April 10, 2020

Anniversaries and profiles in art and politics


Fifty years ago, a film was produced in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic titled “White Bird with a Black Insignia.” There is at least one other English translation, “White Bird Marked With Black,” which I believe misses the point that both screenwriters were making. They used the term “oznaka” in Ukrainian, which connotes designation, when they could have used “pliama” to denote a black mark if their intent was to denigrate.

The film was produced by the even then world-famous Film Studio of Oleksander Dovzhenko in Kyiv. Its screenwriters were also well-known, at least in the USSR, Yuriy Ilyenko and Ivan Mykolaichuk, the latter more so for his work as an actor in the internationally acclaimed film “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” (1964). Ilyenko was the director of “White Bird with Black Insignia.” Additional major credits belonged to the well-known actress Larissa Kadochnykova and the cinematographer later to become world recognized, Vilen Kalyuta, who was born 90 years ago.

The historical political milieu in 1970 was most interesting, especially in view of Soviet reality and the paradigm that art was politics. While the conservative and repressively stalwart Leonid Brezhnev was at the helm of the Communist Party of the USSR, Ukraine itself was a hotbed of dissident activity. Petro Shelest, a relatively liberal Ukrainian, headed the Communist Party in Ukraine.

The subject film takes place in the Carpathian mountain region of Ukraine, then occupied by Romania and known as Bukovyna. The time frame is set from at least 1938 to 1944 or a bit later. The screenplay develops a human, yet political, melodrama about a family, more specifically focusing on four brothers from a village in that region. One of them is a Ukrainian nationalist partisan, better known in Ukraine as a “Banderite.” The other brothers are more simply anti-Romanian and believe that the Soviet liberators are precisely that. Romania was a ruthless regime enslaving its indigenous populations. In fact, the brothers had been sold as slaves. The Soviets came in following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact as liberators in 1939. They were greeted by the villagers with bread, albeit without salt as that was not available.

The significance of the film industry under the Soviets dated back to Joseph Stalin’s fondness for film. He recognized that industry as an indispensable part of the Soviet propaganda machine. This film, as others, had to fit that mold. Ilyenko was not a willing participant.

He made the film appear pro-Soviet: the villagers greet their Soviet liberators; three of the four brothers immediately or eventually join Soviet ranks; the village ultimately turns against the partisan and kills him; the female lead despite her genuine love for the “Banderite” cries out for death at a wedding ceremony to him despite her love; three years later, after being away from the village for an unclear reason (some insist that she joined the partisans) and returning home bearing a child out of wedlock, she notes that the role of the woman is to bear children for society’s benefit (the Soviet woman that bears children for her state); the village priest ultimately loses his mind and attempts to shoot the village’s Soviet doctor (one of the brothers), whom he essentially had raised from childhood; and the doctor, as he disarms the priest, offers medical assistance to him (science over religion) and then looks out the window at the villagers reveling in their Soviet paradise in the film’s finale.

Ilyenko was able to circumvent authorities because he wrote the script together with Mykolaichuk. An actor of great stature like Mykolaichuk in most societies could choose his own role. His choice was to play the “Banderite” but the censors said no, and the role was given to a then little-known actor named Bohdan Stupka from Lviv. Much to the censors’ dismay Stupka became the hero of the film. Mykolaichuk played a Soviet lackey in a role that was marginal. Stupka as an actor became perhaps the most prominent actor in Ukraine. The female lead was in love with the “Banderite” but became psychotic because that love was wrong since he was a renegade.

The film was considered very controversial because of Ilyenko’s skill and determination. Even the name was a disguise, as noted above. After all the bird in the title was the “Banderite” and his Ukrainian nationalism was not an insignia but a blemish or black mark to the Soviets. Ilyenko’s next project several years later was so carefully scrutinized by the Soviet censors that at its completion he opined of the later film, “I have created a monster.” His health suffered.

This year marks not only the 50th anniversary of this film, but also the 10th anniversary of Ilyenko’s death. He was recognized rightly as a great director and screenplay writer, but unfortunately, too little known and admired for his courage. Go on line, see this film and recognize “White Bird with a Black Insignia” for what it was and Yuriy Ilyenko for who he was. You will not be disappointed.


Askold S. Lozynskyj is an attorney based in New York City. He is a former president of the Ukrainian World Congress.