In a previous post I briefly mentioned Ukrainian cinema. I had seen very little of it, and knew even less. But I have been educating myself, and I have also watched several films now. The favourite so far is Larisa Shepitko's Wings from 1966. Maya Bulgakova plays Nadezhda Petrukhina, called Nadia, a former fighter pilot who was part of the Soviet air force during World War II, and now she works as a principal at a high school. The film combines impressionistic vignettes of her current life with flashbacks to her time as a pilot. The film opens with a scene of her at the tailor, getting fitted for some new clothes, and then in the next scene her excited students, at least the girls are excited, the boys are more blasé, watch her receive some kind of award or diploma. Next she intervenes after a male student has slapped a female student, and this intervention will have repercussions throughout the film. Here, after a few minutes of these vignettes, several themes of the film have been established, such as her alienation, the violence and discrimination against women, and the clashes between generations. Another example of this is her estrangement from her adopted daughter. Nadia's life has become stale and dull. Once, when she has decided that she cannot eat all her meals at home but needs to get out and eat at restaurants, she is denied a table as single women are not welcomed.
Nadia is often passive, pushed around by men, whether male students or adults. At the tailor's in the opening scene she is hardly moving and she is not speaking, the tailor is the active one. Despite her official status as a war hero, all of that seems to have drained from her now, for various reasons which are revealed and explored throughout the film.
Wings is a quiet, sad, and beautifully shot film, which feels spontaneous and improvised but is not. Bulgakova, who plays the lead, and Shepitko rehearsed for a month together before filming even began. It is set and shot in Sevastopol, Crimea, which at the time was part of Ukraine (it was forcibly taken over by Russia in 2014) and there are some scenes in the film in which Nadia wanders around the city, looking at things. In one particularly fine scene she goes to an exhibition about World War 2, and there she discovers that she is herself part of that exhibition, as one of the heroic pilots of the war. It is as if both society at large, and she herself, has made her a being with only a past, not much of a present or a future existence. The Ukrainian-born Maya Bulgakova is wonderful in her performance, expressive despite being withdrawn, and it feels like she and Shepitko are completely in sync with one another, and with the character. The film's visual style, editing and use of music feels of its time. When watching it one might at times think of Miloš Forman's Czech films and sometimes Agnès Varda, not least in the way the characters are presented and the attitude of the filmmaker towards them.
It has been surprisingly difficult to find exact information about Shepitko. Even the year of her birth has there been some confusion about, but it seems she was born in 1938 in Bakhmut, present-day Ukraine, although when she was born the city was called Artyomovsk. When she was still just a teenager she went to Moscow, and there she eventually graduated from VGIK, Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography. She was the only female student at the time (I think), and she had Alexander Dovzhenko as her tutor, until his death in 1956. She graduated in 1963, with the feature film Znoy. Before that she had made some fine short films, of which I have seen Zhivaya voda, a poetic evocation of life around a river (or is it a sea?) running through a city.
She made few films. After Wings came The Homeland of Electricity, an austere, yet remarkable, episode in the portmanteau film Beginnings of an Unknown Era (1967), which was banned at the time. In the Thirteenth Hour of the Night or 13PM (1969) is some kind of fantasy musical made for Soviet TV. You and Me (1971) is a drama which I have unfortunately not been able to watch. The Ascent (1977) is a cruel tale about soldiers suffering in deep snow during World War II. It seems to be her most famous film, and it is impressive, although I prefer Wings. Tragically, it would be the last film she finished, as she died in a car accident, together with some team members, while she was making Farewell, in 1979. Her husband Elem Klimov, also a prominent filmmaker, finished the film in 1981, and it was released in 1983. Considering her remarkable talents and vision, her early death, barely 40 years old, was a terrible loss for cinema.
Three other filmmakers from the Soviet era with Ukrainian credentials:
Alexander Dovzhenko, or Oleksandr Dovzhenko with Ukrainian spelling, was born in Ukraine and made his films there. I wrote about him here.
Grigory Chukhray, famous for writing and directing The Ballad of a Soldier (1959), was from Ukraine. I wrote about it here.
Kira Muratova was born in present-day Moldova but lived and worked in Ukraine. I am curious about her films, but have not seen any of them yet.
A good recent podcast about Ukrainian cinema: https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/the-film-comment-podcast-ukrainian-cinema
A link to the film archive in Kyiv: https://dovzhenkocentre.org/ The centre did a survey among Ukrainian critics, curators, and others about the best Ukrainian films of all time, and this is their top five:
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964)
Man With a Movie Camera (1929)
The Tribe (2014)
The Stone Cross (1968)