Culture 14:07 24 Apr 2024

Exploring Ukraine's cinema world: Top 10 Ukrainian films you need to watch

Defiant Ukrainian filmmakers have continued creating their art despite all obstacles — facing persecution and even death during Soviet times and persevering through Russia's cruel, full-scale war today. Rubryka presents ten films that illustrate a rich and diverse heritage of Ukrainian cinema you should explore.

1. Man with a Movie Camera, 1929

Ukrainian films

Ukrainian films

Director: Dziga Vertov

This experimental silent film, created through the collaboration of two talented brothers, director Dziga Vertov and cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman, documents the life of the big Ukrainian cities of Kyiv, Odesa, and Kharkiv. Filmmakers used ingenious techniques Vertov invented and developed, such as multiple exposure, fast and slow motion, freeze frames, and more.

Dovzhenko Center, a Ukrainian state film archive and a cultural cluster, called the film one of the "major manifestos of the global cinema avant-garde." While "Man with a Movie Camera" was not well received when it was first shown to audiences in 1929, film critics today often name it one of the greatest films ever made. In 2022, the British Film Institute's reputable magazine, Sight&Sound, included the film in the top 9 of the best movies of all time.

Where to watch: Amazon US, Internet Archive, La Cinetek

2. Earth, 1930

Ukrainian films

Ukrainian films

Director: Oleksandr Dovzhenko

Likely the most famous Ukrainian film, "Earth," is set in a village during the first years of the forced collectivization of the 1920s, when Soviet authorities tore away the private property of Ukrainian farmers to create collective farm communes. Dovzhenko depicts the conflict between the Soviets and farmers and the Ukrainian people's sacred connection to their land and nature.

This silent film is recognized as a world cinema masterpiece and praised by renowned filmmakers like Martin Scorcese and film historians. "Earth" was named one of the twelve greatest films ever made at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair. The movie is included in educational programs of prestigious colleges, like Harvard Film School, for its artistic value and contribution to the craft of filmmaking.

Where to watch: Takflix, Klassiki, Internet Archive

3. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, 1964

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

Director: Sergei Parajanov

"Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors," also known as "Wild Horses of Fire," is based on a novella of the same name by Ukrainian author Mykhailo Kotsiubynskyi. It tells the tragic love story of Ivan and Marichka, who found themselves amidst a blood feud between their families.

Set in the Carpathian Mountains, the film poetically depicts the mystical traditions of the Hutsul people through Parajanov's strong use of color and haunting folk music score by composer Myroslav Skoryk. As the most internationally acclaimed Ukrainian film, "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" is number one on the List of the 100 best films in Ukraine's history. The ranking was voted by Ukrainian film critics and compiled by the Dovzhenko Center in 2021.

Where to watch: Takflix, Klassiki, Eastern European Movies

4. The Tribe, 2014

Ukrainian films

Ukrainian films

Director: Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi

The renowned Ukrainian film "The Tribe" follows the story of Serhii, a new boy at a boarding school for deaf students, who gets involved with a local gang. Made up of school residents and a teacher, the criminal organization appoints Serhii as a pimp for his fellow student Ania, who he soon falls in love with.

The film, which is entirely in sign language without subtitles, shows the alienated world of the deaf community. "The Tribe" premiered at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, winning the Critics' Week Grand Prize award. Critics widely discussed and praised the film, which went on to be on lists of that year's best films, including the Annual Top by Sight & Sound.

Where to watch: Google Play, Apple TV, Eastern European Movies

5. Atlantis, 2019

Ukrainian films

Ukrainian films

Director: Valentyn Vasianovych

The dystopian film "Atlantis" depicts the barren lands of Ukraine's east in 2025, one year after the country wins the war with Russia. Ukraine regained control of Donbas after the Russian occupation, but the land is no longer suitable for life. The protagonist, Serhii, a Ukrainian soldier with PTSD, starts working on a humanitarian mission, where he meets Katia, who gives him hope for a better future.

Looking into themes of trauma, loss, and the brutal impact of war, the director, Valentyn Vasianovych, cast non-professional actors who are former soldiers in the leading roles and used the stories about their experiences in the script. "Atlantis" received critical acclaim at its premiere at the Venice Fim Festival and won its prestigious Horizons award.

Where to watch: Takflix, Apple TV, Sweet TV

6. 20 Days in Mariupol, 2023

20 Days in Mariupol

20 Days in Mariupol

Director: Mstyslav Chernov

Ukraine's first Oscar-winning film, the documentary "20 Days in Mariupol,"  captured the violent atrocities Russian forces committed against the people of Mariupol, the Ukrainian seaport that Russia occupied at the beginning of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. A team of Ukrainian journalists trapped in the besieged city for 20 days documented horrible Russian war crimes  — the bombing of a maternity hospital and residential buildings and the killing of many innocent Ukrainian civilians.

In the acceptance speech for this year's Academy Award for Feature Documentary, Msystav Chernov said he wished he'd never made this film and wished he could exchange the award "for Russia never attacking Ukraine, never occupying our cities." Everyone must watch "20 Days in Mariupol" to understand the excruciating reality Russia's ongoing war brought to Ukrainian lives. 

Where to watch: Takflix, Google Play, Apple TV, Amazon US

7. The Earth Is Blue as an Orange, 2020

The Earth Is Blue as an Orange

The Earth Is Blue as an Orange

Director: Iryna Tsilyk

"The Earth Is Blue as an Orange" is an earlier documentary about the resilience of people living in the war zone in Ukraine's east. The director, Iryna Tsilyk, chronicles the everyday life of a family of five — a single mother, Hanna, and her four children — who overcome the challenges of war by making art. The documentary also explores the impact of the invasion on the family's town of Krasnohorivka, which became an almost deserted ghost town after six years of hostilities.

The film's name is a quote from a surrealist poem by Paul Eluard, which reflects how bizarrely war and peace coexist in the family's life — Hanna and her kids' home is a haven for joy in a dangerous front-line town. "The Earth is Blue as an Orange" premiered at the Sundance Festival in Toronto, winning the Best Director Award in the World Cinema Documentary category.

Where to watch: Takflix, Criterion, Sweet TV, Google Play

8. The White Bird Marked With Black, 1971

Ukrainian films

Ukrainian films

Director: Yurii Illienko

The events in the poetic film "The White Bird Marked With Black" unfold in a Ukrainian village on the border with Romania during World War II. The story revolves around three brothers — Petro, Orest, and Heorhii — on opposing warring sides. While Petro begins service in the Soviet troops, Orest joins the ranks of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. Heorhii chooses to be neutral.

Against the backdrop of the charming landscapes and the traditions of Ukrainians in the historical region of Bukovyna, the film uncovers the themes of family bonds, loyalty, and unfairness of life. Film critic Larysa Briukhovetska said in her article "Film Comes from Sorcery" that international critics compared the film "to a skillfully painted mural" "woven from historical truth and creative imagination."

Where to watch: Takflix, Eastern European Movies, Klassiki

9. My Thoughts Are Silent, 2019

Ukrainian films

Ukrainian films

Director: Antonio Lukich

"My Thoughts Are Silent" tells the story of Vadym, a young sound engineer who feels lost in his life and dreams about a better future in a different country. When the young man gets a job offer from a Canadian video game company that needs recordings of the sounds of indigenous Ukrainian animals, he jumps at the opportunity and goes on a road trip to the Carpathian Mountains to get them. Vadym is joined by an unlikely companion, his mom, on an adventure toward self-discovery.

In his debut movie, Lukich combines the features of drama and comedy to create a quirky story about the leading character's insecurities and relationship with his mother. Ukrainian film critics applauded the witty film for its inventive storytelling. It received many national film awards, and audiences who related to Vadym's story made the movie a box-office hit in Ukraine.

Where to watch: Takflix, Amazon US

10. Maidan, 2014

Ukrainian films

Ukrainian films

Director: Sergei Loznitsa

The documentary "Maidan," by one of the most prolific Ukrainian filmmakers, Sergei Loznitsa, captures civil protests in Kyiv from November 2013 to February 2014. A peaceful student demonstration against Putin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych's decision to withdraw from the Association Agreement with the European Union turned into mass protests of half a million people fighting for Ukrainian democracy.

The events, now named the Revolution of Dignity, shaped Ukraine's modern history. Ukraine's resistance and desire to choose its future, shown during protests, resonates today amid Russia's full-scale war. The resilient people of Ukraine are still fighting to preserve their freedom against the aggressor trying to take it away. "Maidan" was critically acclaimed at its release. Film critic Lee Marshal rightly put, "Loznitsa's sincere and memorable document retains its fascination with those small details that make us human and make democracy worth fighting for."

Where to watch: Google Play, DaFilms


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