Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky’s impassioned speech, delivered Wednesday during the opening ceremony of the Venice Film Festival, was a reminder to the international film industry not to ignore or forget the war raging on Europe’s eastern borders.
“Your opinion is important, and your voice counts,” Zelensky said in his recorded video, calling on the film industry to “talk about this war with the most clear language possible: the language of cinema, the language that you all talk.”
More than six months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, news of the war has begun to slip out of the headlines, something Zelensky pointed to in his speech, noting the danger that those killed in the conflict could fall into “obliviousness and obscurity.”
But in the months since the Feb. 24 invasion, the global film industry has come together to support and sustain the embattled Ukrainian film industry, by financing, distributing and showcasing Ukrainian cinema and the people who make it.
Initiatives like the $20 million Ukrainian Content Club will see global giants like Netflix and the BBC pre-buy or co-produce Ukrainian content. The Ukrainian Film Academy and House of Europe, a European Union-funded body set up to foster cultural exchange between Ukrainians and their EU colleagues, launched a program to provide script development grants of up to $15,000 for scriptwriters and producers to develop film and TV pitches for the international market. House of Europe and Netflix have launched a separate stipend program to provide education on filmmaking, post-production and pitching for 100 Ukrainian creators.
Major international film festivals have put a focus on Ukrainian productions and set up programs to connect local filmmakers with financiers, co-producers and sales companies outside the country.
On Sept. 8, Venice will host a Ukrainian Day featuring a series of such initiatives set up under the auspices of the festival’s Venice Production Bridge industry section.
“The most important thing right now is funding, because the Ukrainian TV and film market, and the Ukrainian economy, has been very hard hit by the war and will be in a bad state for a long time,” says Daria Leygonie-Fialko, one of the producers who, shortly after the Russian invasion, co-founded the Ukrainian film and TV collective Organization of Ukrainian Producers (OUP), to document the Russian invasion and its impact on Ukraine.
A few weeks ahead of the Venice Film Festival, Autentic, the non-fiction division of German indie powerhouse Beta Film, snatched up international distribution rights to OUP-produced documentaries Mariupol. Unlost Hope and 9 Lives. Unlost Hope, based on the diaries of local journalist Nadia Sukhorukova, shows the war through the eyes of local people who lived through the first month of the invasion in Mariupol. 9 Lives follows the volunteers who risked their lives to rescue animals from the areas that were abandoned in the wake of the Russian attack.
“The main mission of our organization is to help Ukraine in this war by showing the world, the international audience, what is happening in Ukraine, to give a transparent and fair picture to counter Russian propaganda,” says Igor Storchak, one of OUP’s founders.
Beta Film has been particularly active in backing Ukrainian productions since the war, recently picking up Ukrainian historic series Cardamom Coffee for the global market and selling The Silence, a Croatian-Ukrainian co-production, to HBO Europe and Germany’s ZDF.
“The Ukrainian people are not only setting a heroic example for the world, but I think will also inspire a desire for more heroic stories.” Beta head Jan Mojto told a crowd of international buyers at this year’s MIPTV television market in Cannes in April.
European funding bodies are infamously rigid in their regulations, but European producers have found creative ways to use regulation loopholes to shift support towards Ukrainian productions. The Polish Film Fund allows 20 percent of its subsidy support to be spent outside of Poland, funding that can be spent on Ukrainian filmmakers. In Luxembourg, the figure is 40 percent. France’s CNC has begun accepting funding applications made by French producers with Ukrainian writers on board. And Belgian’s tax shelter is being used to set up co-productions with Ukrainian creatives.
Antonio Lukich’s Luxembourg, Luxembourg, which will screen in competition in Venice’s Horizons section this year, and which Celluloid Dreams is selling worldwide, got post-production support from Sweden’s Göteborg Film Festival.
Lukich is currently one of four Ukrainian directors visiting Göteborg on a three-month residency stay. The festival, with backing from the Swedish Institute and the Swedish Postcode Foundation, on Thursday announced a new scheme that will provide $7,100 (SEK 75,000) grants for Ukrainian filmmakers to develop their next projects.
“This kind of support is super, super important, and it’s a big honor to even be mentioned in the same breath with some of these organizations,” Lukich says, proudly showing off his Göteborg festival hoodie. “There are obviously more important things for Ukraine to spend its money on right now than films, things like weapons and medicine. So it’s really important that we have these islands of support that can help the survival of Ukrainian culture.”
Luxembourg, Luxembourg, a personal drama about twin brothers and their relationship with their absent father, is set well before the war and has nothing to do with the current conflict.
“I think fiction is probably not the way to go right now for Ukrainian filmmakers, both because it is very expensive and because the reality in Ukraine seems to make documentaries more urgent,” says Lukich.
Indeed, the other two Ukrainian films screening in Venice are non-fiction: Evgeny Afineevsky’s Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom and The Kiev Trial from acclaimed Ukraine director Sergei Loznitsa (Babi Yar. Context, Donbass). Both are screening out of competition. The first deals directly with the current conflict. The latter is a look at the Kiev Trial, the 1946 show trial, and public execution, of German war criminals in Ukraine by the Soviet Union. While The Kiev Trial was planned well ahead of the Feb. 24 invasion, Loznitsa notes the “shocking” parallels to today.
“The same things, the same crimes are being committed now, in the same places in Ukraine,” Loznitsa says. “The circumstances of the current war are very similar to what we see and hear in this film.”
Loznitsa is currently shooting a documentary on the current conflict, tentatively titled The Invasion, which is expected to premiere next year.
“I’m interested in how the war is impacting and transforming Ukraine society,” he says, “and also looking at how the war crimes being committed in Ukraine are being investigated. Will it actually be possible to bring the perpetrators to justice?”
For Ukrainian directors, the struggle to continue to produce and release movies is primarily about the struggle to preserve Ukrainian national identity amid Russian attempts to wreak cultural as well as military destruction on their country.
“We’re at war because we want to be an independent country, but it’s also about culture and language,” said director Maryna Er Gorbach (Klondike) at the Sarajevo Film Festival’s industry event Sarajevo’s CineLink earlier this month. “We want to be Ukrainians. Culture is the reason why we had this war…And to do that [to make culture] we need money!”