Cinenews Archive

How Aurora Wooed the Oscar.
An Almost Detective Story about the Ukrainian Contender for the American Academy Award.

By Yuri Shevchuk
Columbia University

New York—Finally some good piece of news for all those who care for Ukrainian film. After two filmless years Ukraine will again take part in the Oscar competition. According to the official website of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, this year one of the Oscar contenders for best foreign film is Aurora by director Oxana Bayrak.

As the director of the Ukrainian Film Club of Columbia University in New York City I asked Bayrak’s company, Bayrak Studio, to cooperate with us in organizing a New York screening of her film. When I didn’t receive a reply, I decided at least to find out as much as possible about the elusive Aurora. After all, it was not just any film but an Oscar contender, the best Ukrainian film of the year! First I asked my contacts in Ukraine to tell me their impressions of Bayrak’s film. As it turned out, none of them, not even those who work in the film industry, had seen it. Until recently, the film was not in the movie theaters, at least not in Kyiv, Lviv, Odesa, or Kharkiv. Meanwhile the American Academy’s “Special Rules for the Best Foreign Language Film Award” state that:

“The film must be first released in the country submitting the film no earlier than October 1, 2005 and no later than September 30, 2006, and be first publicly exhibited by means of 35 mm or 70 mm film for a run of at least seven consecutive days in a commercial motion picture theater for the profit of the producer and exhibitor, advertised and exploited during the run in a manner considered normal and customary to the industry.”
Further on it says: “Every country shall be invited to submit its best film to the Academy. Selection of the best picture from each country shall be made by one organization, jury or committee that should include artists and/or craftspeople from the field of motion pictures. A list of the selection committee members must be submitted to the Academy no later than August 1, 2006, by 5:00 p.m. PDT.”

Was Aurora screened in Ukraine, and, if so, where and when, and can one consider such runs and the location of the screenings “normal” for Ukraine? But if this film was never screened, how did it end up on the official Oscar contender list? Did the Academy make an exception for Oxana Bayrak? I contacted IntWestDistribution, the company that co-produced the film with Bayrak Studio. Yulia Malynovskaya, the PR manager for IntWestDistribution, told me in a telephone conversation that the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Ukraine had submitted Aurora as Ukraine’s official contender for the Oscar. When I asked her to provide me with the list of members of the selection committee that had recommended Aurora, Malynovskaya said she would send it. (She never did.) Then she added that the film was screened in Sevastopol for seven days in September 2006 expressly in order to meet the eligibility rules of the Oscar competition. During our conversation she mentioned Sevastopol at least three times as the city where the film had been screened.

In order to verify this information, I telephoned Borys Savchenko, the head of the Union of Cinematographers of Ukraine, who by virtue of his work should have been acquainted with this film and the procedure of its submission. Mr. Savchenko said that he had not seen the film. Moreover, professional institutions that are directly involved in Ukrainian filmmaking, like the Union of Cinematographers, the Oleksander Dovzhenko Foundation, the Rylsky Institute of Art, Folklore, and Ethnology at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (which has a film studies section), the O. Dovzhenko Film Studio did not take part in the process to select Aurora. Thus it appears that even if the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Ukraine had indeed proposed Aurora, it did so without the knowledge and participation of the above-mentioned professional film institutions.

Savchenko contacted Valentyn Hrebenny, who is in charge of the film distribution network in Sevastopol. He confirmed that no film called Aurora was screened in this city in the last two years. According to Savchenko’s information, there are no private movie theaters in the city. Thinking that Ms. Malynovskaya had made an error, on 15 November I wrote to tell her that her information was incorrect and requested a comment. The next day I received the following answer:
“The filmmakers replied to questions regarding the film Aurora at an official press conference. The film will be widely released on 30 November.” This was followed by references to the official Web site of the US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where the film is listed as one of several Oscar contenders.

Since I had obtained neither specific details nor corrected information from the film’s official representative, IntWestDistribution, I was forced to contact the Academy’s representatives for an explanation. On 20 November I received this reply from Ms. Torene Svitil, Awards Coordinator of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences:

“I received your e-mail with some concern. We ask filmmaking communities in submitting countries to follow certain rules. We ask for the names of the members of the selection committee, and we also ask for copies of ads demonstrating that the film had a theatrical run in the submitting country. We received both of these for the Ukrainian submission.
“Obviously, however, there is much about the internal processes of this selection that we have no way of knowing. I have contacted both the Ukrainian selection committee and the filmmakers asking for an explanation to your allegations.
“When I have a response, I will respond to your e-mail at greater length, but I wanted you to know that we are investigating. Best regards, Torene Svitil, Awards Coordinator, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences”. (As of January 5, 2007, Ms. Svitil did not respond).

On 23 November Oxana Bayrak held a press conference in Kyiv. According to the Web site of KINOKOLO Bayrak said that her film had had a limited seven-day screening run during 11-17 November 2006 at the Spartak movie theater in Symferopol. In a telephone conversation with KINOKOLO, the director of the Spartak cinema, Iryna Vyshnevska, confirmed Bayrak’s statement about the week-long screening of Aurora in September.

At the press conference, Bayrak also said that her film was submitted as a contender for the Oscar by an organization called the Association to Promote the Development of Cinematography in Ukraine together with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Ukraine. The filmmaker said that the association sifted through five films and selected Aurora.

So, now it was not Sevastopol but Symferopol, and not the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Ukraine but an institution with its mission clearly stated in the title: Association to Promote the Development of Cinematography in Ukraine. The irony here is that this Association earned its notoriety not by making films but by opposing the right of Ukrainian viewers to see films in their mother tongue. Until June of 2006, all foreign films were released in Ukraine only in the Russian language dubbing. An attempt to rectify this anomaly was made last January when Yekhanurov’s government passed a decision obliging film distribution companies to gradually switch to Ukrainian film dubbing, not to the exclusion, but alongside the Russian language one. By July 2007, 70 percent of all foreign-made films would be dubbed in Ukrainian. The first films dubbed in Ukrainian Cars  and Pirates of the Caribbean. Dead Man’s Chest were a big success with the viewers around Ukraine even though the Ukrainian version was often shown either too early or too late in the day, when fewer viewers come to theaters. Ukrainian language Cars sold at least 15% more tickets than the Russian version.

Unable to compete the said Association which apparently represents the interests of Russian film distribution companies in Ukraine lodged a court complaint and succeeded in nullifying the government’s decision. The Yanukovych government which under the existing procedure was the only entity that could appeal the court ruling refused to do so. In his infamous reaction to the appeals by many prominent intellectuals to defend the cultural rights of the majority of Ukrainian citizens, the vice premier for humanitarian issues Dmytro Tabachnyk, in the past one the principal architects of the Kuchma cleptocratic regime and now the happy comeback kid of the Yanukovych era said, “We cannot allow a narrow stratum of Ukrainian-speaking intelligensia who is afraid of an open competition to determine our cultural policies”. Thus thanks to the initiative of the Association to Promote the Development of Cinematography in Ukraine and with the support of the Yanukovych  government we are back to square one: millions of Ukrainians are effectively being deprived of the right to watch films in their own language. They are being brazenly Russified.

Now the association is allowed to represent Ukraine before the American Academy. Is this a bad joke? There is more. When I interviewed Borys Savchenko for this article, he said of the Association, “Those are the same people who believe that filmmakers are not entitled to receive money for their films because these films were made in the Soviet period.”

The Bayrak affair is not just about Aurora, it is about the principles of fair play, about Ukrainian national cinema, about how and who can legitimately represent it before the world.  It is clear that Bayrak’s film Aurora did not undergo a process of transparent, honest, and democratic selection that would have given it the right to represent the country, not just  an individual filmmaker, however ambitious or unscrupulous. Among the participants of such a process must be cinematographers, members of national filmmaking community, and also Ukrainian viewers. Every Ukrainian should have the opportunity to watch a Ukrainian film that is competing for the Oscar without having to travel to one single city, even if it is sunny Symferopol. National viewers must be respected, not looked at simply as a source of profit or a springboard to fame, whose rights can be trampled with impunity.

In what other country but Ukraine can a film first be proposed as a contender for the Oscar and later, as an afterthought, released widely two months after the designated deadline? Why is it impossible to get Bayrak’s representatives to provide answers to these and other entirely justified questions? Do we, Ukrainian film viewers, not have the right to know who is representing Ukraine in the world, and how?

The film Aurora was finally released in 150 copies simultaneously in Ukraine and Russia on November 30, exactly two months after the deadline set by the American Academy. I have not yet had the privilege of watching it here in New York. The first reviews to the film which I read in the Ukrainian press and heard from professional film critics suggest a depressingly convincing answer to all these questions. The process of “selection” of this film was orchestrated in this peculiar manner exactly because the film would otherwise have failed to pass even a very liberal test for Ukrainianness. It would have failed not because the director is openly opposed to Ukrainian culture and language. Not because she seems to question the very idea of Ukrainian independence: Oxana Bayrak is number 4 in the official electoral list of contenders for Ukrainian Parliament advanced by the political entity with a bizarre designation - the Party of Putin’s Policies (Partia polityky Putina). Bayrak’s film would surely have failed primarily because there is precious little art and even less Ukrainian identity in her film. That is one thing that the critics who saw it agree on. “I felt cynically and brazenly cheated for the entire duration of the film” (Oltarzhevska, Ukraina Moloda), “The genre of Bayrak’s films can be described as something of a cinema for rhinoceroses. There is nothing Ukrainian in them: either in their language, or actors, or spirit, or coloring…” (the director Mykhailo Illienko). The influential film reviewer for “Dzerkalo Tyzhnia” Oleh Verhelis wrote, “The viewing of this film … reduced this writer to a state of … moral and intellectual stupor”.

The Bayrak debacle reflects badly not only on Ukraine and its dysfunctional government with its disastrous record of neglect of Ukrainian film, language, and culture. It also reflects badly on the American Academy that seems to allow its name to be associated with a third-rate product and an unscrupulous film director pretending to represent a culture she despises. The fact that “Aurora” by Oxana Bayrak remains on the shortlist of 61 contenders for the Oscar in the best foreign language film category is both a slap in the face of Ukrainian cinema and a mockery of the very purpose of one of world’s most prestigious competition for excellence in cinema. Now only the Academy can correct the situation by removing Aurorafrom the list, and thus sending all present and future impostors around the world a clear message that it intends to uphold the principles of fair, open, and honest play.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.


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