun –a third-generation Ukrainian from the USA, she moved to Ukraine in 2013 and became a citizen in 2016. To hear more about what her journey means to her, check out her TEDxKyiv talk.

Folk! (2010)

One of the single, most remarkable traits of Ukraine’s diaspora has been its ability to maintain folk traditions, sometimes for generations after the first emigrants arrived. Along with language and Ukrainian Easter Eggs, perhaps no tradition is as recognizable as Ukrainian folk dance. Ukrainian diaspora groups from around the world have maintained the art form and adapted it to modern times, including adding elements of ballet and modern dance, and recruiting dancers from outside the Ukrainian community. Outside of putting on a pair of Ukrainian dance boots yourself, there is no better way to learn about the unique culture of diaspora dance groups than from "Folk!", by Ukrainian diaspora director Roxy Toprowych (featured in the Modern Ukraine article in this series). Toporowych gets inside some of the biggest Ukrainian dance groups in the USA to discover just what makes them tick. With interviews from experts like Virsky National Ukrainian Folk Dance Ensemble choreographer Myroslav Vantukh and behind-the-scenes commentary from the dancers themselves, "Folk!" will have you humming traditional Ukrainian dance beats as you discover the Ukrainian folk dance scene. It’s also popular among the dance troupes that visit Lviv’s International Ukrainian Dance & Cultural Festival each year, where dancers in off-stage antics compete to see who can handle the craziest dance steps – and who can best handle their ‘horilka’. 

Where to watch: For free on Vimeo

Can I watch in English: Yes


Learn More: P. Virsky Ukrainian National Folk Dance Ensemble, Kyiv.

American Dream: In Search of the Truth (2017)

If Ryan Boyko has cornered the market on Ukrainian internment camps, Ukraine’s Volodymyr Mula has the topic of recent Ukrainian emigration to call his own. With two movies of his exploration of the experience of recent Ukrainian emigrants in the books, his third"Uke: The Unknown Story of Historical Legends" hits cinemas later this year. In his first feature, 2015’s "American Dream", he takes a road trip across the United States to explore how Americans treat post-independent Soviet emigrants. In his second feature, "American Dream: In Search of the Truth", he tracks down some of Ukraine’s most successful emigrants to discover their secrets to success. These include Major League Soccer champion Dmytro Kovalenko, prominent doctor Yuriy Melnyk, singer Mika Newton, Hollywood actress Tetyana Rodyna, and Columbia University professor Yuriy Shevchuk. His third feature focuses on the many hockey legends that the Ukrainian diaspora has produced and includes interviews with Johnny Bucyk, Eddie Shack, Kelly Hrudey, Terry Sawchuk’s brother Jerry, and the great Wayne Gretzky. Mula’s sharp wit and entertaining storytelling style are sure to keep you entertained as you discover what life is like for the Ukrainian diaspora’s newest additions.

You can watch Mula’s first feature, "American Dream", online for free with English subtitles on YouTube.

For updates on the release of "Uke: The Unknown Story of Historical Legends", follow the Facebook page here.

Where to watch: From 113 hryvnias ($4.25) on

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


Learn More: With over 3 million Ukrainians currently working abroad legally (and many more working abroad under-the-table), the remittances they send home have become one of the biggest “industries” of Ukrainian GDP. With many returning home due to COVID-19, what can Ukraine do to keep them? Check out this story by Germany’s DW Ukrainian for more (in Ukrainian, with auto-translate subtitles by YouTube)

/ by Lee Reaney