oDR: Review

5 must-watch Ukrainian films that pre-date Russia’s 2022 invasion

For an insight into the years preceding Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, watch these five films

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky
18 January 2023, 12.13pm

A still from Stop-Zemlia, by Kateryna Gornostai

In the last few months, we’ve been watching some key Ukrainian films, all made before Russia invaded the country last February. They often focus on the conflict in eastern Ukraine that started in 2014, but they also take us back to a time when other things than war could be at the centre of a film – such as a teenage love story, as in ‘Stop-Zemlia’. They also provide an important background to the war that is unfolding today.

Here are five films – both documentaries and feature films – that oDR particularly likes. All are available to watch with English subtitles, several of them on Takflix, a Ukrainian streaming platform that launched in 2019.

It is also worth noting that the Ukrainian Institute has launched a digital platform to help global audiences discover Ukrainian film. It showcases more than 600 titles (including four of the films listed below).

‘Mariupolis’ (2016)

Documentary, 90 minutes, Mantas Kvedaravičius

This documentary focuses on everyday life in the southern port city of Mariupol, which was then at the frontline of a conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists. The Lithuanian anthropologist and filmmaker liked to refer to his films as “fieldwork”, and it’s easy to see why in this beautifully observed film. Kvedaravičius returned to Mariupol last year to do more filming. According to an investigation by Dmytro Durnev and Yulia Balakhonova, he was killed by Russian soldiers while helping civilians evacuate from the besieged city. A sequel to Kvedaravičius’s documentary, ‘Mariupolis 2’, based on his last rushes, was completed by his partner Hanna Bilobrova, and edited by his long-term editor Dunia Sichov. It premiered at the Cannes film festival in May 2022.

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Trailer on YouTube:

‘The Earth is Blue as an Orange’ (2020)

Documentary, 74 minutes, Iryna Tsilyk

Anna and her four children live in the eastern Ukrainian city of Krasnohorivka, which was particularly affected by the war in 2014–15. Amid chaos and bombings, ordinary life goes on. When the eldest daughter is admitted to film school, her first project is to document the life of her family in a city destroyed by war. Ukrainian filmmaker and writer Iryna Tsilyk filmed that process. The film won the directing award in the world cinema documentary category at the 2020 Sundance film festival.

Trailer on YouTube:

‘Train Kyiv-War’ (2020)

Documentary, 72 minutes, Korniy Grytsiuk

The small industrial city of Kostyantynivka in Donetsk, close to the frontline, is only a 12-hour train ride from Kyiv. People with entirely different social backgrounds and political views travel on the train side by side. They talk, discuss and sometimes even quarrel while continuing their journey towards the same destination.

Trailer on YouTube:

‘Stop-Zemlia’ (2021)

Feature film, 122 minutes, Kateryna Gornostai

In Kyiv, introverted student Masha falls in love while trying to navigate her last year at high school before graduating. The title of this coming-of-age story, written by Ukrainian director/screenwriter Kateryna Gornostai, refers to a game the characters often play at school. Blindfolded, one player stumbles around, trying to catch another person while all the other players look on. The war in Donbas is never at the centre of the story, but looms in the background.

Trailer on YouTube:

‘There are No Monuments to Monuments’ (2021)

Art film, 34 minutes, Dana Kavelina

Ukrainian artist and illustrator Dana Kavelina is best-known for her moving stop-motion animation about the effect of the war in eastern Ukraine. This daring split-screen film about monuments, containing fictitious interviews, is a fascinating watch and asks essential questions about memory.

Film on YouTube:

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