Ukrainian cinema takes center stage at the 2022 New East Cinema Symposium


Serena Garcia | For the Pitt News

2022 New East Cinema Symposium hosted in the Cathedral of Learning on Friday.

By Serena Garcia, For The Pitt News

In light of Russia’s February 24th invasion of Ukraine, the 2022 New East Cinema Symposium at Pitt aimed to focus on highlighting Ukrainian culture and cinema through various film showings this past week.

The film festival, which was previously known as the Russian Film Symposium, has taken place at Pitt for a total of 24 years. With the theme “Archives as New Artifacts: Ukraine Screens Its Own Cinema (1929-2022),” this year’s festival took place between May 12-14. The festival showed attendees nearly a century’s worth of Ukrainian cinema, with the oldest film being “Bread” (1929) and the most recent “Bad Roads” (2020). Attendees had the opportunity to see three films on Friday — “A Severe Young Man”, “Conscience” and “Bad Roads.” 

The symposium’s planning process began in January with Pitt Ph.D. students like Eli Boonin-Vail and Eve Barden helping lead the project under the direction of co-organizer Nancy Condee, director of the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies. With the emergence of the war, the symposium staff believed it was time for a change regarding the festival’s format and content.

Eli Boonin-Vail, a third year film & media studies Ph.D. student, said the Russian invasion especially affected the festival. 

“The nature of the invasion affected so many people personally involved in this event and affected the overall cultural atmosphere of which an event like this could take place,” Boonin-Vail said.

Condee, a Slavic and film studies professor at Pitt, worked within the program since its beginning in 1999. Condee said this year it was time for something different, and that meant scrapping their original name.

“It was called Russian Film Symposium because back then, before the 24th of February, very often the word Russian gets used as a kind of very improvisational umbrella term for stuff you’re going to do in a Slavic department,” Condee said. 

Condee said they determined the new name through inspiration from a British foundation.

“We have adopted this term ‘new east cinema.’ We were inspired by a British foundation called Calvert 22 Foundation that uses the term ‘new east cinema,’” Condee said. 

The second day of the festival began on Friday morning in the Cathedral of Learning. Attendees gathered into room 332 of the Cathedral at 10 a.m., waiting to start the day with a showing of “A Severe Young Man.” 

Directed by Abram Young, “A Severe Young Man” tells the story of a young man who falls in love with the wife of a great surgeon. Young’s avant-garde cinematic style with striking visuals allow contrast to show between the two worlds that the characters seem to live in. Using the black and white contrast to his advantage, Young is able to create discourse between the two different classes of people. 

For most of the film, the character, Grisha, who is a part of the younger class, wears white, most likely symbolizing his youth and innocence. On the other hand, Dr. Stevanov and his friend Fyodor wear mostly black suits with little hints of white. Throughout the film Young creates a sense of a utopian society, with scenes of a beautiful ballet and a grand stadium where Grisha and the rest of his friends exercise and relax. Like the other films chosen, “A Severe Young Man” had its own experience with Soviet suppression — the film was prohibited from being shown until the 1970s. 

“Conscience”, directed by Volodymyr Denysenko, was also shown in room 332 of the Cathedral at 2 p.m. The film shows the dark and depressing reality of Nazi-controlled Ukraine during World War II. With help from his students, Denysenko was able to produce the film, which is hailed as a Ukrainian cinema classic, though it wasn’t officially released until 1991. When one of the villagers decides to kill a Nazi commander, a Ukrainian village under the control of Nazi Germany is left to decide whether to give up one of their own or deal with the consequences. In the film, Denysenko shows what can happen when a village is forced to either collaborate to protect one of their own or sacrifice one to survive. 

After the showing of each film, attendees were able to enjoy a quick discussion of the film led by distinguished guests Stanislav Menzelevskyi and Yuliya V. Ladygina. Menzelevskyi is currently a film studies PhD student at the Media School at Indiana University Bloomington. He is also the current head of Research & Programming at the Oleksandr Dovzhenko Nation Center, which is the state film archive of Ukraine, in Kyiv. Ladygina is a Helena Rubinstein University Endowed Fellow in the Humanities and an assistant professor of Russian, global and international studies at Penn State University. 

With the current state of war in Ukraine and Ukraine’s film archive at risk, the symposium also contributed to a fundraiser for the Dovzhenko Center. On their website, the symposium provided viewers and attendees access to the ongoing fundraiser.

Eve Barden, a rising fourth-year film & media studies PhD student, said the fundraiser helps aid the Dovzhenko Center. The center is key to preserving Ukraine’s cinematic culture and history. According to Barden, film is a vulnerable art, not only because of censorship, but also because it is easy to mishandle.
“We’re raising the money for the Dovzhenko Center to save the reels, because film is a fragile medium,” Barden said. “An example would be, 80% of silent films are destroyed and gone because they were not refrigerated properly.” 

Condee said this year’s festival was a way for the Slavic department and filmmakers to support and preserve Ukrainian culture. 

“I felt that it was among the ways that we support Ukrainian culture, in addition to fundraising, donating money, holding webinars, inviting speakers, doing all that stuff,” Condee said. “In addition to that, not instead, I wanted to bring together people in a witnessing community that participated in witnessing Ukrainian culture together.”

Barden said the festival is necessary to bring “visibility” and support to the cultures that are under attack. 

“Now is the time to bring visibility to the culture, to the legacy and to the suffering of the people sort of going through what they are going through today,” Barden said.