Lots of people associate Ukraine with war. But what is hidden behind the concrete wall of the news feed?
How to experience the Ukrainian moment and understand who Ukrainians are?
You may listen to our national anthem or the singing of Ukrainian children in bomb shelters, walk the streets of Khreshchatyk until the next air-raid siren sounds, and taste Ukrainian borscht or deruny (Ukrainian potato pancakes — ed.).
But the cinematography is the most expressive of all languages to tell about the country’s culture. Ukrainian cinema is filled with deep meanings, eroticism, good music, atmospheric scenes, pain, healing, and catharsis. And the war. And the victory.
We talked to Ukrainian film critic Ihor Kromf and picked seven Ukrainian festival films that are worth watching.
In the first part of this list, you will see an enigmatic road movie, a silent sociopsychological crime western, a dystopian film with unique symbolism and a family drama with the elements of a crime.
‘My Thoughts Are Silent,’ 2019
‘My Thoughts Are Silent’ is a tragicomedy, a road movie and the debut film of Antonio Lukich, who won an award at the Santa Monica Film Festival, a Special Jury Prize at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and Best Directorial Debut at the Raindance Film Festival in Britain.
The main character is a young sound engineer, Vadym, who dreams of becoming a musician and creates electronic music. To repay the loan for dental treatment, Vadym has to record the sounds of Ukrainian animals and birds in Transcarpathia, including the rare Rakhiv mallard, for a client from Canada.
The customer does not want to make a recording in Canada, as he thinks animals in Ukraine are supposedly more nervous, which is why you can hear the apocalyptic sound in their voices. There is a slight irony here because Ukrainians, who undoubtedly experience a lot of anxiety, transmit such a projection onto their animals.
Starring newcomer actor Andrii Lidahovskyi and Ukrainian film star Irma Vitovska. He is tall, clumsy and insecure. She is a short and loud woman who walks straight ahead. Although the duet of these two opposites creates a comic effect, a sentimental story unfolds between these characters because they are close people trying to find a common language.
‘Antonio Lukich in ‘Thoughts Are Silent’ partially works with what was invented in the 60s by Heorhii Daneliia, a Soviet director. This is what is called a sentimental comedy: when it is funny and then a little sad.
This tape is built on such humour, which seems to cause laughter, and then a certain embarrassment because the director works with very realistic and true-to-life things’, says Ihor Kromf.
Antonio Lukich himself comes from Transcarpathia, so he vividly conveys the ethnic flavour: a small roadside hotel, conversations at the family table with the characteristic ‘when are you going to you find a normal job’ question, Romanian border guards on whom the hero rushes, smugglers who smear their lips with hygienic lipstick, and many unique touches. The scene of eating sandwiches with the sanatorium in the background is already a work of art.
‘Another feature of the film is that Lukich shoots in locations he deeply understands. For example, the moment with the lipstick… They really do it because the lips are weathered in the mountains. Or the story of radio ‘Sakura’ in Transcarpathia with its blossoming cherry trees. He writes from real-life stories that he understands,’ says Kromf.
The director artfully works with music, which is an important point and another advantage of the film. The playlist created by Lukich harmoniously combines with the shots. This music is the key to understanding the picture.
According to the film critic, the director specially selected some scenes to match the sound, and he allocated half of his film’s budget to purchase the rights to the Spice Girls’ song.
‘For Lukich, it was fundamental. One of the leading characters, the mother, played by Irma Vitovska, was supposed to be a Spice Girls fan because she is a woman of the 90s. It was important for him to make this reference’, says Ihor Kromf.
‘My Thoughts Are Silent’ has a lot of synth wave, retro wave, and underground hip-hop.
‘They were waiting for confirmation of the right to use the music for over a year because there was a little-known band from Europe. It was several people recorded the track and put it on SoundCloud.
Techno-wave works excellent there because these are tunes from games of the 90s. Besides, it is the music used in road radio because it is euphonious and suitable for sound in the background,’ explains the critic.
The film ‘My Thoughts Are Silent’ is a universal thing about the generation of millennials, parents and children, which is understandable to Europeans, says Ihor Kromf.
‘Lukich takes on his hero Vadym and, through him, describes the collective character of his generation, 25–30 years old people. The audience sees themselves in Vadym and his relationship with his mother,’ says the film critic.
The film touches on the subject of internal crisis, finding oneself and one’s way against the demands of society, overcoming disappointments, and the constant problem of parents and children. Mom seems to want to live her life and looks for love on the Internet, but at the same time can not let her son go and does not perceive him as an adult while he experiences difficulties with separation and personal boundaries.
Will this trip help ‘cut the umbilical cord’? It is better to see by yourself because the difficulties and adventure that befall the heroes, amazing Transcarpathian landscapes and vibrant soundtracks are worth watching this heartfelt and funny film.
Where to watch: Netflix, Takflix (English, Russian, German subtitles), JustWatch etc.
‘The Tribe,’ 2014
‘The Tribe’ is a silent crime-drama film directed by Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi and co-produced by Ukraine and the Netherlands. It ranks 4th in the list of the 100 best movies in the history of Ukrainian cinema.
The tape received more than 40 awards at world film festivals, including the European Film Prize and three prizes at the Cannes Film Festival. The pictures in ‘The Tribe’ are terrifyingly naturalistic, cruel and eloquent, but without sound.
In the centre of the plot is a story of a boy, Serhii, who enters a boarding school for deaf people, joins a gang and falls in love with a girl, Ania. Between love and finding one’s place in the world — arbitrariness, a sense of danger and the oppressive walls of the boarding school.
According to film critic Ihor Kromf, with the appearance of ‘The Tribe,’ the history of the Ukrainian ‘new wave’ of cinema from 2013 to 2014 begins.
‘It is an outstanding piece of cinema that does not use sound at all. It works exclusively on visuality.’
‘It is an outstanding piece of cinema that does not use sound at all. It works exclusively on visuality. If you don’t know sign language, you practically don’t know what the actors are talking about. There are no subtitles, so you constantly have to look at the camera, and the editing, to understand what is happening.
Before that, Slaboshpytskyi had a short film, and ‘The Tribe’ became a full-length feature. This is quite an interesting experiment,’ says the critic.
The film has several notable features: foremost, it is a film without sound, making it incredibly innovative. Even flies and the wind do not make any noise. In the period of the 2000s and 2010s, no one did this, explains the film critic.
‘The director managed to build the story so that it was clear what the scenes were about without any sound at all. This is the director’s skill and talent; of course, Slaboshpytskyi is excellent in this,’ says Ihor Kromf. ‘The Tribe’ also featured almost no professional actors. All the main characters are deaf and mute teenagers who graduated from boarding schools, making their acting natural. The only professional actress is the performer of the leading role, and for others, it was a creative experiment.
‘The Tribe’ is a highly social tape, so it tells several stories about what happened in some boarding schools in the 2000s and 2010s. Prostitution, early pregnancy, domestic crime — all this existed outside the walls of such institutions.
‘A fascinating thing is that the director himself presents this film as a western, which is hard to argue with. According to the canon of westerns, there is a clan, and then a hero comes from afar and falls in love with the heroine, the leader’s partner or hostage. He defeats the gang, takes the girl and goes far away. If you look at the plot of ‘The Tribe,’ that is it.
The main character enters a criminal community that functions according to its own rules, falls in love with the leader’s girl, suffers because of this love, takes revenge on the entire gang and leaves. It is a western plot, but this genre has already experienced revision in the 60s and 90s. Hence, the director takes the story of a classic western and superimposes it on the social history of Ukraine. It turns out unexpectedly, but it works,’ says Ihor Kromf.
After all, the film’s characteristic ‘language’ is naturalism and brutality. You need to have an emotional resource to watch this film, as the story is complex, says the film critic.
The viewer is shown a close-up of an abortion episode. The camera does not turn away during sex scenes or fights. For example, in the episode, the violence looks very realistic when the main character knocks down the gang with nightstands. ‘The film mixes naturalistic scenes. The Romanian new wave is experimenting a lot with this. There is a whole spectrum of films dedicated to abortion and slavery. Slaboshpytskyi borrows a lot from the Romanian new wave, but at the same time, he uses the western basis of the plot with a certain social theme. All of this, along with the absence of sound, adds to a great movie,’ adds Kromf.
And the British film critic Peter Bradshaw called ‘The Tribe’ gimmicky but brutally confident, powerful and ‘encased in its miasma of strangeness’.
‘A silent movie, of a kind, at once brutally explicit and mysteriously opaque: a study of abuse, an essay in loneliness, a political allegory,’ he wrote about the film for The Guardian.
Where to watch: Just Watch, Kanopy, 1plus1.video, etc.
‘Atlantis’ is a drama and dystopian film directed by Valentyn Vasianovych (previously the cameraman of ‘The Tribe’) about the Ukrainian Donbas in 2025 after Ukraine’s victory over the Russian invaders.
The film won Best Film in the Horizons section at the 76th Venice International Film Festival. It won awards at the Montreal World Film Festival, the International Istanbul Film Festival, the Tokyo International Film Festival, the French Les Arcs Film Festival etc.
The film was shortlisted for the European Film Awards. It was sold to the HBO Eastern Europe streaming platform, and in 2020 Ukraine nominated ‘Atlantis’ for the Oscar in the International Feature Film category.
According to the story, Ukraine regains control over the temporarily occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, but these regions are uninhabitable after years of occupation. The main character, former soldier Serhii, who suffers from PTSD, suddenly loses his job at the factory and starts helping volunteers search for soldiers’ bodies and rebury them.
The film begins and ends with scenes shot through a thermographic camera. The first one is cold because death is discharged through the device, but the final shot is all about warm tones, embodying life.
‘The warmth has not disappeared, just like life. If life has not disappeared from this territory, it will be rebuilt. To some extent, this is a biblical story: about the return of the land, rebirth,’ says Ihor Kromf.
‘Atlantis’ is the most optimistic film about the Russo-Ukrainian war, adds a film critic.
‘We are presented with a dystopian story. We won the war. There were parades and celebrations. We are left with burnt and wholly destroyed land, flooded mines, and ecological disasters. With a population living under propaganda for nine years, children’s schooling took place in the occupied territories.
We have such a dystopian place, absolutely gloomy, depressing, and to some extent macabre. And we have a hero, a former Ukrainian veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. At the same time, in the film, he does not find contact with residents. He is constantly told: ‘What did you fight for?’,’ says the film critic.
At first glance, the story is depressing. Still, Vasianovych introduces a female character and shows that despite the gloomy reality, which will remain after the Russian crimes, there is hope for the better.
The main character befriends a young volunteer and finds his true love, someone just like him. They are two wounded souls who save each other.
If we talk about stylistics, Vasianovych primarily works with medium shots: static camera, slow scenes, and sufficiently gloomy suspense.
The visual is not just aesthetic but also somewhat unpredictable. For example, in the film, there is a shot where the hero bathes in the bucket of an excavator.
The film helps to understand what was happening in Donetsk and Luhansk region. The fact that non-professional actors play in the movie adds to the realism. Former intelligence Andrii Rymaruk and paramedic Liudmyla Bileka played the leading roles.
‘In the scene where they describe the found body, it was a real team of pathologists. They were describing a dummy. It was a scene without a script: the pathologist was doing his job, and it was filmed,’ says the critic.
‘Atlantis’ was partially filmed in Mariupol, the city brutally bombed and terrorised by the Russian occupying army in 2022. In the tape, we see footage from ‘Azovstal,’ a steel plant that the Ukrainian military defended in terrible conditions for more than three months, without medicine, with a shortage of food and water, and under constant fire from the Russian occupiers.
Previously, the filmmakers did not pay much attention to this, but now this detail is excruciating for Ukrainians. ‘Azovstal’ is a symbol of indomitability and tragedy simultaneously.
‘In fact, ‘Atlantis’ is the last film that captures ‘Azovstal’ before its destruction. These are the last shots of that steel plant, which no longer exists,’ says Ihor Kromf.
When Vasianovych was shooting the film, he did not have the goal of shooting ‘Azovstal’ but needed the location of the steel plant. This steel plant was not a symbol of his cinema, but it has acquired a new meaning nowadays.To feel the thread between the story depicted in the film and the reality of our time, emotionally hardy viewers should watch the YouTube documentary The Last Day on ‘Azovstal’ by Mariupol defender Dmytro ‘Orest’ Kozatskyi.
Where to watch: Just Watch, Apple TV, The Criterion Channel, Takflix (English subtitles).
‘Pamfir’ is a new family drama directed by Dmytro Sukholytkyi-Sobchuk, bordering between a crime drama and an action movie.
The premiere took place at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival in the Directors’ Fortnight section, and then the film was selected for the agenda of more than 40 festivals.
‘The Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes is a competition where proven giants are recruited. There are films by Spike Lee, Pedro Almodovar and other ‘big names’ in cinema. And to get into the fortnight of criticism is already a great merit and victory. This means it is a very high-quality movie,’ says Ihor Kromf.
The story unfolds in Bukovyna, on the border with Romania, and centres on Pamfir, the smuggler from the 90s, who becomes a law-abiding citizen due to a particular family history.
He leaves the criminal world and goes to Poland to earn money, but then, to save his son, he has to return to smuggling again.
‘Pamfir’ is a reasonably dynamic film, which is interesting for festivals and the mass audience.
‘Ukrainian auteur cinema is reaching the level of the USA, where there are independent directors such as Tarantino, the Coen brothers, and David Fincher, and this is a great trend,’ says the film critic.
Moreover, this is a story with a strong national flavour. The film’s characters speak the dialect inherent in Bukovyna, and the events unfold in the background of the unique festival Malanka in Bukovyna. (Malanka is a folk holiday celebrated on January 13th, which combines Christian and Pagan traditions — ed.).
This grand carnival, which is more pagan than Christian, is full of unique rituals: participants make paper-mâché masks, hold parades, and lead a goat.‘
The carnival tradition goes back to the ancient times, to the bacchanalia. For me it seemed to be an interesting embodiment of cultural migration. I delved into the works of Rabelais and Mircea Eliade. And this detailed research of the topic made it possible to create my Malanka…. I had complete freedom and courage in the movie Pamfir. I wasn’t afraid to interpret or change things,’ said Dmytro Sukholytkyi-Sobchuk during an art exhibition of costumes and props used in the film.
The film tells an ethnic story and at the same time reveals social reality, particularly the problem of smuggling, adds the film critic. In the story of ‘Pamfir,’ foresters are engaged in covering up for smugglers. On the one hand, the film raises an acute issue, and on the other, it shows a national flavour, and all this is combined into an excellent criminal drama.
While watching ‘Pamfir,’ you understand that this is Ukraine. There is a problem with Romanian-Ukrainian smuggling. It can be seen that this is precisely what is happening in Ukraine.
On the one hand, we see a classic story where the hero stands against the entire mafia. On the other hand, there are many modern and traditional Ukrainian elements. ‘The film didn’t seem to get anything at the two-week festival in Cannes, but there was a 20-minute standing ovation, and the audience received Pamfir very warmly,’ says Kromf.
Oleksandr Yatseniuk played the leading role in the film ‘Pamfir.’ His acting is very high-quality.
‘You fall in love with the hero immediately. He is so authentic as if he is playing himself.’
‘You fall in love with the hero immediately. He is so authentic as if he is playing himself. You do not believe that this is an actor. You think that this is the story of some real ‘Pamfir.’ This is a powerful film,’ adds the critic.
Hundreds of costumes and masks were used in the filming process, including unique masks from Bukovyna villages and masks specially made for the film by folk artists. Many of the costumes (including a bear costume made of hay), masks, backstage photos, and storyboards of the script were exhibited at the ‘Pamfir`s Malanka: The Dance of Death and Life’ exhibition in Kyiv.
‘The main mask of the film is the mask of Viktor, the protagonist’s brother. For me, it was Janus, the two-faced god. Viktor wants to appear to be something he is not, scarier than he really is, so he makes himself a mask not of a bear, but of a monster with horns. By a coincidence, the mask, and with it the role of the evil trickster, is passed on to the protagonist, Pamfir.
This mask differs from the others not only in its horns but also in its teeth. It was my homage to the Japanese director Kaneto Shindo and his movie Onibaba,’ says the director.
‘Pamfir’ is not yet available online, but on November 2, French distributor Condor released the film for rent in more than 100 French cinemas. The screening rights to the film were also bought in Canada, Italy, Poland, Switzerland, Greece, Indonesia, Slovakia and the Baltic countries.
The movie will be released on March 23, 2023, on IMDB. Want to dive deeper into the Ukrainian moment? Read our part 2.