LVIV, Ukraine -- On a warm autumn day in western Ukraine, the wedding party of Oleksa Dovbush and his bride-to-be sing their way through a village en route to the church. But the frolicking stops when the carriage of the landowner collides into them. Duchess Yablonovska orders her guards to remove them, a fight ensues, and Dovbush is captured.
The scene is the turning point of a new biopic, titled Dovbush, about a real-life 18th-century Robin Hood of sorts who, after escaping imprisonment, led an outlaw group that robbed rich landowners in the bucolic Carpathian Mountains to give to poor Ukrainian villagers until his death at the hands of his lover's husband.
With a top Ukrainian director at the helm, a budget of more than $3 million (roughly $2.3 million of which comes from the Ukrainian state), and a story about fighting a repressive overlord, the film epitomizes the surprising rise of Ukraine's film industry.
For decades, Ukraine's modest film industry has been overshadowed by that of neighboring Russia -- and Russian films still garner much more attention, acclaim, and money.
But in the years since a corrupt, eastward-looking government was toppled in 2014, Ukrainian cinema is enjoying a moment in the spotlight, bolstered by state funding, a wave of nationalist fervor, and an energized class of passionate young filmmakers.
More films are being made in Ukraine now than at any time in its 27-year history of independence. More government money is being allocated to keep them coming. And more than ever before, they are gaining attention at home and winning awards at top international film festivals.
"We are premiering a new Ukrainian feature film almost weekly for the rest of the year," Filip Illienko, head of the State Film Agency, known locally as DerzhKino, told RFE/RL recently, surrounded by movie posters at his Kyiv office. "It's hard for me to take part in all of them, because there are so many."
But, as promising as it sounds, some insiders are concerned that the burgeoning industry may be hampered by requirements set by DerzhKino, which prioritizes funding for so-called patriotic projects and imposes severe language restrictions.
Those critics fear that a Ukrainian government engrossed in fighting Russia-backed separatists on the physical battlefield and Moscow itself on the information battlefield has lost focus of cinema's long-term development and is instead out to produce pro-Ukrainian propaganda to inspire the masses in wartime.
After Independence, Industry Takes Five
For two decades after the split from the U.S.S.R., Ukraine's film industry struggled to develop. Deprived of state support and unsure where they belonged in a post-Soviet world, Ukrainian filmmakers spent years trying -- and largely failing -- to discover their voice and compete with Hollywood and European films. Meanwhile, Russian films continued to dominate box offices in largely bilingual Ukraine.
The logjam eased in 2011, when the government of former President Viktor Yanukovych increased state funding for the film industry to roughly $12 million.
At the same time, Ukrainian writer and director Marysia Nikitiuk says, the then head of Derzhkino launched a more transparent public system for selecting film projects.
"Ukrainian films started to be shot, and young directors appeared," Nikitiuk, who directed the recent film When The Trees Fall (Koly Padayut Dereva), told RFE/RL. "For [feature] films, pure inspiration is not enough -- you need resources."
By 2013, annual state funding was around $20 million and things were looking up.
But the film industry suffered along with the rest of the country when, in 2014, street protests spiraled into violence and eventually toppled Yanukovych, and war erupted as Russia annexed Crimea and Moscow-backed separatists took up arms in eastern Ukraine in a fight that continues to gnaw at the country.
Money meant for filmmaking was instead reallocated to the war effort, leaving the industry with less than $5 million, said DerzhKino's Illienko. That translated into a slump that saw only 11 Ukrainian films made in 2015.
Recognizing The Value Of Cinema
Ironically, according to Illienko, it took a war for the government in Kyiv to recognize the value of Ukrainian cinema. "We saw that we are also fighting an information and creative-industries war," he said.
Beyond the supply of Russian fighters and military equipment to separatists, Russian officials and state media have waged an information campaign as part of what has been dubbed Russia's "hybrid warfare" against its smaller neighbor.
"[T]he film industry is even more effective than guns because it's fighting for the mind," Illienko said when asked about the government's decision to throw money at developing Ukrainian cinema.
Government funding dedicated to film and TV production has increased each year since 2015, climbing to 1 billion hryvnyas (nearly $36 million) in 2018, with a similar amount earmarked for 2019.
The has led to a filmmaking boom.
In 2016, the state contributed financially to the production of four feature films, five short films, nine animated films, and 17 documentaries. In 2017, the numbers grew to 17 feature films, 12 short films, five animated films, and 13 documentaries. By the end of this year, Illienko said, Ukraine will have premiered 20 feature films.
But the state money comes with catches. To qualify, DerzhKino requires that Ukrainian or Crimean Tatar language account for 90 percent of the total dialogue, seemingly disqualifying prospective Russian-language films.
There is a further, point-based checklist of "patriotic" elements required for state support, according to Illienko, a former member of the nationalist Svoboda party whose brother Andriy is a Svoboda lawmaker.
"[A]nd if you gather enough points, this qualifies as [a] Ukrainian national film," he said.
That checklist has industry insiders and observers concerned.
"[The state] isn't thinking about film as art," Daria Badior, a film critic and culture editor for Ukrainian news outlet LB.ua, told RFE/RL. "They want to beat Russian propaganda that was working here for the last 27 years. They're thinking about short, political goals with films."
Some have likened the Derzhkino criteria to the sort of censorship that exists in authoritarian countries, including the one whose influence Ukraine is fighting against.
"I wish Ukraine would stop being like Russia as soon as possible!" Vitaliy Mansky, a Russian filmmaker of Ukrainian origin, wrote on Facebook on October 17, following news that DerzhKino would review his film In The Rays Of The Sun for possible Russian propaganda before its premiere at a film festival in Kharkiv. "This is not much different from North Korea, Iran, and Russia. You really want to be like these countries?"
Illienko insisted DerzhKino doesn't do censorship. "The one reason we don't is because we produce too many films in order for me to have time to censor all of them," he said, adding, "I'm joking, of course."
Unsurprisingly, there has been a preponderance of war films made with DerzhKino help, such as Cyborgs, a local blockbuster that failed to garner international attention. It tells the Ukrainian side of the bloody battle against Russia-backed separatists for the Donetsk airport.
Another is Donbas, Ukrainian filmmaker Serhiy Loznitsa's dark, not-all-is-as-it-seems comedy about the current conflict that depicts brutality and cynicism on the Russia-controlled side of the so-called line of contact. It opened with great fanfare last week in Kyiv after premiering in May at Cannes, where Loznitsa was awarded the best director prize in the festival's Un Certain Regard competition. The film is Ukraine's submission for the 2019 Academy Awards.
"It seems that Ukraine has understood that films win prizes [and] create an image of Ukraine, and that's also a tool of soft power," said Stephane Siohan, a Kyiv-based French journalist and filmmaker who co-founded East Road Studios, a documentary film outfit, with his Ukrainian filmmaker wife, Alisa Kovalenko.
Nikitiuk is part of a new generation of filmmakers fueling Ukraine's burgeoning film industry. The 31-year-old recently won plaudits at home and abroad for this year's When The Trees Fall. Produced with money from DerzhKino, the film depicts the harshness of rural life in Ukraine as it follows a spirited 5-year-old girl who learns about life through a romance between her teenage cousin and a young thug.
Another rising star is Roman Bondarchuk, 36, whose quirky 2015 documentary Ukrainian Sheriffs, about two men who are appointed local law enforcers by the mayor of a small town, won the special jury award for best feature-length documentary at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam and was Ukraine's 2016 Academy Awards entry. Bondarchuk's offbeat and heartwarming 2016 documentary Dixieland, about a children's brass band in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, won that year's top prize at the Odessa International Film Festival.
Neither of the films received state funding, Bondarchuk told RFE/RL. But he said it was a "long, difficult journey" that took "years of pitching [and] meeting with editors" to find European backers.
"I was just lucky to meet really good people...who liked my ideas and trusted me," he said. "But for the first-time director from Ukraine, it's almost impossible to finance a film without support from his own country."
Bondarchuk said filmmakers who work with producers abroad often need at least a 50-percent commitment from the state in order to attract outside money.
"It's a signal for my co-producers abroad that the script and my approach [are supported] by the local film community and the risks of working with me are low," he said.
Bondarchuk secured state funding for his latest film, Volcano, released this year, about the misadventures of a translator working for international conflict monitors in war-stricken eastern Ukraine.
Perhaps Ukraine's best-known young filmmaker, Oleh Sentsov, is currently locked up in a Russian prison. The now-42-year-old writer and director of the surprise 2012 indie hit Gamer was arrested by Russian authorities in Crimea after the 2014 annexation, and tried and convicted on terrorism charges that Kyiv, foreign governments, and an impressive list of international filmmakers condemned as politically motivated. On October 25, Sentsov was named the winner of the European Parliament's prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
Dovbush As Metaphor For Modern Ukraine
While international attention has been good for Ukraine's young filmmakers, it is Ukrainian eyeballs that DerzhKino hopes to attract.
Box-office receipts in the past three years suggest more Ukrainians are watching Ukrainian-made films, with revenues climbing exponentially from tens of thousands of dollars.
Last weekend, the locally made comedy Crazy Wedding set a new box-office record, bringing in $1.42 million in just three weeks in theaters.
Badior, the film critic, said it is obvious that Ukrainians' demand for local films is growing, and she sees that as part of a larger movement to shed Russian influence.
"I think it grows because Ukrainian is fashionable," she said. "We wear Ukrainian clothes, we eat Ukrainian food.... It's all part of the rediscovery of Ukraine's culture and identity."
But Illienko noted that there are still domestic challenges to growth. Ukraine, with around 44 million people, has just 170 theaters with 510 screens. Russian films, usually in their original language, remain popular. And the most memorable films in Ukrainian minds are seemingly still those that were made in the U.S.S.R.
"We are still quoting jokes from Soviet films from the '70s," Illienko complained. Moreover, he added, "We don't yet have 'film stars' in Ukraine."
Illienko said he hopes these challenges can be overcome through investment in what he dubbed "mainstream" -- meaning high-budget — films.
Back in Lviv, it's clear why DerzhKino provided more than $2 million to produce Dovbush. Directed by veteran Ukrainian filmmaker Oles Sanin, it features Ukrainian heartthrob Serhiy Strelnikov in the lead role. The dialogue is almost entirely in Ukrainian -- with a bit of Polish from actor Agata Buzek, who plays Duchess Yablanovska -- and revolves around a struggle that resonates with today's Ukrainians.
"Ukraine must know more about our heroes and where we come from," Roman Klympush, the film's line producer, told RFE/RL on set. "This story shows how long Ukrainians have been fighting for freedom."