I was fortunate enough to be at the Ukrainian Cinema Days press conference at the Ukrainian Embassy last week, excited to hear what the organisers had to say about the launch of their film festival programme showing at Rich Mix in East London.
Igor Iankovsky, founder of Charity Foundation Initiative for the Future and main sponsor of this event, unveiled his mission to present ‘a different Ukraine’ beyond the recent controversial headlines: ‘Despite war and the resulting political turmoil, there are other stories emerging from this extraordinary country… We want to show British audiences a new Ukraine ’.
Pylyp Illienko, Head of the State Film Agency of Ukraine echoed these sentiments and stressed their belief that art & cinema were the best ways to represent their country abroad. The aims behind the festival were thus to introduce audiences to the abundant new talent currently emerging from this corner of the world as well as featuring classics – to reflect the full scope of Ukrainian cinema at its best.
Along with critically acclaimed films such Zhyva Vatra’s The Living Fire (2015) and the compelling White Bird with a White Mark (1971) there were several new films which deserved a look-in. However I struggled to piece together a showing of Anatoliy Mateshko’s The Trumpeter (Trubach, 2014).
A deceptively simple plot revolving around 13 year old Kolya Shevchenko’s experiences as a trumpeter in a brass band, it follows a zany narrative, opening with his dismissal by a new musical director. The young trumpeter then ends up being re-discovered for a role in a competing band by a famous musician. There is a love interest and plenty of rivalry to keep the plot spinning at tangents and the film bubbles along with musical numbers and dances, which breathlessly punctuate the narrative until the grand finale.
If the premise of this festival was to present a different side of Ukraine, The Trumpeter surely did that. A slapstick musical is probably not what foreign audiences were expecting and for this reason alone it deserved to be in this programme.
But part of the problem with The Trumpeter is that the film doesn’t seem to have a discernible guiding concept outside these musical escapades. The overall effect results in a kind of show-boating reel which, though visually stunning, fails to engage in any meaningful way. The humour, perhaps a tad hit-and-miss with an obvious nod to the kooky qualities of films such as Amelie, did not have the witty dialogue to back it up.
The charismatic actors play the intentionally caricatured roles competently but the general farce shows little cohesion between them and the heart of the story. The atmosphere of the piece is an uneasy mixture of adult mentality within an effervescent children’s world, while the film’s eclecticism is alienating: there are a dizzying array of styles and genres, and the whole effect is disparate rather than diverse.
Perhaps the concept of the story was lost in translation, especially given the quickly evolving narrative and lengthy subtitles flying at a hare’s pace (in need of further editing for foreign audiences), but aside from this, the film’s production values very high – the cinematography, sound, sets, costume, art direction, and editing are all stylish, with even the actors looking like they’ve emerged from fashion magazines.
At the end of the festival launch, Pylyp Illienko reminded everyone that this week, hopeful film-makers in Ukraine were holding their breath as the government were debating and drafting new law to support Ukrainian cinema. The proposed policies are aimed at embracing ‘new ideas, new approaches & new regulations’ to open up commercial international cooperation.
This certainly contextualised The Trumpeter’s place in this new wave of film production, and reflects much of the creative optimism currently emerging from the country, at such a fraught moment in its fortunes.
Anatoliy Mateshko’s The Trumpeter (2014) was screened as part of the Ukrainian Cinema Days in London Festival 2015, supported by the Ukrainian Embassy London.