A remarkable trove of cinematic riches from Ukraine, much of it rarely seen outside the country, is headlining several sections of the Ji.hlava docu fest this year, with especially strong showings in the Fascinations section, dedicated to experimental work.
That genre has long been a signature element of Ji.hlava, which invariably screens experimental, essay and convention-breaking films many audiences would hardly expect to encounter at an event nominally dedicated to documentaries.
But, as programmer Andrea Slovakova points out, Ji.hlava has for years taken up the challenge of bringing to audiences all manner of fringe and underground film from throughout Central and Eastern Europe.
What she calls “radically poetic and lyrical films” are just one strain of the work from Ukraine being celebrated at Ji.hlava this year, Slovakova says, most made by successors or students of Sergei Parajanov or Feliks Sobolev, whose work is feted in a tribute section.
Although Ukraine never had a clearly identified wave of experimental film comparable to the avant-garde movements of the West in the post-World War II era, Slovakova points out, filmmakers from outside the mainstream were busy making bold, provocative creations for the screen for decades.
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Some was shot at film schools (“Exit Clause to Yugoslavia,” 1987), others by film students who failed to get their work considered by their schools (as in the 1985 cult film “The End of Holidays”), she notes.
Amateurs also filmed groundbreaking work being screened at Ji.hlava.
But the films of Sobolev, which will stand alongside those by the artist and photographer Man Ray at Ji.hlava this year, are on another scale.
Touted as “an international discovery,” Sobelev’s tribute covers his films from the 1960s, which caused a sensation in the Soviet film world for pushing “the boundaries of documentary film reflection,” says Slovakova.
Sobelev discovered new creative techniques, employing animation, time-lapse footage and technologies he invented to capture otherwise elusive phenomena. The seven Sobelev films screening will include “The Language of Animals” (1967), pointing out parallels between the worlds of humans and animals, and “Keep at It, You’re Talented,” (1979) which focuses on how people overcome psychological obstacles.
Parajanov, meanwhile, was an ethnic Armenian cherished by film scholars for his weird, beautiful imagery. He was banished to the gulags for “surrealistic tendencies,” and was fond of incorporating rural Ukrainian dialects into films, making them incomprehensible in the Soviet Union.
Films made by students of Parajanov (Roman Balaian’s “Robber,” 1969 [pictured], Leonid Osyka’s “Entering the Sea,” 1967, and Ada Kviraia’s “Water Supply,” 1987) “are stunning,” says Slovakova: “lyrical, visually and rhythmically precise, with use of allegories.”
Complementing the screenings will be insights from filmmakers and guests including director and cinematographer Oleksandr Teliuk (“Dendro Dreams,” 2018).
Many of the Ukrainian films experiment with forms of visual representation, media, and styles, and genres span many forms. The work is from “the margins of official art, at film schools, and outside the state-controlled system,” as Slovakova says, where directors created hybrid works combining allegory, a distinctive visual language, staging, performance and documentary observation.
Some filmmakers, later called collectively the Ukrainian School of Poetic Film, were much inspired by Parajanov, who taught at the Ukrainian film school.
Ukrainian visual collages often featured ironic subtext, Slovakova says, especially in how they played off techniques associated with “official” documentaries of the era, such as enthusiastic voiceovers, always key to communist propaganda films. As for the amateur filmmakers from Ukraine, many embrace distinctive visual language, as in home movies that relish close-ups and motifs unrelated to family and shared experiences.