UKRAINE — Odessa used to be the Soviet Union’s answer to Hollywood. From the silent “Battleship Potemkin” onward, it hosted some of the Communist Bloc’s best-known stars and filmmakers. In the past few decades, it’s fallen on hard times and has been off the film world’s radar, but there are signs of a comeback on two very different fronts: a radical rethink of filmmaking styles and the emblematic rebirth of an old studio.
The just-wrapped Odessa Film Festival included Alisa Pavlovskaya’s “I Don’t Wanna Die,” which was shot guerrilla-style around Odessa on a budget of $5,000, with the cast and crew working for free. Local film mavens are predicting it could serve as a template for filmmakers around the world who have no options other than to work on a shoestring.
German journalist Sebastian Saam, who is researching a documentary on Odessa’s moviemaking heritage, told Variety of Pavlovskaya: “This production challenges Odessa’s filmmaking veterans not only in the way it has been financed, but content-wise. Odessa’s romanticism and enthusiasm for cinema is still present, but the approach is radically different. Costumes and makeup were left in the closet, and a brutally honest face of the city is shown. Maybe this could help define a new film identity for Odessa.”
The film, which world-premiered at the Moscow Film Festival, is a hallucinatory depiction of life in Odessa’s cultural underground, as artists, musicians and writers struggle to survive in a society that seems to value only money. It’s a gritty, European equivalent of America’s mumblecore films.
Maksim Firsenko, who produced through his shingle Porto-Franco Film Studio, doesn’t see the microbudget approach as ideal, but given the circumstances, it’s the only option for many filmmakers. “It is not a way out for Ukrainian cinema in general, but it sets a precedent for young filmmakers who want to shoot films, but don’t see any other way of making them,” he says.
Firsenko plans to produce another four films in the next year.
While “I Don’t Wanna Die” stands as a symbol of the New Ukraine, so too does the newly reborn Odessa Studio, which is hoping to lure production again to the region.
The studio was set up in 1919, two years after the Russian Revolution, and its rise and fall mirror that of the film business in Ukraine. In 1988, it was set for a makeover with a multistory block under construction on an adjacent plot. But when the Soviet Union fell apart, the project lost its Moscow coin, and, 25 years later, the building still remains half-finished. The studio’s grandiose gates, with lions placed on either side, are now crumbling, a reminder of its former glory days as well as of post-Soviet malaise.
But topper Andrey Zverev is tasked with reviving the studio’s fortunes, thanks to a combination of state aid and private coin from a Kiev oligarch. For the past year and a half, Zverev has been upgrading its facilities and buying brand new equipment.
In the short-term, Zverev is focusing on attracting productions from Russia and other nearby countries. Among filmmakers to shoot there in the past year were Ukrainian helmer Kira Muratova with “Eternal Homecoming,” which screened at the just-wrapped Odessa fest, and Georgian director Nana Djordjadze with “Fedor,” which is in post. The studio also intends to produce its own pics, and has submitted an application for funding for seven projects to Ukraine’s State Film Agency.