Odessa…a reason to return to Ukraine

poster - superukraineWhen I left Ukraine in April, I found it hard to say goodbye to new friends and colleagues so I made it easier for myself by stating that I wasn’t actually saying goodbye [forever?] because I would be coming back.

And now I’m packing a suitcase and checking the weather forecast. [I know it’s only the British who feel the need to pack clothes for every season when we go on holiday, but that’s because the average holiday week in July in the UK can contain wind, torrential rain, sunburn, relentless drizzle and fog, often in the space of a single day].

I’ll be visiting the Odessa International Film Festival this weekend, after stopping over in Kyiv to see friends, and to see what the capital city looks like in summer, rather than winter.

Stephen Frears will be in Odessa as one of the featured film makers at the 2014 Film Festival; and Hitchcock’s Blackmail will also form part of the Opening weekend, screened to an audience of thousands sitting on the Potemkin Steps. This year’s Film Festival is taking place, despite huge obstacles and with few resources, thanks to the dedication and hard work of people like Producer, Julia Sinkevych, and her team – she writes ” It is challenging this year, and probably the most difficult project in my career and in careers of my colleagues due to the situation in Ukraine”.

Poster comment after Russia annexed Crimea, displayed in Kyiv (April 2014)

Poster comment after Russia annexed Crimea, displayed in Kyiv (April 2014)

Ukraine is still in the news here in Britain but weekly, not daily. And the situation is still tense, especially in the eastern regions: a month ago, Izolyatsia – a vibrant platform for contemporary culture in Donetsk [see previous posts] was taken over by pro-Russian separatists; and my friend Olga wrote, after another murder in the centre of Donetsk ” It’s awful, and the most terrible thing is that we are kind of getting used to gun shootings and deaths of ordinary people.”

But she ended her email “Anyway, life is going on and kids are going on dancing, singing and doing a lot of interesting things. Besides, it is our common history which should be kept through generations.”

People’s resilience in the face of conflict is remarkable; and Olga’s positive statement, and the determination of the Odessa Film Festival team to go ahead with this year’s festival, is testament to that.

On a more mundane note, I’m looking forward to sitting on those Potemkin Steps (made famous thanks to Eisenstein’s 1925 film, The Battleship Potemkin)  by the shores of the Black Sea, in Ukraine’s third largest city, which was officially founded by Catherine The Great in 1794. By 1824, Pushkin was writing of Odessa that “its air was full of all Europe”, in reference to its extremely diverse population.

I’m also looking forward to taking a battered yellow marshrutka around town, eating a bowl of borscht, getting a receipt in a little box, seeing Napolean cake on every menu, and seeing friends and colleagues at the British Council in Kyiv, and in Odessa…

Dancing to a different tune

pic of oranges on sale

Oranges and pomegranates on sale at all the markets

Flower sellers at every metro station

Flower sellers at every metro station

At this time of year, when everywhere looks grey and unkempt, the fruit and flower sellers of Kyiv are a particular delight – brightening up the underground markets, or, wrapped up against the cold at their outdoor stalls, supplying Vitamin C in the form of oranges for Kyiv’s population of 3 million people.

I enjoyed 2 dance productions back to back this week – the first the Kyiv Modern Ballet’s production of Swan Lake, created by one of Ukraine’s foremost choreographers, Radu Potlikaru (see interview here for more info about his work). Clearly aimed at a younger audience, I enjoyed the playful choreography, the loose dance style and the humour in the piece, and the packed theatre loved it. Radu Potlikaru himself was part of the creative team working on the Sochi Olympics Opening spectacular, so it was a surprise to see him back in the theatre, able to enjoy the standing ovation at the end of the performance.

The next evening, I went to the National Opera House of Ukraine for  the first time. Again, a packed theatre, this time for a “ballet fantasie” version of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, created by David Aydysh, for which tickets cost from 50UAH to 250UAH (£4 to £20). I had no idea what to expect…and ended up completely transported to another world: a beautiful traditional theatre building, imaginative choreography and strong design, impressive staging skills that included flying both performers and scenery silkysmoothly, and over 40 classically trained ballet dancers – all those pointy toes! I came out feeling giddy and lightheaded and wanted to dance my way home. I went and ate beetroot salad with herring instead, just to keep it earthy.

Curator Alina Glotova, with Sergei Paradzhanov

Curator Alina Glotova, with Sergei Paradzhanov

The third delight of the week was my visit to the Museum of Dreams exhibition inspired by the life and work of Sergei Paradzhanov, one of Ukraine’s most celebrated film directors. Born in Georgia to Armenian parents, imprisoned under Soviet rule, and exiled to Georgia at the end of his life, he was a maverick artist who danced to a different tune… his work includes films like The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors – one of Ukraine’s most important 20th century films; and collages, mostly made during his imprisonment.

Film maker Andrei Tarkovsky commented on  “His way of thinking, his paradoxical poetic vision…the ability to love beauty and the ability to be absolutely free within his own vision”   and to me, his work feels sumptuous, fantastical, and bravely defiant of the harsh greyness that seems to have been the default Soviet setting.

the unlikely suburban setting for the Museum of Dreams

the unlikely suburban setting for the Museum of Dreams

The Museum itself is found down some steps in a block of flats and opens two evenings a week, and 1pm – 5pm on Saturday and Sunday. Run by two dedicated curators, Alina and Viktoria, and their team of helpers, I was struck by what love has gone into this exhibition. Beautifully displayed objects and photographs, video, audio, collage and trinkets…and a wishing well in the middle of the room.

Paradzhanov (1924-1990)

Paradzhanov (1924-1990)

Privately run, it receives hardly any financial support, so I hope that the people of Kyiv visit in large numbers (well, not too many at once – the space is tiny!) and make a donation if they like what they discover there.

If you live in Kyiv, do go and see this exhibition before it finishes on March 16. It’s in the Pechersk district, just a 5 minute walk from the Druzhby Novodiv metro.

In another conversation with some British Council Young Learners we looked at museums in the UK, and they outlined their choices about which museums they would like to visit after looking at the websites of institutions like the National Football Museum, the Maritime Museum in Liverpool and the Museum of Science and Industry.

Kristina and Lesa, two of the British Council's Young Learners

Kristina and Lesa, two of the British Council’s Young Learners

They recomYoung Learners - Kristinamended museums I should visit here, and two of the young people had brought in some examples of Ukrainian culture – in the shape of vyshyvanky (embroidered shirts)… Kristina is shown here wearing her vinok (a headdress of flowers worn by girls) and holding the ubiquitous Kalina berries.

Between East and West?

P1000575Last week, I attended the Institute of Strategic Studies national convention on the EU in Ukraine – experts & delegates from EU members gave evidence to Ministers & MP’s on the value of signing an Association Agreement with the European Union.

The debate was impassioned, and made me feel that I am in the privileged position of witnessing history being made: Ukraine means ‘land on the edge’ and now is a time of great uncertainty as we wait to see if Ukraine will sign in Vilnius.

Ukrainian colleagues and the business community feel strongly that Europe offers the best fit in terms of political aspirations for an emerging democratic state – freedom (of thought/speech/action) really matters when you can remember how it was to live in the time before “freedom”. And association with the EU would certainly accelerate much needed reforms as well as giving access to European markets.

We're keeping an eye on you

We’re keeping an eye on you

But Putin’s Russia is not giving up the former states of the USSR easily: deals on gas & loans to help Ukraine’s struggling economy are the carrot; and the stick? Threats of trade embargos if Ukraine doesn’t join the Moscow-led Customs Union.

Meanwhile the European Union is understandably wary of having another failing economy coming to its party… where Greece, Italy, Spain, Ireland et al are propped up in a corner, Britain’s outside in the garden shouting at the neighbours, and the only guest still left on the dance floor is Germany.  Europe has made judicial reform a key condition for the signing in Vilnius, and requests to Ukraine to clean up its act go beyond the release from detention of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the current President’s biggest political rival.

Ukraine languishes at 112th in a league table which measures ‘Ease of doing Business’, with a gnarly tax and legislative framework, and endemic corruption. So although most people are trying to earn an honest living, they are often thwarted by their leadership and the system. Education might offer an escape – around a quarter of places at universities are available for free to bright but poor students, but there’s huge competition, and bribery can still be part of the process of securing the place.

pic of woman

Buying butter & cheese from my favourite “dairymaid”

However, Ukraine has huge natural resources, one third of the “black earth” resource (the most fertile soil) of the globe is here, and its people – on my brief acquaintance – are educated, aspiring, and hard working.  Sitting on the fence between Russia and Europe might be an option, and President Yanukovych is clearly trying to work out which way to jump depending on which side will give him the best chance of staying in power.

But as I wrote this (21/11/2013) the ruling Party of the Regions voted against various key reforms/conditions so it’s now looking almost impossible for the Agreement to be signed.

Visa restrictions currently make it difficult for Ukrainians to travel to the UK or indeed anywhere in Europe, and the costs of spending time there make it prohibitive for many. Which may explain the popularity of cinema here – a chance to travel to new places for 35 UAH (less than £3)? Cinema has been at the fore over the past week as almost every film in the British Film Festival season has played to sell out audiences. I loved the National Theatre’s Frankenstein on film, made available again as part of the theatre’s 50th anniversary season;  I really enjoyed the BAFTA shorts, particularly Tumult; and our screening of The Selfish Giant, in partnership with UNICEF, was an opportunity to put the spotlight on the bleak landscape for vulnerable children in the UK, and Ukraine, as elsewhere. 

It occurred to me as I munched my breakfast herring, and spread weird jam on my dark brown bread that I might have ‘gone native’:

Breakfast herring, and unidentifiable jam

Breakfast herring, and unidentifiable jam

I can now count to nine in Ukrainian, say thank you & good night in Russian,ask for 100gms of butter,

and read the Cyrillic alphabet which makes getting around a bit easier – although some of the city centre underground has signs in both alphabets, there’s no consistency and signs disappear as you try and emerge at the correct exit without getting lost in the vast underground market areas that surround the central metro stations.

I’ve been going to some of the Young Learners lessons in my free time – giving young people who are learning English the opportunity to ask questions (like “Which architect do you most admire and why?”- so quite searching!) of a native speaker.

Our discussions about arts & culture in the UK and here have led me to think more about why culture matters – the arts are a great way of telling stories about who we are as people, and culture is perhaps the sum total of a nation’s stories. As a nation’s collective memories, it draws on our recipes and songs as well as our theatre, our landscape and traditions as well as our literature, our feast days and the rituals that we still have around birth, marriage, and death… all a shared and valuable part of national identity.

The young people whose parents are willing and able to pay for them to learn English at the British Council today are likely to include some of the business people, politicians and leaders of tomorrow, and clearly the British Council can play a part in encouraging them to value artists, arts and culture – both their own and that of others. In discussions about how British musicians & choreographers are brilliantly mixing up traditions: like clog dancing and hip hop, one student told me that the same has happened with Hopak – a kozak dance that is being reconfigured by young people in exciting ways – so I shall hunt down some clips to share with you.

This week Ukraine lost against France, after beating them 2-0 last week, and went out of the World Cup. And this week Hull became UK Capital of Culture 2017 – hurrah for Hull, which badly needs a boost: youth unemployment is at 40% in the city, so let’s hope that  the next 4 years offer the same boost to Hull as happened in Derry with its Capital of Culture investment.  And fingers crossed for better news for Ukraine in Vilnius, but our hopes are not high.

Harsh realities – on stage and screen

Take, Love, Run by Oksana Chavchenko.   A British theatre director recently worked with Kyiv’s Molodiy Theatre to stage a new play which gives a glimpse of life on the front line in the new Ukraine, where personal and national debts are mounting, and many people take desperate measures as they struggle to make ends meet.

pic of scene from play

‘Take Love Run’ directed by Caroline Steinbeis at the Molodiy Theatre, Kyiv

British Council Ukraine teamed up with London’s Royal Court to encourage new writing from emerging writers like Oksana Savchenko – with a staged reading, and a performance in London in English back in May.  After which Andriy Bilous, artistic director at the Molodiy, said “No Ukrainian director I know would stage this. It’s so dark that they wouldn’t be able to distance themselves enough to do it justice. How can a story about a young family in crisis make you laugh, and cringe, and still somehow inspire hope? It just does. We have to do it.”

The play opened in Kyiv in October, and as shows stay in a theatre’s repertoire for years here, I was able to see the play last week. I read the English translation and set off, not really expecting to enjoy it. But director Caroline Steinbeis had done a great job, making the most of very little by way of lighting & design, and the cast of 8 Ukrainian actors gave excellent performances. The show was sold out the night I went: packed with an audience, mostly in their 20’s/30’s, who were very appreciative, and rightly so. In one of the final scenes, the heroine – despite the awfulness of her situation – begins dancing, joyfully, with the removal man who is taking her furniture away…we share in an unlikely feeling that all is not lost.

[And if you want to get the same sense of joy that only dancing with abandon, no matter what, can provoke, try watching this

Dance Moves for Life, huh? …thanks Pablo!]

Molodist Film Festival prize winner with Natasha Vasylyuk of British Council

Molodist Film Festival prize winner Gabriel Gauchet with Natasha Vasylyuk , Deputy Director – British Council Ukraine

After the success of Gabriel Gauchet at the Molodist Film Festival,  the British Council’s New British Film Festival is about to open in six cities around Ukraine.  Gauchet, a graduate of the National Film School in London, won the top prize for his short film The Mass of Men. Originally French, he now lives & works in the UK, and British Council support enabled him to attend the prize giving to pick up his award in person.

The New British Film Festival is presented with ArtHouse Traffic who run the Odessa Film Festival, and the highlight for me will be Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant.  The film received 5 star reviews when it opened in London 3 weeks ago, and tells the story of two vulnerable children living in Bradford, who end up working for a scrap metal dealer.

British Council Ukraine are working in partnership with UNICEF to present special screenings of the film to mark International Children`s Day in Kyiv, Odessa and Donetsk; which enables UNICEF to raise the issue of the challenges faced by vulnerable children, and fuel crucial discussions amongst decision makers, journalists, business leaders, artists and the general public in an attempt to find solutions for the benefit of children in Ukraine, where nearly 100,000 children live or work on the streets; and 95,000 live in care institutions.

picture of golden globe

At the monastery, with one of the Ukrainian national symbols, kalyna, growing in the background

The promise of eternal life in the hereafter provides, for some, an escape from the harsh realities of life in the here and now.

This week I visited both St Volodymyr’s Cathedral – one of Kyiv’s newer (and best loved by locals) churches, built in the nineteenth century and covered in beautiful murals; and I took a wander around the outside of the Mykhailivskiy Zolotoverkhey Monastery.

picture of crosses

Crosses and domes for sale

Which led to the discovery of where you can buy those golden domes that sit on top of almost every church in this city.

Look, for just 11,500 UAH (about £850) one of those domes can be yours!

I also discovered a whole new park at the top of my street, so here’s a new view of my local church.

Chapel with Andriyivska Tserkva

Chapel with  the church, Andriyivska Tserkva, in the background

Sophie Villy, singer songwriter

Sophie Villy, singer songwriter

My weekend ended at a great gig from a talented singer/songwriter, Sophie Villy, of Georgian & Ukrainian heritage, at the Small Opera, a great venue. 

There  were around 300 people to see her; and, unlike in the UK, there were quite a few children there with their parents, which made for a really different atmosphere than you’d get at the same sort of gig in Manchester.

The Small Opera was built in 1902 and used to be the cultural centre for the tramworkers from the tram depot next door. It’s now in a state of disrepair that makes it atmospheric, and increasingly dangerous; and sadly, its future is uncertain as this article makes clear: Small Opera in decay. I was invited to the gig by Lera Chichibaya, presenter of The Selector in Ukraine, the British Council’s radio programme broadcast worldwide on local host radio stations, who will herself be playing at Wednesday’s Opening Party for the British Film Festival.  See you there, if you’re in Kyiv…

Molodist International Film Festival

 

Click on the instagram link above to see my first red carpet…and Maria was too shy to go up it! It’s the 43rd festival http://molodist.com/en and the Opening Ceremony took place at the Palace Ukraine – speeches and folk dance and traditional music were centre stage – which didn’t really reflect the festival’s focus on younger film makers, and international cinema’s appeal to a younger crowd.

However, an international Children’s Jury will be judging the Children’s film section; and tonight I’m going to see one of the films that’s part of the Sunny Bunny section of the festival focusing on LGBT films, a focus which is even more important now in countries in wider Europe, given Russia’s increasingly homophobic stance. And certainly a way of demonstrating that diversity is being celebrated here in Ukraine, where the work of festivals like Molodist is crucial in giving a platform to younger independent film-makers with new stories to tell.

The Opening film was Lech Walesa: Man of Hope by Polish director Andrzej Wajda; and it certainly read differently to me sitting watching it in a country whose own history and recent independence was linked to the break up of the USSR, in which the rise of Solidarity (the trade union formed by Walesa and others out of the Gdansk shipyard strikes in Poland) definitely played a part. Had I been watching in a cinema in the UK it would have been a good film about someone else’s history – of academic but not personal significance. Watching it here, the resonance for the Ukrainian audience was tangible, and the film in this context gave me some insight into how things worked differently during the Soviet era.