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Beginning in the late 19th century, a kind of “folk modernism” developed in the Ukraine that combined traditional themes and images with often far-reaching aesthetic innovation, as seen in the work of artists such as Sholem Aleichem, Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky, Marc Chagall or Oleksandra Ekster. In cinema, this tendency was characterized by the work of Aleksandr Dovzhenko, the “father” of Ukrainian cinema and one of the giants of world cinema; although the political pressures of Thirties “socialist realism” would tame his style, one need only see his Zvenigora or his masterpiece Earth to discover what a radically original vision of cinema Dovzhenko was proposing—one that effortlessly combined political agitation with a lyrical celebration of Nature and humanity’s place within it.
With the coming of the cultural thaw in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, a new generation of Ukrainian or Ukrainian-based filmmakers returned to the spirit of “folk modernism.” One of the era’s most popular films, Sergei Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, brought a Carpathian folk tale about star-crossed lovers in the Carpathians to life with a whirlwind of color, camera movement and driving folk music. His cameraman on Shadows, Yuri Ilyenko, in works such as Spring for the Thirsty and The Eve of St. John, brought this poetic tendency to such delirious limits that both films ran into trouble with the Soviet authorities.
We offer this brief tribute to Ukrainian poetic cinema, a movement little known today but one that provided some of the most remarkable looking and sounding films ever made. Series programmed by Richard Peña.