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SEE-K: Ukrainian avant-garde cinema of 1922-1930

On Saturday I went to the lecture about Ukrainian avant-garde cinema of 1922-1930 (I wrote about it in here). I want to share a summary of it, because I find this topic extremely interesting and I truly love films from this time period     

We also have unique and atmospheric Mute Nights Festival of Silent Film and Contemporary Music that is held annually in Odessa that I recommend to visit.

Mute Nights silent film festival in Odessa

Mute Nights silent film festival in Odessa

Ukrainian soviet avant garde film posters
Mini posters of Ukrainian avant-garde cinema on my wall ^_^

History of Ukrainian avant-garde cinema

The Ukrainian Soviet film production was created under the brand of VUFKU (All-Ukrainian Photo-Cinema Administration), a state cinema monopoly that united the entire film industry in Ukraine, including film, film distribution, film education, and book publishing, which existed from 1922 till 1930.

VUFKU was one of the most successful film producers in Europe. Exporting films to France, Czech Republic, Germany, Great Britain, USA, and Japan it become the second largest after USA supplier of film production to Germany, which by the time was a leader of the European film Industry.
During first years of its operation VUFKU focuses on the primary organization of film production on the abounded and nationalized studios in Yalta and Odessa. In the beginning there were not enough people who could work at film production, because many professionals after the revolution went abroad; also the biggest film star of that era Vira Kholodna had just died (under mysterious circumstances). First directors were symbolists who had worked in the pre-Soviet film industry (since 1919 there were film studios in Odessa, Kharkiv, Katerynoslav).
By 1925 the film production base was completely restored. At the same time VUFKU, following on the total Ukrainization of the party and professional staff of public institutions, invited young Ukrainian writers, artists, and directors to take part in film production. The course on Ukrainization has proclaimed as part of the indigenization course, which represented the official politics of Bolshevik party on the national issue. It aim was to engage the representatives of the native people from the national republics into the soviet apparatus. By doing this Bolshevik regime, which de-facto was occupational, sought to achieve loyalty of Ukrainian elites.

So in 1925 VUFKU decided to take an experiment: it developed a program that had to improve the artistic level of production by gathering in its ranks the most prominent Ukrainian avant-garde artists. The artistic editorial office of Odessa film studio has headed by a futurist poet and culture leader Mykhail’ Semenko, who invited Yurii Yanovsky (who later took his place), Oleksandr Dovzhenko, and Mykola Bazhan to work at the film factory. Earlier Odessa film studio hosted the reformist theatre director Les’ Kurbas, who brought along with him the talented actors from avant-garde Berezil theatre. Soon a lot of talented people became involved in cinema industry, such as the writer Mike Yohansen, the modernist painter Vasyl Krychevsky and Danylo Demutsky, the winner of the Gold Medal at the International Exhibition of Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris, which actually launched Art Deco.

Both Kurbas and Semenko played a critical role shaping the early Ukrainian film. While Semenko involved writers from Kharkiv and Kyiv into Ukrainian cinema industry, Kurbas, who developed the concept of actor’s transformation and created first Ukrainian future films, supplied the industry with professional actors through the first decade of its existence; due to their enthusiasm the artistic level of Ukrainian cinema reached a European level in just few years. It all brought good results, and many masterpieces such as Man with a movie camera (1929), The Eleventh Year (1928), Earth (1930), Enthusiasm (1930), Two days (1927), Zvenyhora (1927), In Spring (1929), Bread (1929) were created.

The Success of Ukrainian film production is associated with Cultural Revolution of the 1920th and successful reforms in film industry provided by VUFKU due to the total economic independence from Moscow. During the 1920th Ukrainian SSR has certain economic autonomy. The domestic economy of the republic was governed by the Ukrainian Economic Council, while foreign relations were conducted through the system of diplomatic and trade missions. VUFKU was directly subordinated to Ukrainian Economical Council and operated independently from all-USSR authorities; it is an additional argument in favor of the independent status of Ukrainian cinema of the 1920 in the all-Soviet film system.

But all good things come to an end: in 1930 Central Soviet authorities decided to stop the independent Ukrainian film production and united everything under All-Soviet Soyuzkino studio. From that time Ukrainian cinema ultimately lost its cultural and economic independence. After 1930s Ukrainian silent films that were produced under the brand of VUFKU were almost entirely banned. Masterpieces of Ukrainian avant-garde cinema were accused in formalism, biologisms, “bourgeois nationalism”, came under censorship and for a long time had stayed in the special fund. All Ukrainian intertitles were cut and replaced by Russian intertitles. Later most of the films were inscribed into the “Soviet” and later into Russian cultural context. Almost 80% of artists involved in Ukrainian cinema become victims of Stalin repressions; they were executed, sentenced to imprisonment in the camps or expatriated. Now these artists are called the generation of Executed Renaissance.

Ukraine was predestined by history to become a cinematic state. However, the circumstances of the XX century took a different turn. The birth of Ukrainian avant-garde cinema, the emergence of which in the context of rustic, stateless, and censored culture was itself a paradox that requires further studies.

ukrainian silent film dvd

Top 7 masterpieces of Ukrainian avant-garde cinema

bread khlib silent filmBread
Director: Mykola Shpykovskyi, 1929

An unknown Ukrainian film avant-garde masterpiece. This agitprop film, created in 1929 never was shown on a big screen, because it was immediately banned by the censorship and, as a result, long forgotten. Only in 2012 Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre found the film, restored it and added a new soundtrack by Port Mone band.
Bread was created on the same year as Dovzhenko’s Earth, and they both create a paradoxical worldview, ideological and aesthetic pair. Both films were determined by directors as epic film, and tell a tragic story about a destruction of a traditional peasant way of living that is growing into apocalyptic circumstances.

earth dovzhenkoEarth
Director: Oleksandr Dovzhenko, 1930
Earth is the most famous Ukrainian film; it was banned by a Soviet censorship right after release. Full of lyrical pantheism and utopia exaltation, it demonstrates the ambiguity of Ukrainian geopolitical choice in the 1920s.The structure of a film gives a freedom of interpretation and allows both orthodox-Soviet and subversive-Ukrainian readings. Earth ultimately laid the aesthetic foundation for Ukrainian poetic cinema of the 1960s-1980s. As any other silent film it has the variety of soundtracks, my favorite is by Ukrainian band Dakha Brakha.

dziga vertov man with a movie cameraMan with a movie camera
Director: Dziga Vertov, 1929
Man with a Movie Camera is one of the major manifestos of the world cinema avant-garde. According to aesthetic principles of Vertov, the film was not based on a script. The camera of a talented cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman captures motley life of Ukrainian megalopolises – Odesa, Kharkiv, and Kyiv – under New Economic Policy.
The researches usually overlook the fact that the film was made in Odessa as insignificant. But to ignore it means to make the through interpretation of the film impossible. The Man with a movie camera is very “Odessan” film: it has so much sun, sea, and space in; its emotion is lively and vital. The film should be considered Ukrainian neither only on the economic basis, due to the fact that it was financed by VUFKU, not due to its highly regarded Ukrainian topics, but primary because of its “non-Russian” aesthetic code, which saturated Man with a Movie Camera with incomprehensible lyricism, typical for southern attitude. One should also remember that the idea of Man with a Movie Camera was rejected by Sovkino studio in Moscow, could only be fellfield in Ukraine, since its leadership represented by Mykola Skrypnyk welcomed and supported disgraced artists from Russia, where an attack on the dissent had already started.

spring kaufman silentIn Spring
Director: Mikhail Kaufman, 1929

The same aesthetic and ideological Ukrainian attribution can be applied to the film In Spring, the following independent work by Mikhail Kaufman, who was linked to Ukraine not only with a contract with VUFKU but also with its teen-age years spent in Kyiv.
In Spring was called a poem, since the plastic language of the film completely absorbed the political statement Kaufman had in mind. Kaufman’s poetic style In Spring verified his aesthetic assimilation in Ukraine.


Enthusiasm Donbass SymphonyEnthusiasm: Donbass Symphony
Director: Dziga Vertov, 1930
Enthusiasm: Donbass Symphony is the first Ukrainian sound film. Filmed in 1930 by the world-class master of the cinematic avant-garde Dziga Vertov, it became the first motion-picture in which real industrial and routine sounds not only illustrated the visual range, but also served to create an independent musical image. The film named by Charlie Chaplin one of the most impressive sound symphonies was released in theaters in 1931 but shortly after was removed from distribution and forgotten.




two days ukrainian silent film

Two days
Director: Heorhii Stabovyi, 1927

Filmed in uncharacteristic for the soviet avant-garde genre of intimate psychological drama. It was the first Ukrainian film commercially distributed in USA. It impressed Western criticism of that time with a perfect expressionistic language, not widely spread in Soviet cinema. The filmed revealed the artistic genius of Danylo Demutsky, the future co-author of Oleksandr Dovzhenko on Arsenal (1929) and Earth (1930).





eleventh year dziga vertov

Eleventh year
Director: Dziga Vertov, 1928
The eleventh year of Soviet power is the period of industrialization, the construction of the Dnieper hydropower plants and other industrial giants. The camera focuses only on the work of tirelessly building a new socialist reality in Ukraine. Vertov said that “Eleventh” is a directly camera-written movie, without the script, because camera has replaced the pen for a writer. This allowed the director to claim that he invented a pure cinematic language, in which the camera captures life as it is.

For more on this subject, read here ttp://issuu.com/dovzhenkocentre/docs/ukrainian_silent
You can order DVDs here http://www.dovzhenkocentre.org/eng/catalogue/all/

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