The View From Here: Bitter Harvest

Bitter Harvest scene

Volodymyr Kish.

The long-awaited film Bitter Harvest finally made its debut in Canada last week and I was privileged to be able to attend its premiere at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. I had been following the progress of the making of this film for some years now, and was more than curious about how it would turn out. Dealing with one of the seminal tragedies of Ukrainian history poses some unique and daunting challenges that most movie producers don’t usually have to worry about. Finding the right balance between conveying a powerful message while at the same time presenting a story that will also engage and entertain a broad audience outside the Ukrainian community, was certainly no easy task.

I am more than pleased to report that the film more than met my expectations and I found it genuinely satisfying on all levels. Bitter Harvest is a powerful and moving film, with top notch acting, cinematography, production values, story line, dialogue, and above all, emotional punch.  It succeeds in presenting the overwhelming tragedy of the Holodomor on a personal and human level through the eyes and framework of a romantic relationship of the two protagonists, Yuri and Natalka, inhabitants of the small village of Smila during the period of the genocidal collectivization program of the infamous Joseph Stalin.

As Stalin himself once said, “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” That has always been one of the problems in getting the wider world to understand the magnitude and impact of what the Holodomor was. Statistics in themselves often fail to convey the tragic human dimension of massive historical events and upheavals such as the Holodomor. Numbers are abstract, impersonal things, while tragedy is experienced on a very individual and emotional basis. We can only begin to appreciate the magnitude of the horror of something like the Holodomor when we put a human face to it and set it in the context of individual experiences.

That has been the secret behind the success of some of the greatest historical movies ever made. Trying to understand the nature and impact of the Russian Revolution for instance is no easy matter. Yet the movie Doctor Zhivago brought out the essence of what it meant through the experiences of a varied group of engaging characters experiencing the pain, the suffering and the consequences of this turbulent period of history.

Similarly, I can remember studying the subject of slavery in the U.S. when I was back in high school, but I never fully appreciated what it all meant until I saw the mini-series Roots on television in the late 70’s. That dramatic opus brought home the true magnitude and horror of this societal evil, because it conveyed its effect on the lives of ordinary people we could identify with. It transformed historical abstractions into personal experience.

There is no shortage of other examples of powerful films making history real and understandable on a personal level. Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful deal with the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust. All Quiet on the Western Front brings home the senselessness of the First World War, while Saving Private Ryan reflects the gritty realities of the Second World War. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich portrays the cruelty of the Soviet Gulags. Gandhi graphicly covers the struggles for India’s independence from British rule. Spartacus documents the morass and corruption that was the Roman Empire in its decline.

It might be stretching things a bit to say that Bitter Harvest ranks up there with these highly acclaimed and award winning films. Nonetheless, it does for the Holodomor what these films did for their respective important historical themes. It is a well-crafted movie that will bring you closer to understanding what the Holodomor did to the psyche and spirit of the Ukrainian people, and how its consequences still influence Ukraine today. And perhaps just as important, it tells a great and moving story that both touches one emotionally and inspires one with the resiliency and courage of the human spirit.