June 15, 2010. Prokhorivka, Ukraine.

Yuri Illienko, Ukrainian Film Classic, in Memoriam (1936-2010)

On June 15, 2010, Yuri Illienko, the greatest contemporary Ukrainian filmmaker, passed away. His name is primarily associated with Ukrainian poetic cinema, the aesthetic school that creatively used and reinvented the legacy of Oleksander Dovzhenko. Poetic cinema was Ukraine’s own answer to the cinematic ‘new waves’ that engulfed Europe after WW2, and its most celebrated achievement is “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors”, directed by Sarkis Paradzhanian and photographed by Yuri Illienko.

Yuri Illienko was born on July 18, 1936, in Ukraine. He grew up in Moscow and was initially trained as cinematographer in the VGIK, the premier Soviet film school. Illienko became an international celebrity for his breathtaking camerawork in Sarkis Paraddzanian’s  (a.k.a. Sergey Paradzhanov) “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” (1964). His directorial debut “Well for the Thirsty” (1966) was banned by Soviet censors. Yuri Illienko also directed “St. John’s Eve” (1968), “White Bird with a Black Mark” (1971), “In Spite of Everything” (1972), “To Dream and Live” (1973), “The Feast of Baked Potatoes” (1976), “A Swath of Uncut Wild Flowers” (1978), “Forest Song. The Mavka” (1980), “Legend of Princess Olha” (1982), “Straw Bells” (1987), “Swan Lake. The Zone” (1990), “Serhiy Paradzhanov. Score of Christ in C Major” (1994) and “A Prayer for Hetman Mazepa” (2002).

Yuri Illienko hosting Club's director Yuri Shevchuk in his apartment in Kyiv, May 25, 2006. Photo by Liudmyla Yefimenko.

The fate of his last film exemplifies the fate of Ukrainian filmmaking and culture under various governments since the fall of the Soviet Union. First heralded as the long-awaited Ukrainian blockbuster based on the life story the great Ukrainian statesman Ivan Mazepa, the film was promised a big budget and government support. Illienko refused to pander to expectations and produce a “Braveheart” with a Ukrainian twist. Instead he offered a shocking postmodernist rendition of Ukrainian history, as a rape and brutalization of Ukraine by the Russian Empire over three hundred years. He sounded a strident warning that history might repeat itself now, a warning that today appears eerily prophetic. The film was openly denounced by the Russian government and banned. In Ukraine, most critics not only failed to see its compelling post-colonial message but criticized for all kinds of shortcomings, even though the film remained efectively unfinished. Its producers withdrew the film from the public domain. Up until the autumn of 2009 “Prayer for Hetman Mazepa” was banished from Ukrainian distribution. Finally the Ministry of Culture transferred the copyright of the film to Illienko’s production company and the film was completed. It has not yet received national or international distribution.

Yuri Illienko was a prolific writer who published a number of books and who compellingly spoke of the necessity for Ukraine to gain its own voice in film, to develop its national cinema as original, distinct, and uniquely recognizable.

Yuri Illienko was an enthusiastic supporter of the Ukrainian Film Club of CU and its efforts to popularize Ukrainian cinema internationally. His passing is an irreparable loss for Ukrainian culture. His legacy and the true depth of his talent are yet to be fully appreciated. The Club plans to organize a tribute to the great master of cinema this coming academic year 2010-2011.

Ukrainian Film Club of Columbia University© 2015. For more information please contact Yuri Shevchuk