.Long Live Kyiv: From Ukraine’s past, a cinematic reminder of its complex identity

One of the numerous ways the cruel Russian invasion of Ukraine has acquired unanticipated meaning is in the long-standing question of Ukrainian artistic identity. The special release of filmmaker Sergei Parajanov’s Kyiv Frescoes (Kiyevskiye freski) is a case in point. 

In the 1960s, Parajanov, the ethnic Armenian, native Georgian, Moscow-educated director of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and The Color of Pomegranates, set out to fashion his contribution to the Soviet Union’s 20th anniversary celebration of Victory Day (May 9, 1945), the World War II triumph over Nazi Germany. Toward that end, Parajanov made Kyiv Frescoes as a 13-minute screen test for his cinematographer, Aleksandr Antipenko, and duly submitted it to Goskino, the USSR’s central state film committee. The entire production was immediately canceled and the surviving footage shelved for 20 years—a typical example of Soviet jitters over any cultural product that did not fall into the Kremlin’s narrow parameters of political acceptability. 

Looking at Kyiv Frescoes now, in the context not only of this year’s invasion of Ukraine but of the long and agonizing history of Russian hegemony over its fellow former Soviet Socialist Republics, Parajanov’s never-realized tone poem assumes a greater stature than the late filmmaker might have dreamt. The putative reasons it was hidden from sight in 1966 would seem to be linked to the rationale—such as it is—for Vladimir Putin’s attack in 2022. Ukraine, the place that inspired some of Parajanov’s most flamboyant cinematic visions, has evidently mystified and perplexed Russian rulers for more than 300 years.

The screen test itself is a strikingly stylized, brief series of near-dialogue-less vignettes and classically surrealistic installations on the theme of Ukrainians’ return to “real life” after the Great Patriotic War Against Fascism. Three soldiers sit down, remove their boots and mop the floor with their uniform tunics. One of the soldiers dreams of a voluptuous woman. A war widow symbolically invokes her wedding day by cutting up her wedding dress to make blackout window coverings. As we might expect from Parajanov, his point of view on the war’s end is ambiguous. No re-created battle scenes, no stirring patriotic anthems, in fact no standard patriotism at all. Just a few exhausted men and women exhaling after four years of facing death. Religious and wartime symbolism appear in every frame, but also the unexpected sight of a pair of African men dancing to a pop tune. Before we can begin to digest what we’re seeing, it’s over. 

Luckily we’ve got Olena Goncharouk, director of Kyiv’s Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, to explain things to us in a filmed conversation added on to the video program. Ukraine was an important part of European avant-garde cinema in the Soviet 1920s, but Ukraine always struggled to assert its identity in the face of Moscow’s control. “Ukraine didn’t want to go into the melting pot,” asserts Goncharouk, even as Russia turned up the heat. “To talk to the world, we have to understand ourselves.” Such Ukrainian compatriots as Dovzhenko (Earth), Yuri Ilyenko (The Eve of Ivan Kupalo), Aleksandr Ptushko (Ruslan and Ludmila, The Stone Flower) and Hollywood move-over Anatole Litvak (among his film noirs: Sorry, Wrong Number and The Long Night) might be inclined to agree. As an example of “Ukrainian Poetic Cinema,” the stillborn Kyiv Frescoes fits neatly into the portfolio. In the screen test’s introduction, film historian James Steffen describes Parajanov’s script as “self-reflexive and semi-autobiographical.” 

Audiences can access this long-suppressed, would-be Ukrainian rhapsody for free, streaming now through June 30 at Kino Now, the VOD platform of distributor Kino Lorber. Kyiv Frescoes is presented in a 4K restoration produced in 2021 by Daniel Bird on behalf of the Dovzhenko Centre and Dovzhenko Studios, technically enabled by Fixafilm, Poland. If you enjoy the film, consider contributing to the Dovzhenko Centre GoFundMe campaign: gofund.me/24394934. If Ukraine does indeed survive, the legacy of its film heritage could no doubt use a helping hand. 

Streaming on Kino Now 

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