Ukraine’s fight for survival against Russia’s war machine isn’t only taking place in the frozen trenches of its Eastern front. Far from the frontlines around Kharkiv and Kherson, in the capital of Kyiv, there is a cultural front at work, too.
On Dec. 1 – officially the first day of winter – in a snow-covered city under clear blue skies, the Molodist International Film Festival opened its 51st edition.
The venerable international feature and shorts festival was originally founded as a student film showcase in the Soviet 1970s. Now, despite fears earlier this year that it would have to be canceled, organizers put on a shortened, three-day festival program in Kyiv, a month after some sections ran under the aegis of the Hamburg Film Festival in Germany.
Andriy Khalpakhchi, long-time art director of the festival, said the event – which usually runs early summer – had been planned to take place in Kyiv in October, but a series of Russian missile attacks on the city that left scores of civilians dead and injured forced organizers to scrap those plans.
“Originally, we were not sure that we would make it in Kyiv at all – but it was a good sign that we were able to organize sections of it in Hamburg, which sent out a positive message to the international film community,” said Khalpakhchi, speaking to Variety at the festival’s opening.
“We really want to show that the cultural front is open, that culture still exists in Ukraine. It is a message to our international partners that we continue our cultural life.”
Putting on a film festival with an absent international jury (headed by Berlinale executive director, Mariette Rissenbeek), in a country where Russian rocket attacks have destroyed 40% of its electricity-generating capacity, and at a time when frequent blackouts plunge night-time Kyiv into darkness, has been challenging, to say the least. Millions have fled and of those who remain, six million are without regular electricity, heat or water – not to mention those dying daily on the frontlines or through the bombardment of homes and infrastructure.
“We had wanted to do our opening in a metro station, but had to change plans as it was not practical,” Khalpakhchi said, adding that when U.S. TV host David Letterman produced a show with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky in a Kyiv subway station earlier this year, it was impossible to hear anything without headphones.
Inviting international guests was also a challenge.
“We wanted Sean Penn – to whom we are giving an honorary award – to come, but he could not come at this time; he has proved himself a great friend of Ukraine and has finished the film he was making here, and lent his Oscar to the president’s office for the duration of the war,” said Khalpakhchi.
Though the jury and Penn were absent, the festival made arrangements for around four foreign guests, from Germany, Poland, Belgium and the U.K., who were willing and able to make the arduous overnight train journey from neighbouring Poland.
At Thursday’s opening at Kyiv’s Zhovten Cinema, where Polish-Ukrainian co-production “Tata” (directed by Anna Maliszewska, starring Erik Lubos) had its Ukrainian premiere, the audience was advised to head for the basement shelter, or nearby subway station, if an air raid alarm sounded. If the lights went out but there was no air raid siren, the audience was instructed to wait five or ten minutes for the generators to kick in.
Films screening at the festival include those from the national program (Kateryna Gornostai’s “Stop-Zemlia” was already announced in Hamburg as the festival’s Grand Prix winner), the festival’s traditional Scandinavian Panorama, an international Festival of Festivals, and – for those willing to stay in the cinema during the 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew – a Midnight Screenings program.
Clemens Poole is a Kyiv-based arts programmer and director from New York, whose film “Dima, Dmitry, Dmitro – Glory to the Heroes,” is in the festival program. He told Variety that creating spaces for cultural life to continue during wartime is an essential part of maintaining morale.
A series of further screenings for the general public of festival titles are planned for this week.
Oleksandr Hoison, a 21-year-old film student from Kyiv’s National University of Cinema and Arts, whose animated short documentary film “The Analogy of Space” was screening at Molodist, said that although other smaller arts events, including documentary and short film festivals, had taken place since the summer, as one of Ukraine’s oldest international feature festivals, Molodist was an important event for Kyiv’s artistic community.
“It is important for us to send a message to the international community that life goes on,” he said.
Igor Savychenko, who produced Volodomy Tikhyy’s BBC-acquired documentary on the early days of the war, “One Day in Ukraine,” said that cinema and the arts had continued virtually uninterrupted not only in Kyiv but other cities such as heavily-shelled Kharkiv, despite the war.
“It’s normal life for us. We should not stop going to the cinema, or drinking champagne, or celebrating anything,” Savychenko told Variety.