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Maids, Crooks, And Working Girls: How Hollywood Portrays Ukraine

How much does the average Westerner really know about Ukraine?

Andriy Pryimachenko, a 24-year-old director and filmmaker interested in gauging Ukraine's image abroad, looked to Hollywood for an answer.

"To promote Ukraine in the West, you need to know first of all what the West thinks about Ukraine," said Pryimachenko, a Kyiv native. "Looking at how Ukraine was portrayed in American films and TV shows seemed like a very effective way of doing that."

Pryimachenko dived in, wading through hundreds of titles ranging from Cary Grant classics to spy dramas and laugh-track TV comedies.

The result is a compilation of nearly 90 different movies and television programs spanning a half-century of Hollywood showbiz. But despite the rainbow of titles, the young director says, the overall message is depressingly black and white.

"Ukraine is portrayed as either a place that produces low-quality goods or a very bad place where very bad things happen," he says. "Ukrainian men are either bandits or soldiers or total dimwits. Ukrainian women, unfortunately, are either sex workers or very big, muscular women. The image that you get of Ukraine from these films is very unpleasant."

Crime And Prostitution

At its best, "the Ukraine" -- as it is almost constantly referred to in the clips assembled by Pryimachenko -- is a far-away land of whooping folk dancers, robust country girls, and palatable vodka. At worst, it is a den of post-Soviet crime and prostitution, not to mention the West's steadiest source of low-paid cleaning women and chauffeurs.

In one clip, from the 1961 Oscar-nominated comedy "One, Two, Three," the actor Horst Buchholz, playing a zealous East German Communist, berates a young manicurist, shouting, "A strong, healthy girl like you? You should not be cutting nails, you should be cutting wheat in the Ukraine!"

In another, from the 2005 American TV comedy "Joey," a young blond woman introduces herself as a lawyer, only to be interrupted by a second woman, who says, "Look honey, I don't care what you were back in the Ukraine. Now you're in America, and you're a janitor."

Some clips appear to cleave slightly closer to reality, particularly those where Ukrainians bristle at being confused with Russians. "In Ukraine we speak Ukrainian," says one young woman bluntly after an American official attempts to impress her with his basic Russian skills on the TV drama "In Plain Sight."

Pryimachenko's video is not his first attempt to thwart stereotypes of his compatriots. During the Euromaidan protests, he and artist Oleksandr Komyakhov collaborated on a series of hand-drawn portraits of so-called "terrorists" -- ordinary Ukrainians slammed by then-Prime Minister Mykola Azarov for supporting the Euromaidan movement.

Pryimachenko says even with many eyes now on Ukraine, it will take time for Western perceptions of the country to grow more nuanced.

"Over the past half-year, Ukraine and Ukrainians have shown that we're not the same people that you see in those movies and shows," he says. "But if that's how we've been portrayed for more than 50 years, then that's definitely how people in the West are going to see us."

'That Big Country Over There'

Pryimachenko, who is currently finishing journalism studies at Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, points to a number of Ukrainian-made films and books that go a long way towards "explaining who we are inside."

Ukrainian filmmaker Andriy Pryimachenko
Ukrainian filmmaker Andriy Pryimachenko

In particular, he cites "Propala Hramota" ("The Lost Letter"), a 1970s film starring Ivan Mykolaychuk that pays affectionate tribute to the food, costumes, and music of Ukrainian folk culture. He also praises Ukrainian dissident writer Ulas Samchuk, whose "Volyn" trilogy is considered one of the most important depictions of Ukrainian peasant life under the Bolshevik regime.

But with such works reaching only limited audiences abroad, Pryimachenko says it will fall to a new generation of writers and filmmakers to introduce Westerners to more realistic notions about what it means to be Ukrainian.

"I think that Western audiences need to find out more about what that big country is over there on the eastern edge of Europe," he says. "Soon we're going to be part of this Western world, and it would be very good for all of us to learn more about each other."

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