New York Niche Fests: KinofestNYC 2013

kinofest-logoOrganized through grass root efforts the Kinofest is a niche film festival based in New York’s East Village. It is aimed at the Ukrainian and increasingly Russian communities in the New York metropolitan area and presented its fourth edition this year. Covering four days of screening from April 4-7 the festival programmed this year 25 short and 4 feature films from the Ukraine, six East European and some other countries that following the festival’s theme: East European issue orientation with a special emphasis on the Ukraine. The festival was held at the Ukrainian Institute and Museum with numerous screenings at New York’s Anthology Film Archives.  Basic initial funding for the festival was derived through Kickstarter and women film makers were accorded a special place.

The festival presented independent productions by film makers who grew up in the post Soviet period and had limited funds. These productions can rarely be seen outside this festival, and are accessible only in some academic settings, select venues in the Ukraine and Western Europe and some internet platforms.  Screening productions at a New York festival should help the distribution efforts.

The films were selected from more than 100 submissions in addition to those handpicked by the festival organizers. Numerous shorts were derived from two group programs. The first is the Kiev based collective “Goodbye, Ukraine” which had completed by 2012 34 short films examining why close to 1.5 million Ukrainians had left their country since independence in 1991. Some of these films were screened in the 2012 edition of the Kinofest; the seven selected this year were US premiers.   The second group included young film makers from each of the 15 former Soviet republics. Each director recruited for the “15 Young by Young” program was charged to present a story from their country covering childhood and teenage experiences.  Some limited funding for the first project was obtained from Ukrainian sources, for the second project Western media organization including arte and some NGOs were sponsors.

Though most film makers from these areas are not well known outside their countries, some have presented their work at established film festivals such as Cannes, Clermont – Ferrand, Locarno, and Odessa. Maryna Vroda received the 2011 Cannes Short Film Palme d’Or award. It is certainly difficult to identify a dominant theme for these productions with a focus on the Ukraine.  Yet when a member of the audience stressed that these films were grim and depressing, my neighbor who apparently came from that country quipped “have her live in the Ukraine just for one year.” The  theme of the Kiev collective  “Goodbye, Ukraine” mirrors conditions in that country as emphasized by some speakers who suggested that the country is worse off than two years ago..  The current theme of the collective is different.

Stories presented were disturbing and enlightening. There was little romantic cinema or idyllic work situation shown, reminiscent of despised elements from the Soviet film making area. Rather neo-realistic, surreal elements, cinema noir stylistic devices (UKRAINIAN LESSONS), and black humor prevailed. In Valentyn Vasyanovych feature BUSINESS AS USUAL we follow the descent of a psychotherapist treating addicts. Realizing the fragile basis of his identity and precarious link to others he tries to make sense out of his life that has become meaningless. From having a wife, child, and residence he passes through numerous surreal experiences to end up disheveled and homeless in a cemetery looking at his image   on a grave stone.  Most of the films reflect the grim conditions and growing gulf between the rich and the poor of the Ukrainian society and in some documentaries several older people articulated that their life was better under Soviet rule. Corruption, violence and alcoholism were steady companions in these films ranging from old ladies and the police (THE PIE, Yuriy Kovalov) to drifting students killing spontaneously because they cannot control their impulses. (GAUDI, Aksynia Kurina). As in other developing countries, like Cambodia, we encounter young teenagers who work to support their families.  PIT NO. 8 by Marianna Kaat features the Sikanov family supported by 15 year old Yura who works in illegal coal pits in Donetsk.  He provides the income for his siblings in a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic mother and step father. The older sister is rarely working since there are no jobs in this decaying area. The family is registered by the authorities as living in unfavorable conditions.  Eventually the mother is stripped of parental rights; Yura is placed into a boarding school and his sister in an orphanage. For his generation, the first grown up in independent Ukraine there is no future.  Illegal pits are closed down; apparently the bribes for police were insufficient.

The feature length documentary HOW TO ESTABLISH A VODKA EMPIRE adds a lighter touch. The British film maker Daniel Edelstyn tracks down his Ukrainian heritage and discovers a Vodka distillery which he successfully revives thus providing some employment.  HOW THE COSSACKS FLEW INTO SPACE by Yevhen Matveiyenko moves corruption back into the center of attention. The craving for more cash is prompted by consumerism, the perceived need for a car, a larger refrigerator, a heater, etc.  The father is a medical salesman who faces dismissal because he has not shared bribes with his superior.  His young son steals households money, thus corruption has been passed on in the family.  Ruslan Batytskyy   offered in The UKRAINIAN LESSONS a fitting conclusion of the KinofestNYC program. The opening short film PIE was a comical surreal take on corrupt teenagers, police and the local mafia.  UKRAINIAN LESSONS, a work in progress, records in extreme neo realism sequences the fate of a beautiful young teacher who returns to a desolate decrepit mining town where buildings and mines encrusted with dirt are falling apart and the surroundings are devastated. We are faced with a surreal lunar landscape inhabited by few people living in run down houses and filthy flats. Here the inhabitants have ceased to communicate and only very few words are uttered at the end of the film in a dream like sequence. Interaction has degraded to the animalistic level and the veneer of civility has disappeared totally. There is only bleakness and industrial ruin, no living nature or any form of culture. The teacher falls in love with a young coal miner and provokes an incredible aggression by his fellow skin head hoodlum coal miners. Acting out their mute world they engage in rape and murder conveying the message that in this hellish town there is no space for beauty and communication.

I trust that the next edition of KinofestNYC maintains the quality shown this year.

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