July 16, 2021

Two Ukrainian films premiere at 2021 Cannes Film Festival


Roman Tymotsko

The Ukrainian pavilion, located in the heart of the festival’s International Village, included the blue-and-yellow national flag and a poster promoting Serhiy Loznitsa’s documentary “Babi Yar. Context.”

CANNES, France – After a break in 2020, the 74th Cannes International Film Festival took place in France’s Cote d’Azur on July 6-17 with two Ukrainian films – “Olga” and “Babi Yar. Context” – premiering at the festival. Additionally, the State Agency of Ukraine for Cinema opened for the 15th time its pavilion that included the blue-and-yellow national flag and the hashtag #UkraineIsYourDestination in the heart of the festival’s International Village.

“The Ukrainian pavilion at the Cannes Film Festival has been operating as the Embassy of Ukraine in the cinematographic world for the 15th year in a row,” said Andriy Khalpakhchi, art director of Kyiv’s Molodist International Film Festival, which was the team leader of the pavilion.

“If in the first years we were ashamed that no Ukrainian film was in the official program, in recent years, thanks to the fruitful work of the State Cinema and state funding, we can be proud that Ukraine is represented in Cannes every year,” Mr. Khalpakhchi said.

On July 9, the Ukrainian pavilion organized a dinner and reception with Ukraine’s Embassy in France. The event was attended by Ukraine’s Ambassador to France Vadym Omelchenko.

“My mission is to promote Ukrainian cinema. I am convinced that this is our powerful national resource and an invaluable treasure,” Mr. Omelchenko said in addressing guests of the evening, adding that he wants to prioritize the promotion in France of the Ukrainian movie industry.

“Ukraine has a huge potential in film production. It should become our national resource. Just as the Ukrainian agricultural sector, metallurgy, digital technologies – these are what makes Ukraine known in the world,” Mr. Omelchenko said during the reception. “We have a huge resource, we have good locations, we have talented people – from actors to producers – and we have significant potential in this area.”

Maryna Kuderchuk, head of the State Agency of Ukraine for Cinematography, spoke about the role Ukrainian films play for the country and Ukraine’s efforts to better inform the world of Ukrainian culture.

“The Cannes Film Festival is extremely important for the development of cultural diplomacy in Ukraine and the development of film production in the country,” Ms. Kuderchuk said. “The National Pavilion in Cannes aims to present [to the world] Ukraine’s capacity to develop international cooperation and strengthen its image as a reliable partner.”

Two Ukrainian films had their world premieres this year at Cannes. French director Elie Grappe’s “Olga,” shot in Ukraine with the participation of Pronto Film production, was selected for the competition program Critics’ Week, while Serhiy Loznitsa’s documentary “Babi Yar. Context” was screened in the Special Impressions program.


Mr. Grappe’s film about Ukrainian gymnasts during the Revolution of Dignity portrays young people in a process of realizing their national identity. The film realistically depicts emotions and social dynamics during the revolution, showing a profound understanding of Euro-Maidan by the film’s producers.

“Olga” was co-produced by individuals from Switzer­land, France and Ukraine. The movie was shot in Ukraine with the aid of the Pronto Film production studio.

Mr. Grappe comprehends issues of national identity and portrays them through the eyes of young gymnasts. The main character, a Ukrainian, moves to Switzerland, while her best friend stays in Kyiv. They meet at the European Championships as members of national teams from different countries. Meanwhile, their former coach has joined the Russian national team.

The film skillfully details the difficulties teenagers face while integrating into a new country. It delves into the complex and ambiguous understanding of what it means to confront Ukrainian/Swiss identity, and weaves into that mix the impact that Euro-Maidan had on a person “far from politics” and physically distant from Kyiv. Mr. Grappe does all of this with such depth that the film serves as an accurate description of the experience millions of Ukrainians lived through during that fateful winter. It uses documentary footage from the Revolution of Dignity.

The gymnasts in the film are impressive, and they become the director’s vehicle for addressing other international topics. At the same time, the director seems to initially ask through the film whether sport is removed from politics, but he eventually answers his own question by providing a film that counters Russian propaganda.

“Olga” is a film that portrays Ukraine as a prosperous, democratic country with a promising young generation of individuals who hunger for freedom and self-expression.

This theme was magnified by an especially awe-inspiring rendition of Ukraine’s national anthem that was performed in a packed cinema hall at the Cannes Film Festival.

The film’s premier was attended by Anastasia Budyashkina, the star of the movie. A real-life gymnast from Luhansk, Ms. Budyashkina was a student of the Ivan Piddubny Olympic College. She learned about the casting for the film by accident during a gymnastics competition. Athletes were told that a French director was looking for a lead actress and he wanted a Ukrainian athlete. Many young Ukrainian gymnasts performed cameo roles in the movie. The film’s producers decided to use French subtitles, which allowed the audience to hear actors speak both Ukrainian and Russian.

“Babi Yar. Context”

Mr. Loznitsa’s documentary, “Babi Yar. Context,” is a series of edited archival videos that tell the story of the mass shootings of Jews in Babyn Yar in Kyiv in September 1941. At that time, the German army shot some 34,000 Jews in three days.

Created in collaboration with the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, the film uses restored, unique footage from Ukrainian, Russian and German archives. It documents the first months of World War II and includes footage of burned villages and prisoners of war, explosions on Khreshchatyk, and it shows the tragic events that occurred in Babyn Yar. Film producers unearthed the footage and created the sound to go with it, which brings the otherwise silent movie to life, giving viewers of the film a much more dramatic experience.

The film and its crew were introduced by Thierry Fremo, director general of the Cannes International Film Festival.

In a telling moment during the press conference for the film, one reporter asked Mr. Loznitsa about the government’s attitude toward the movie, mistakenly assuming that the director is Russian. Mr. Loznitsa reacted forcefully, underscoring that he is Ukrainian.

In a review by Screen Daily, an online British magazine that covers the film industry, Mr. Loznitsa’s movie was described as a “powerful documentary” that proved very relevant.

The publication highlights the skill of the director and his team, which “perform miracles with their material, some of which needed extensive restoration, the results show a horrific, brutal, poignant reality: corpses strewn in a field in the aftermath of battle; soldiers destroying village homes with flame throwers, a faint sound in the background that could be the wind or screams; Jews being beaten in city streets, in images that have a ghostly quality.”

Many of these images have never been seen by the public before. They were captured by German soldiers who brought amateur film cameras with them during the war.

“This might explain, too, the chilling nonchalance both behind and in front of the lens,” Screen Daily wrote in their review of the film.

“Babi Yar. Context” documents the eerie events of World War II. However, some of those events are shown without context. For instance, the people of Lviv and Kyiv are shown welcoming German soldiers with flowers, but later they are seen beating Jews on the streets. It was clear for this reporter that not everyone in Cannes understands Ukrainian attitudes toward the Soviet regime following the brutality of that regime, the Holodomor, and the many years under the occupation of the Red Army.

Mr. Loznitsa often expects that viewers of his films come to screens prepared and aware of the subject matter. However, in the best case an unprepared viewer might not understand what they just saw, and, in the worst case, they might leave the film with the impression that Ukrainians were German collaborators and anti-Semites.

Screen Daily wrote that, “as ever, [Mr.] Loznitsa doesn’t go out of his way to make clear what he’s showing, and the supposition is sometimes required; his films aren’t delivered on a plate. In this instance, any ambiguity regarding perpetrators, prisoners, victims, simply adds to the sense of a collective loss of humanity.”

The film was commissioned by the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, whose artistic director is Russian director Ilya Khrzhanovsky, a controversial figure in Ukraine. Mr. Khrzhanovsky has been criticized for open scenes of violence and the use of contradictory cinematic methods in his art project about the Soviet physicist Lev Landau, which was shot in Kharkiv. As a result, many questioned whether he was the right person for the Holocaust memorial.

Additionally, the Memorial is being built with funds from several oligarchs, among them Russian. Ukrainian public figure and Soviet dissident Josef Zissels called the project a Russian “Trojan horse” meant to portray Ukrainians as anti-Semites and Nazi collaborators. In May 2020, 750 intellectuals called on the Ukrainian authorities to suspend the construction of the Memorial.

Asked about the funding and Russian participation in creating a memorial in Kyiv, Mr. Loznitsa replied that Russians should participate in the project. His position is that despite the war, culture should not be attacked.