A View on Ukrainian Cinema from Hollywood

The New Pathway continues to cover Ukrainian cinema. Ukrainian cinema has been quite scarce in the past 20 plus years, but in the last couple of years there have been new movies and a spike of interest in them both in Ukraine and in the Diaspora. The launch in early March of this year of the Lira movie theater in Kyiv, which screens only Ukrainian movies, shows that this new trend is strengthening.

To get a more professional view of Ukrainian cinematography, we turned to Hollywood and interviewed Peter Borisow, the President of Hollywood Trident Foundation. This organization helps Ukrainians obtain greater visibility in the global media and entertainment. Mr. Borisow is also the President of Media Finance Management, a consulting firm which specializes in estimating the financial viability of movies.

NP: What is the history of the Hollywood Trident Foundation?

PB: There are very eminent and prominent Ukrainians in the film industry and in Hollywood going back to the inception of the industry. The Hollywood Trident Foundation itself is currently being reorganized. Jack Palance (born Walter Palahniuk) was the pillar of it and the inception of it, and, as you know, Jack passed away so we’re going through a bit of a reorganization. But we’re out there and we are getting some good things done I think.

NP: Which Hollywood actors are the most aware of their Ukrainian roots?

PB: Mila Jovovic is aware. Katheryn Winnick, the star of the Vikings series, is probably the most prominent Ukrainian actress at this point. She’s not only a great Ukrainian, she’s also a wonderful actress. I think her star is rising rapidly and we are all very proud of her, she’s done a great job on the screen and off.
We also have a star in Ukraine, Oleh Sanin, a director that’s presented the first Ukrainian language film “Mamaj” for consideration at the Oscars in the foreign language category, about 10 years ago . In 2014, he completed a picture called “Povodyr” which has been shown in many countries and festivals and it’s a very, very good picture.

NP: Do you think “Povodyr” will make it to the big screen globally?

PB: Well, Ukrainian films are always handicapped with a shortage of money, in particular for promotion, but in terms of the quality of the product, absolutely it’s there. It is a very, very good film. Serhiy Myhalchuk was the cinematographer and it’s not only a very good picture, it’s a very beautiful picture. It was a great job done under very difficult and challenging circumstances.

NP: We have talked to a Canadian movie producer Marko Robert Stech and a couple of Ukrainian movie directors and producers about “Mamaj” – everyone thinks that it is a beautiful picture, but it never had any commercial success in Ukraine or overseas. What does Ukrainian cinema lack apart from the funds to promote themselves?

PB: Two things. First and foremost, money. The directors and producers have to work on budgets – in the 1920s they were spending much more money on movies than Ukrainians do now. What the Ukrainian moviemakers put on the screen, considering the miniscule money they get, these guys are all geniuses. “Mamaj” was made on a shoe-string budget and “Povodyr” was probably made on a shoe-lace budget, and both are little compared to a regular Hollywood product’s budget. Second, industry-wide they need a better understanding on how the global film industry works. We have a new minister of culture in Ukraine and I think he is very much aware of the challenges they face and the mentality of the film industry in Ukraine which needs to commit to modernity and they’re not there yet. Which is one reason why Oles Sanin stands out – he’s been working on this project for many years and from its inception he was in touch with people from Hollywood – so he understands Hollywood and the business better than most people in Ukraine.

“…considering the miniscule money they get, Ukrainian movie-makers are all geniuses.”

NP: Do you think that if Sanin’s films, “Mamaj” in particular, had better publicity, they would have some commercial success in North America?

PB: Well, it’s also the question of the approach to how to make the movie. The basic theory of filmmaking from the old Soviet model is radically different than today’s modern Hollywood film, starting with the screen play. Most Ukrainian film-makers do not know how to write a screen play, the way Hollywood movies are made. They have to start with a basic building block and, much to his credit, Sanin understood that, and developed a Western-style script about a very Ukrainian subject, which is one reason why it worked.

The younger generation of Ukrainian film-makers is coming on board and they are understanding that their biggest challenge today is to separate themselves from the Russian film industry and the only way they can do that is to film in either Ukrainian or in English. As long as they are in Russian, they are going to be considered Russian films. They end up thrown into the basket with Russian films and Russia produces about 200 films a year, and they get lost, nobody pays attention to the Ukrainian movies in Russian. And the reputation of Russian films is not that strong. They just can’t compete with the French, Italian or German films and they don’t. They make a lot of Soviet-style products and neo-Soviet products, but it’s still an oligarchical-driven mentality and a different mindset.

NP: Would truly Ukrainian films have an easier time competing on the global market?

PB: Sure. Because Ukraine happens to have an extremely talented group of writers, directors, cinematographers and producers. The art of filmmaking is there, they just need a little money and a little room to breathe and blossom on their own.

NP: So you think that North American and the global markets would be interested in Ukrainian films, that it would be easier for them to compete with others instead of them being part of the Russian cinema?

PB: Absolutely. That was one of the great mistakes that Ukraine has been making in the past. When they submit a film, for example, for Oscar consideration in the Russian language, most of the people in the Academy say “Oh, another Russian movie” and don’t pay any attention to it. The reason “Mamaj” was so well received at the Academy is because everyone wanted to see a Ukrainian film because they had never seen a Ukrainian film, they didn’t know what it was. At that time, if Sanin and Myhalchuk decided to move to America, master English and become Hollywood film makers, at least one studio would have welcomed them, Sony. Sony had a huge wonderful studio and I was there at a screening of Mamaj at Sony and they loved it.

NP: So, what happened? Sanin turned the offer down?

PB: He didn’t turn the offer down, he just wasn’t ready to relocate his life to Hollywood, and the offer died. He is a Ukrainian and wanted to make Ukrainian movies, in Ukraine. It’s in his blood and the air that he breathes, much to his credit, he stuck to it and now created a new beautiful film.

NP: Did Sony want them to make American films or Ukrainian films?

PB: I don’t think they got that far…

NP: But in theory, would you expect Sanin to make Ukrainian films in America?

PB: They would have been making movies to what we call the world standard and those movies today combine many cultures. This was ten years ago and there’s a lot of guess work involved, but Ukrainians are good at movies and movie technologies. For example, one of the great talents in Ukraine is Anatoliy Kokush, film engineer who has invented the camera crane and stabilized camera and received three Academy awards in the technical category. Unfortunately, his camera crane is called the “Russian arm”.

NP: Let me rephrase my last question: Ukrainian films about Ukraine, with some generic story-lines but with a Ukrainian setting, would such films be successful globally?

PB: It’s absolutely possible. Ukraine is now all over the world media and is recognized, unfortunately, the price it had to pay for this was the invasion of the Donbas and Crimea by Russia. There are very few people in America or Canada that no longer know anything about Ukraine. It’s the question of finding a theme, every movie rests on the screenplay and the story. Propaganda movies from any country generally don’t work commercially, but stories that are located in certain countries where you hear certain languages are fine. That’s why Ukrainian language is so critically important to the Ukrainian film industry. They say that film is the mirror of a nation and I always add to that language is the voice of the soul and when you combine those two, you get a very powerful message. Even if the movie is made in English, but the story, the human side of the story, is good enough, it could play worldwide.

“…Ukrainian language is so critically important to the Ukrainian film industry.”

NP: Are you involved in Ukrainian filmmaking?

PB: I am advising the Ministry of Culture, which is kind of an anchor of the Ukrainian film industry, that they need to institute some serious reforms to catch up with where the rest of the world is in terms of the film industry, and I think they are aware of that. The orientation towards Europe and North America is a very positive one and I think the Ukrainian film industry, properly capitalized, will stand out and separate from the old Soviet pack and I think it’s going to be a very positive, creative and very nice future. I look forward to more Ukrainian films circulating outside of Ukraine.

NP: Do you think Ukraine should continue going into the direction of the “Ukrainian Poetic Cinema”, or a more commercial direction?

PB: Well at the end of the day, you can’t sustain an industry on poetry. That does not mean that the Ukrainian poetic tradition in film should be abandoned. No, absolutely not. But they need to develop the commercial side of the film making industry as well.

NP: How do you categorize this latest Mykhajlo Illenko’s film “Firecrosser”? Is it another Ukrainian poetic movie?

PB: It’s a wonderful movie, it’s a wonderful Ukrainian movie. I don’t know if it was intended for a world-wide Hollywood-style audience.

NP: It’s certainly not fit for that audience. What’s your opinion?

PB: It didn’t have an impact on that audience. Mykhajlo worked many years and had many challenges and I take my hat off to him for having accomplished it, but I don’t think it was ever intended to an overseas target market.