Phenomena of Ukrainian Cinema: Director’s Cut by Ukrainian Film Archive
The largest archive of Ukrainian cinema is located 20 minutes away from the center of Kyiv. After the Revolution of Dignity, Dovzhenko Centre established itself as a cultural and artistic center and—during the war—as a powerful player in cultural diplomacy. The team preserves, restores, researches, and promotes the art of Ukrainian and world cinema—through film screenings, lectures, exhibitions, publications, books, professional discussions.
It’s hard to believe now, but until 1994 Ukraine did not have its own film archive, despite the existence of Ukrainian cinema. It was unknown even to Ukrainians themselves.
Until the 1930s, Ukrainian cinematography developed in unison with the world, freely and competently competing in experimentation, artistic language, and global distribution. By the beginning of the 1930s, there were Ukrainian filmmakers, stars, film studios, film institutes, print publications, and even a film copying factory.
This rapid growth, however, was interrupted by the Stalinist regime. With the cancellation and destruction of the All-Ukrainian Photo-Cinema Administration (VUFKU) in 1930, analog film carriers were taken out of Ukraine to Moscow, and significant amounts of data and evidence were hidden or destroyed. The repressive machine of the 1930s undermined education, art, science, and above all, the people themselves. Archives and museums served this system—documents, books, publications, and artistic works were placed under the “special fund” label to never become accessible. Ironically, at the same time, in 1936, leading film archives—the Cinémathèque française, Germany’s Reichsfilmarchiv, the British Film Institute, and the Museum of Modern Art Film Library—recognized the need for an international network to ensure communication, exchange, and protection of cinematographic heritage for the understanding and development of the art of cinema. Thus, in 1938, FIAF—the International Federation of Film Archives—was established. Due to a deep ideological gap, the USSR was not invited to join.
For a long period of time, Ukrainian cinema disappeared as a phenomenon. In general, the entire history of Ukrainian intellectual tradition and art consists of continuous ruptures. The architect of these “damages” was and remains Russia, which actively worked on the ruptures, and then on new “montages” and collages. The result was the loss or blurring of identity and integrity.
Its revival became possible when Ukraine regained its independence in 1991. The National Oleksandr Dovzhenko Centre was created in 1994 to collect all the “ruptures” of cinematic history and assemble them independently. To finally become the director of their own identity.
The primary task of the Dovzhenko Centre was to gather and research all film materials that could be considered Ukrainian cinematic heritage. Ukrainian films were partially preserved in local film studios, in a closed archive of film, photo, and phonographic documents, and by the filmmakers themselves—all of them became the basis of the collection, as well as copies of films that miraculously survived at the film copying factory.
A large part of the films shot in Ukraine with the participation of Ukrainian filmmakers are still in the territory of Russia. The problem is that all Ukrainian-produced films were transferred to the State Film Fund of Russia, and since some of them were censored and did not reach the screens, no copies were preserved in Ukraine. Since the beginning of the 2000s, active work has been carried out to repatriate Ukrainian films, with peak activity falling in the period after 2010. Among the found films are those by Dovzhenko, Kavaleridze, Mikhail Kaufman, and Dziga Vertov. Along with them, hundreds of names of actors, screenwriters, cinematographers, and artists who remained unknown were discovered. However, a significant part of the films and related data remain inaccessible, which has become exacerbated by Russia’s aggressive policy and the war it unleashed against Ukraine. In the near future, these films and related documents, as well as artistic materials, will be waiting for restitution.
The world film archives played a significant role in the search for and return of Ukrainian cinematic heritage to the Dovzhenko Centre, where Ukrainian-produced films were preserved. For example, Taras Tryasilo is kept in the French Cinematheque, the popular science film Man and Monkey is in the National Film Archive of Japan, and the comedy Pigs Are Always Pigs is in the German Bundesarchiv. This search is ongoing, and discoveries are made possible thanks to the solidarity of film archives and museum institutions.
Nowadays, the Dovzhenko Centre is located on the territory of what used to be the only film copying factory in Ukraine, which stopped mass-producing films in the late 1980s. The factory itself has become an invaluable source of replenishment for the collection of Ukrainian-produced films from the 1960s-1980s because its employees wisely preserved copies. This object is valuable not only because it is evidence of an important part of the film process but also because rare film experts still work in the Film Fund. The construction of the film factory began immediately after World War II, and it marked the beginning of the development of the Holosiivskyi district in Kyiv. The factory was a “city within a city” with its infrastructure, an essential city-forming element.
After February 24, 2022, when Russian forces invaded a significant portion of Ukrainian territory and began massive shelling, the collection was under threat of physical destruction. On the first day, a Russian missile was shot down over the Centre, and debris damaged the building. The risk of looting and vandalism increased. However, this did not signal the need to protect the film archive for the management authorities in charge of the Dovzhenko Centre. Moreover, the situation was used to deprive it of support and start the reorganization process.
Nowadays, this cultural object has become attractive not only in the eyes of the culturally engaged community but also developers. They are trying to deprive the Centre of its premises, and the refusal of the managing authority to recognize the collection, as provided by law, radical cuts in funding, and a movement contrary to protection, weaken its potential and limit its opportunities. The Dovzhenko Centre team, together with the community, is doing everything, including seeking international support, to prevent another “break” in Ukrainian cinema, because restoring what has been lost will be incredibly difficult.
Despite these obstacles, the national film archive holds sold-out screenings in its native Kyiv, reveals the uniqueness of Ukrainian cinema to the world, and builds relationships with the local and global film community. The audience at Arsenal had the opportunity to watch Dovzhenko’s masterpiece Zemlya accompanied by the band DakhaBrakha and an introduction by the head of the Film Archive Oleksandr Teliuk, as well as a recent retrospective of Kira Muratova.
And despite everything, we have become convinced that Ukrainian cinema is not just “breaks.” It is the ability to self-preserve and find the strength to live; it is a cinema that survived totalitarianism and de-subjectivation (deprivation of subjectivity and identity). Therefore, the Dovzhenko Centre must act to ensure that the life of Ukrainian cinema continues, and its strength enriches the world’s heritage.