December 11, 2012, New York, N.Y.
Mykhaylo Illienko's 2012 The Firecrosser takes a larger-than-life true story and retells it through the accepted conventions of a blockbuster to create a truly larger-than-life motion picture. The Ukrainian movie, which was filmed over five years, stars Kyivite Dmytro Linartovych in the role of Ivan Dodoka and accomplished Ukrainian actor, Vitaliy Linetskyi, as his friend-turned-adversary, Stepan Shulika. Olha Hryshyna plays Liubov Karimova, a military nurse from a Tatar family in Siberia and love interest of Ivan. Despite its remarkable budget of $2 million, this movie encountered numerous technical challenges and almost wasn't completed. Filming was stopped multiple times, the longest stoppage being a year and a half around the 2010 Ukrainian presidential elections. An unwanted eighteen-month break can sound the knell, so the project is lucky to have survived; indeed not only its protagonist, Ivan, but the movie itself seems to be "the one who has passed through the fire."
The skeleton of the story is taken from one of the many foggy pages of Soviet history. Towards the end of the Second World War, Ivan Datsenko, a highly decorated Soviet fighter pilot from central Ukraine, was presumed to have perished when his plane was hit by enemy fire. According to the official Soviet record died in WWII, and was awarded a hero of the Soviet Union. Twenty-three years later, a Soviet delegation to the 1967 Expo in Montreal, while visiting an Iroquois reservation in Canada was shocked to find that, of all things, the chief of the tribe spoke Ukrainian. He introduced himself by his many names, Chief Poking Fire, John McNober, and Ivan Ivanovych Datsenko, who apparently had not died in that bombing attack, but was taken first into German captivity, then, as traitor, to a Soviet concentration camp in Siberia, before marvelously ending up in Canada. It is on this beguiling foundation that Тhe Firecrosser takes forms.
The first two-thirds unfold in Ukraine and the Soviet Union. We meet Ivan Dodoka as a boy living with his father in a Ukrainian village. His father, who claims to be descended from Cossack wizards, is apparently a bit of a free thinker resistant to the Soviet regime. For this, or perhaps for his implied reluctance to join a collective farm or give up all his grain stores during the Holodomor (the artificially orchestrated Terror Famine of 1932-33), he is later killed. Fast forward to World War II and we again meet Ivan, this time as a young army recruit. He and Liuba instantly fall in love, but the trials of war and the diabolical interventions of jealous Stepan keep them apart. When they unexpectedly see each other again, Ivan, in his characteristic taciturnity, presents Liuba with marriage papers saying, "Sign these. We're getting married." They do, only to be separated almost immediately. The rest of the movie Liuba spends waiting, Ivan spends trying to return, and Stepan spends alternately trying to force Liuba to sleep with him and wrestling with the Ivan Dodoka who haunts him.
In a scene whose context is more fully revealed much later in the film, Ivan Dodoka is shot down during combat (possibly while trying to rescue some storks) and counted as killed in action. When he later resurfaces, the omnipresent Stepan, officer of the sadistic Soviet political police, the NKVD (later the KGB), refuses to restore to him his name, forcing him to forever live in exile. Namelessly sentenced to the GULAG, he intuits his impending execution and turns himself into a wolf to escape into the taiga. Some time later, he fortuitously ends up in the care of Liuba's father (Oleksander Ihnatusha), but their plan to return Ivan to his home and his wife goes awry and he somehow finds himself lost in the Canadian wilderness. Although he is farther from home than ever before, he is also finally living among people who do not want to kill him; what follows is a series of cute cultural exchanges and misunderstandings. All the while he is planning his return, Ivan is becoming further integrated into the community. Serendipitously he one day meets a former acquaintance who manages to put him in contact with his past life. Just as he gets close to realizing his dream, it all ends tragically (it is, after all, a Ukrainian film), and Ivan resigns himself to building his life among the Iroquois.
Illienko explains that, in contrast to many other contemporary Ukrainian films, he explicitly wanted to make a film for the audience, and he succeeds to a great extent: "I'm tired of stories that are coming out in Ukraine. … We've sort of gotten hung up on the fashion of the depressing movie in which we're told about yet another person for whom, once again, nothing works out. I wanted to tell a fantastic story." Inspired by the seeming supernaturalism of the real-life Datsenko, Illienko's Firecrosser bends the rules of reality and asks us, the viewers, to accept his alternate universe of the preternatural where humans can take on animal form, weather phenomena can carry people over continents, and the telepathic connection between two individuals can be so strong that it manifest itself physically across time and space. (Apparently it is also a universe in which all young women are itching for the chance to bear men sons.) Magical realism itself is a commonly accepted cinematic device, one to which Ukrainian film is no stranger, but The Firecrosser somehow fails to employ it effectively. The willy-nilly suspension of belief in the laws of nature required of the audience feels much less like a completely mystical alternate reality and more like a series of dei ex machina needed to advance the plot.
Linguistically the film makes for an interesting case study, combining as it does—to different degrees and effects—at least five languages. Of course, the questions here lie not so much in the phonemes and subject-verb constructions as in the social functions and political implications of the languages' respective roles. Employed consciously, this strategy has the potential to send clues to viewers about power and hierarchy, but it is not used effectively to this end. The divisions between who speaks which languages, and therefore what those languages are supposed to represent, are not presented starkly. In fact the divisions between the languges themselves aren't upheld either: in one typical scene, Ivan and Stepan converse freely in surzhyk, a lawless blend of Ukrainian and Russian. Rather than drawing attention to the cultural significance of each language, the effect is just to reproduce the linguistic goulash all too common in Ukraine. This reinforces and further normalizes the schizophrenic "bilingualism" of everyday life, neither constructively nor, unfortunately, deconstructively.
Of course, these subtleties are mostly lost on an English-speaking audience. Further illustration of this vernacular confusion: while the subtitles indicate when Tatar and "Indian" are being spoken, there is no signal for monoglots when the characters alternate between Ukrainian and Russian (of all the languages, the two most difficult for the untrained ear to distinguish). If Illienko truly felt the language question was a pivotal theme of the movie, he evidently didn't think it was important enough to impress upon to a foreign audience, but a matter for Ukrainians alone.
The one message that comes through clearly is that Russian is a serious language needed for serious matters like war, organization, friendship, betrayal, love. Ukrainian is relegated to the realm of juvenile fantasy and folksy wisdom. It is the language of Ivan's god-fearing father, the village soothsayer, and intimate but fleeting moments between newlyweds where its use only underscores its irrelevance. (Tatar, incidentally, is the language one uses to talk to and be understood by wild animals.) The film's one notable love scene shows Ivan and Liubov teaching each other the parts of the body in their native tongues. The scene is romantic and genuinely adheres to the strategy deployed by Illienko to make a melodrama that would appeal to audiences. From a linguistic perspective, however, it effectively seals the fate of Ukrainian, permanently marking it as irrelevant and doomed forever to the margins. The implication—intentional or not—is that our two lovers come from two equally endangered and peripheral tribes. Thank God for Russian and the Soviets for bringing them together!
Around one-third of this movie is in neither Russian nor Ukrainian: the portion that takes place in Canada among English-speaking Iroquois Indians. The language of cultural production in Ukraine is always a contentious issue, but it almost never concerns English. To be fair, shooting so much of a feature film in a foreign language was a huge undertaking—is an American director shooting just one scene of a movie in Ukrainian even imaginable?—unfortunately, this experiment was not pulled off smoothly. The lines themselves preserve the characteristic syntax and expression of the Ukrainian they were originally written in; their delivery is discordant, substituting Ukrainian intonation for the natural cadence of English. The result is jarring and distracting, much more so than if the Indians all spoke Ukrainian, or even Tatar or German, or any other language with fluency. Interestingly, when Ivan first meets the Indians, he speaks broken English that is at times hard to understand, but for this it sounds very natural. These moments serve as stark contrast for the utterly inauthentic utterances of the film's Indians.
This film is Ukraine's entry for the 85th Academy Awards in the category of best foreign language film. While it is a wonderfully delightful story and a polished, professional movie, it is hard to believe that in their consideration the members of the Academy will be able to overlook the caricatured representation of American Indians (undoubtedly unintentional, but present nevertheless). Decades of belated struggle with this question have led to a yet-incomplete, but highly nuanced approach toward all matters of the Indians/American Indians/Native Americans/First Nation. To be sure, no consenus has been reached, but the bluntness of the stereotypes portrayed in The Firecrosser is bound to be sufficiently off-putting to discourage much real international acclaim.
It is worth noting one more element of the film, this one subtextual. Mykhaylo Illienko is the brother of Yuriy Illienko, another famed Ukrainian artist, director of the film Black Bird with a White Mark (Білий птах з чорною ознакою, in which M. Illienko actually plays a role) and director of photography for Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Тіні забутих предків). In subtle ways, The Firecrosser shows that it comes from this tradition of Ukrainian Poetic Cinema. The theme of storks and doves harkens back to Black Bird in which storks notably are believed to be striving to cleanse the world of sin. The Jew's harp that often plays in the background is a direct reference to the one played by Ivan (a different Ivan) in Shadows. All the films are replete with traditional folk music, tradition, and imagery. So while this movie is not to be construed as a continuation of the school of Poetic Cinema, it would be mistaken to claim that there is no evidence of its having originated there.
In this sense, Illienko's The Firecrosser helps to cement and define contemporary Ukrainian cinema. It portends positive things to come if Ukrainian directors and producers continue to take their viewers into consideration and make movies people want to watch. Of course, wanting to see a film and actually being able to do so are two different things. The movie theater network in Ukraine is not big enough to secure a box-office return that could cover the costs of such a film production. The system is totally dominated by US and Russian films and Ukrainian films do not have access to the Ukrainian film viewer. Typically, the country receives 50 – 70 copies of Hollywood movies. Because of budget restraints, only fifteen copies were made of The Firecrosser, meaning on average each one grossed over $16,000. (In comparison, the popular Girl with a Dragon Tatoo averaged $1144 per copy.) In Ukraine, this is singularly phenomenal, recordbreaking, absolutely unheard of. But it also confirms the fact that even the most successful of Ukrainian films are inherently, structurally precluded from making money.
Ultimately, though, this film like so many others coming from the former Soviet sphere these days, is fated to be "anti-colonial" rather than "post-colonial." The difference lies in the fact that The Firecrosser accepts the Soviet-colonial structure and tries to mold it to the Ukrainian experience. Some evidence of this can be found in the priority given to Russian as the only language suitable for any and all situations, and the attempt to justify continued interpretation of Stalin's Hero of the Soviet Union as something honorable and impressive. (Imagine a modern-day German movie in which the hero has been granted the Order of the Iron Cross.) Illienko effectivly shows Ukrainianness to indeed be coterminous with the the Soviets' representation of it. Here again is a Ukrainian who not only allows himself to be defined by the colonialist, but accepts that outsider's definition and perpetuates it. It is one more in a long string of movies that willingly orientalize their own Ukrainian protagonists. A post-colonial piece of art would reject these motifs from the beginning and insist on creating something new. Post-colonialism does not need to define itself through juxtaposition against the center (Moscow, the USSR, the GULAG, etc.). Instead, it subverts the accepted framework and creates a new center irrespective of the colonial. Unfortunately, many post-colonial projects in Ukraine thus far have failed to elicit much acclaim from their viewers. Illienko understands at least half of the formula; his next efforts should be directed toward combining the two.
Ali Kinsella, Columbia University