“Bitter Harvest” opened for a limited engagement in U.S. theaters in the United States and the United Kingdom on February 24, and in Canada on March 3. Unfortunately, the reviews of professional critics were not good. And yet, as often happens with movies, the story and its message resonated with those who went to see this important historical drama about a genocide that remains unknown to many around the globe.
Writing in The Huffington Post, Diane M. Francis provided the historical context for the film – “Millions perished, newspapers lied, and leaders around the world ignored it all” – and noted: “The film’s love story, rapturous scenery and first-class score present an unforgettable human face to this genocide.”
In the National Review, George Weigel says the film “tries to bring a human texture and a certain comprehensibility to this almost incomprehensible tale of systematic, state-sponsored mass starvation, telling the story of the worst period of the Holodomor (when some 30,000 Ukrainians starved to death every day) through the lives of two young lovers… The film, while perhaps not great cinema, succeeds in personalizing the Holodomor and reminding us that this genocide happened, literally, one person at a time, as an elderly peasant, a child, or a wife and mother each died from state-induced malnutrition and starvation, wasting away to nothingness while Soviet thugs blocked the borders of Ukraine to prevent their escape and ruthlessly expropriated (or destroyed) every possible foodstuff in order to bring Ukraine to heel.”
The film’s release also brought out some of the usual suspects, the Holodomor deniers like Grover Furr, whose article titled “The ‘Holodomor’ and the Film ‘Bitter Harvest’ are Fascist Lies” (don’t bother reading this stuff – it’s nothing new in the realm of anti-Ukrainianism) was published by The Greanville Post. The website described the author as “a brave English professor at Montclair State University who has almost single-handedly – and out [of] simple decency and sheer necessity due to the scarcity of true scholars in the field of counter-Western disinformation – pushed back against the mountain of lies disseminated by the West to smear the name of Stalin, the Soviet Union and the idea of communism itself.” (N.B.: The Greanville Post describes itself as “a counter disinformation site; an instrument created to resist imperialism in the infowar sphere…”)
Much more troubling was a review in The Washington Post by Michael O’Sullivan which read: “The Holodomor – an early 1930s famine in which millions of people in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, are said to have died [our italics] when their foodstuffs were confiscated by the central Soviet government under Joseph Stalin – could have made for a tale of great, stirring tragedy on the silver screen. ‘Bitter Harvest,’ alas, is not that movie. …” The reviewer went on to say that “Whether the Holodomor resulted from a policy of systemic genocide, as is the official position of Ukraine and many other governments, or was a terrible situation that nevertheless fails to meet the definition of deliberate mass murder, as others have characterized it, is a matter for U.N. diplomats and historians to argue about.” And he then faulted filmmaker George Mendeluk for creating a scenario that “is not just unambiguous, but black and white.”
The reaction from readers was swift and sure, and The Post was compelled to run this Editor’s Note: “This movie review originally used language that cast unwarranted skepticism on the facts of the Holodomor, the Soviet-era man-made famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s. More than 3.5 million people died, according to scholars, with some estimates as high as 10 million. At least 10 countries have declared the Holodomor an act of genocide. In 2016, the White House called it ‘one of the most horrific man-made tragedies in modern history.’ This version of the review has been updated.”
The New York Times review by Jeannette Catsoulis began with these flippant words: “Politics, romance, faith and famine are mashed into a single misshapen meatball in ‘Bitter Harvest,’ which follows two Ukrainian lovebirds through a mass starvation in the early 1930s known as the Holodomor.” It adds: “The topic is worthy, but the execution is painfully heavy-handed.” Finally, the writer explains the film’s R rating: “Priests are shot, loved ones are hanged and baked goods are defiled.” That snarky comment appears to be a final stab at the movie, but it is also a highly insensitive remark that belittles the enormous human tragedy of millions being willfully killed by Stalin and mocks the culture and traditions of a nation for whom bread is sacred. To defile it is sinful, and to do so at the time of an artificially created famine – immoral.
“The story of this genocide needed to be told,” Toronto-based financier Ian Ihnatowycz, who funded the $20 million film, told Ms. Francis, and he emphasized that it is relevant today in the face of Russian aggression against Ukraine. The writer agrees, observing that Ukraine is “history’s underdog, which is bloodied and bruised once again, but determined to wrest itself from Russia’s iron grip.”
The hope is that “Bitter Harvest” will eventually reach a huge audience around the world. Via its website, which includes a history section with information and links to materials about the Holodomor, it aims to help the public do some additional reading to learn more about one of the world’s worst genocides. Thus, “Bitter Harvest” serves as an invaluable steppingstone toward greater awareness.