Ukrainian cinema in the 21st century has emerged from the shadow of coproductions with russia into independent auteur projects that are shown at film festivals in Berlin, Cannes and Venice. If previously it was associated with poetry and nomenclature, now it has a lot of new names, high-profile films and more different themes and genres.
DTF Magazine tells about 10 films which, in our opinion, hold an important place in the history of contemporary Ukrainian cinema and have amazed not only the local audience, but also the international audience.
«The Tuner», 2004
directed by Kira Muratova
Kira Muratova was born in Romania, but when she became a full-time director at the Odesa Film Studio, she settled in the port city and received Ukrainian citizenship after 1991. Her position has always remained pro-Ukrainian: she supported the Revolution of Dignity, did not deny Ukrainianization and wanted putin to leave Ukraine alone. A russian narrative emerged around Muratova, calling her a russian filmmaker. It was picked up by the Western media: for example, Variety magazine called her «The Tuner» a «satire on russian reality».
However, «The Tuner» shows the Ukrainian reality, or to be more precise, the Odesa reality. The protagonist Andrei (Georgi Deliyev) wants to get rich, so he deceives a wealthy widow (Alla Demidova) and her friend (Nina Ruslanova). He forges a lottery ticket and says that they have won 100 thousand dollars. And Andrei offers to lend him 7,000 until the money arrives to surprise the depraved Lina (Renata Litvinova), with whom he is in love.
Thanks to music by Valentyn Silvestrov and comedic intonations, the director modernized the memoirs of detective Arkady Koshko, who wrote novels back in czarist times. «The Tuner» is also distinguished by the recognizable style of Kira Muratova, namely the absurd grotesque, lines that are repeated several times and the hermetic world of people living according to their own laws.
Where to watch: YouTube
«The Tribe», 2014
directed by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy
Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s first and so far only feature film (his short «Nuclear Waste» can be seen on our website) was shown at the International Critics’ Week in 2014 at Cannes Film Festival, immediately after the Revolution of Dignity, the seizure of Crimea, and the partial occupation of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The Ukrainian project was already in the spotlight even without knowing the plot or the big names in the film. And it was for a reason, because the debutant director created a universal story that could have happened in any boarding school for hearing-impaired children.
The film is about a guy named Serhiy, who ends up in boarding school and gradually makes his way to the top of the criminal organization «The Tribe». He robs and becomes a pimp, but decides to commit mutiny when he falls in love with Anya, a sex worker and concubine of the authoritative King.
The director worked with nonprofessional actors who are hearing-impaired, and the film itself was the first in the world to be shot entirely in Ukrainian sign language. «The Tribe» was screened at dozens of international festivals, including screenings in San Sebastian, London and «Sundance». Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre ranked it fourth on its list of the 100 best films in Ukrainian cinema history, and film critic Todd McCarthy for The Hollywood Reporter named it his favorite of 2015.
«The Tribe» also drew attention to its creators. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy was invited to Hollywood to shoot the survival drama «The Tiger», which is being produced by Brad Pitt and Darren Aronofsky, although nothing has been heard about the project since 2018. «The Tribe» cameraman Valentyn Vasyanovych also went into directing feature films — his «Atlantis» and «Reflection» screened at the Venice Film Festival in 2019 and 2021, respectively.
Where to watch: YouTube
«When the Trees Fall», 2018
directed by Marysia Nikitiuk
The debut of writer and poetess Marysia Nikitiuk shows the Ukrainian province, in which the protagonist Larysa rebels against her grandmother, the desire of her beloved bandit Scar to get out of the village and life without any prospects of home. «We managed to find a balance between mysticism (I would say magic) and the social line, — the director tells us in our interview. — After all, every day in our daily lives we are still looking for signs and symbols, a road of metaphors that will lead us through suffering, pain and the “obnoxious lightness of being”».
Nikityuk fantasizes about gangsterism, stereotypes in the Ukrainian countryside, quotes favorite films (motifs from Quentin Tarantino’s «Death Proof» can be seen in the chase scenes) and provokes memories of the most notable novels by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It is the combination of magical realism and Ukrainian realities that distinguishes «When the Trees Fall» from the rest of the teenage dramas in the world.
Marysia Nikitiuk was compared to Carlos Reygadas and Andrii Tarkovsky when the film was shown at the Panorama 68 section of the Berlin Film Festival, but most importantly, they noted that there is no ceiling for a director. Maybe that’s why Nikityuk didn’t shoot for so long, looking for the right project for her. After her debut, she worked on scripts, such as «Homeward» in co-authorship with Nariman Aliev, and in 2022 should be released next feature film «Ya, Nina», based on real life events from the life of TV host Yanina Sokolova.
Where to watch: Takflix
directed by Roman Bondarchuk
Roman Bondarchuk is from the Kherson region, which is occupied by the russian military. This explains why he is interested in the Kherson children’s jazz orchestra («Dixie Land») and the residents of the village of Stara Zburyivka in Kherson region, who volunteer to become sheriffs because of the lack of police («Ukrainian Sheriffs»).
Roman Bondarchuk’s debut feature film is also about the bizarre reality of his native region. The protagonist Lucas works as a translator for the OSCE. He gets lost in the town of Beryslav, where he is considered suspicious and an outsider, but he hides at the home of Vova, the oddball host who gives him temporary shelter. Lucas at first tries to regain his lost documents and his old life, but then accepts reality and lives by the rules of the community.
«Volcano» is a Ukrainian «Odyssey» of the Ukrainian south with its own rules and laws. Bondarchuk tried to make them understandable for everybody, and judging by the reviews he succeeded. Variety discerned in the drama humor and the director’s love for the locals, while Screendaily draws attention to the dangerous environment «in which gangs carry machine guns, many locals do not have passports, and no one has a usual job».
Where to watch: Takflix
«The Gateway», 2017
directed by Volodymyr Tykhyi
Ukraine has problems with genre diversity in cinema. Quality mystical thrillers can be counted on the fingers of one hand, but there is a theme that is exploited in Ukraine almost most often, it is Chornobyl. Playwright Pavlo Arie has placed paranormal motifs in the Exclusion Zone and wrote a play, «At the Beginning and End of Time», in which Irma Vitovska («Lesya + Roma») played the title role.
Volodymyr Tykhyi, who has experience in directing comedies («SV-Show» with Verka Serduchka, «Lethal Kittens») filmed the play «At the Beginning and the End of Time» according to its plot: there is a mysterious force in Chernobyl, which inhabits people and seeks to get rid of a wise woman, then a witch Baba Prisya. Her family persuades her to leave, but Baba Prisya is determined to resist the hostile force.
«The Gateway» is as if made for those who have an aftertaste of the game «Stalker». At the same time, the film helps to mythologize Ukraine and the Exclusion Zone as something outlandish, mystical and paranormal. It is probably difficult to watch it without the context of the play, especially — without the interpretation of theater director Stas Zhyrkov in the play «Stalkers», but it is quality proof that elements of the thriller and horror have a place in the history of modern Ukrainian cinema.
Where to watch: Takflix
directed by Tymur Yashchenko
The audience applauded, exclaiming «Glory to Ukraine! Glory to Heroes» at the premiere of «Cherkasy» at the Odesa International Film Festival. Even more interesting is that the project came out without the support of patriotic films contest, but thanks to the support of the Ukrainian State Film Agency, the Ukrainian Armed Forces of Odesa and Chernihiv regions, as well as crowdfunding. This is so far the first and only case of such funding.
Tymur Yashchenko’s film shows the events surrounding the minesweeper, which did not surrender to the russians until the last moment in the spring of 2014. The film crew was advised by the commander of the ship Yuri Fedash. Although the ending differs from the real events, «Cherkasy» accurately reproduces everything that happened during the defense of the minesweeper, and so far is the only live-action Ukrainian film about the seizures of Crimea.
Unlike the other films in the selection, «Cherkasy» does not have such a rich festival history, but it is an important film for an international audience, because it convincingly shows the heroism of the crew members, which we continue to see among the soldiers and officers of the AFU. There are two editing versions of the film, namely the festival version and the rental version. The latter is shorter, more informative, but with an unfinished ending.
Where to watch: Takflix
directed by Nariman Aliev
The eldest son of Crimean Tatar Mustafa (Akhtem Seitablaev) dies as a soldier in eastern Ukraine. His father goes to Kyiv to collect his body and bury it according to Muslim traditions in the Crimea. Mustafa also takes his youngest son, Alim, although he initially refuses. Together they have to travel the dangerous road to get home.
Nariman Aliev’s debut was the first film at the Cannes Film Festival that was partly in Crimean Tatar. In Ukraine before the premiere of «Homeward» only one full-length film in Crimean Tatar language was released, namely «Haytarma» by Akhtem Seitablaev, so the world community had few opportunities to get acquainted with the history of Crimea and the context of the Crimean Tatars.
The script of «Homeward» was called «chauvinistic» and «lacking originality» after the first screenings at Cannes , but the visual style and the significance of the story were noted. «Although the story is centered on an odyssey through local terrain, the film clearly understands what many travel movies miss: the open road rarely equates to freedom for marginalized people, — The Guardian wrote. — In fact, the Tatars in «Homeward» are constantly subjected to aggression from others as well as from government agencies».
«My Thoughts Are Silent», 2019
directed by Antonio Lukich
«My Thoughts Are Silent» still holds the record at the box office among author’s films, namely 10 million UAH with a budget of 9.4 million UAH. In the Ukrainian reviews the cinema critics explain this success by the recognition of realities, and in the western media they think that this story may be interesting for the international audience as well. But there is a noticeable difference: while in Ukraine movies are called comedy or tragicomedy, Cineuropa gave another genre definition, namely dramedy.
In the story, freelancer Vadym takes an interesting job to save up money to move to Canada. He goes to Zakarpattia and records animal sounds for a video game, but his mother gets in the way, who does not want to let her son go and be alone. A generational conflict arises between them, which is resolved on the road to Vadym’s dream.
Antonio Lukich dedicated his debut to mothers: «This film is my attempt to find common ground with my mother and it can be a therapy for the relationship between parents and children». This hook worked for audiences, because the «Take your mom to a movie» campaign drew so much attention to the film that there is already talk of a sequel.
directed by Valentyn Vasyanovych
This is the year 2025. Ukraine has won the war with russia, but its end has left an uninhabitable land. The main character helps exhume the bodies of fallen soldiers and does not want to leave the post-apocalyptic landscape. What keeps him here is a crush on a «Black Tulip Mission» volunteer. An Utopian future through the eyes of Valentyn Vasyanovych («Black Level», «Reflection») won the Grand Prize in the «Orizzonti» section at the Venice Film Festival.
The main virtue of Vasyanovych’s films is working with non-professional actors and having almost complete control over the production of the projects. He looks for textured personalities with no experience similar to that of his characters. Therefore, the main role is played by a veteran of the russian-Ukrainian war and volunteer Andriy Rymaruk.
The director also shoots and edits his films himself. «I learn how to make movies at each of these stages, — Valentyn Vasyanovych says. — I see my mistakes when I shoot badly and have to edit. And the next time I will not make them. And when more than one person makes a movie, as a director I need to verbalize the meanings that I didn’t fully understand».
Vasyanovych’s camerawork experience makes «Atlantis» a large-scale epic without much action. His style, revealing the story in long shots, is already recognized in the world. And as if that’s not enough, because the director still has a few more ways up his sleeve to surprise, such as depicting realistic violence.
Where to watch: сoming soon on SWEET.TV
directed by Kateryna Gornostai
The events of the film unfold around 16-year-old Masha (Maria Fedorchenko), who is friends with Yana (Yana Isaienko) and Senia (Arsenii Markov). A secret admirer writes to her on Instagram, and Masha suspects that it may be her classmate Sasha (Oleksandr Ivanov), but he is afraid to admit it.
«Stop-Zemlia» is the first Ukrainian film to use the experience of an acting lab. The film’s creators announced a casting call for young people without professional acting experience, and over the course of two months they were taught to improvise and held classes to make a group of strangers into a unified collective. Read more about this experience in the actors’ interview with the director.
Kateryna Gornostai’s feature debut won the «Crystal Bear» in the Generation 16+ section at the Berlin Film Festival. But even without this added value, it has something more valuable, namely the recognizable reality of Ukrainian teenagers. Six of the ten films in our selection are distinguished by the fact that they are played by non-professionals, thus creating an authenticity of Ukrainian reality. «Stop-Zemlia» goes even further in this context, because it educates future actors, of course, if each of the cast decides to continue acting in Ukrainian cinema.
Where to watch: in cities where cinemas work