A profitably oblique peek into a semi-forgotten chapter of cinema history, Hollywood on the Dnieper: Dreams From Atlantis (Gollivud nad Dniprom: Sni z Atlantidi) is a gentle but illuminatingly enjoyable stroll down a picturesque memory lane. Chronicling the mid-’50s to mid-’70s period when the tiny riverside village of Buchak became the backwater epicenter for bucolic epics and oddball folklore extravaganzas, this sophomore feature-length effort from director/co-writer Oleh Chorny (2012’s Bogdan Harylyshyn: Mission Freedom) exudes a small-screen feel throughout. But while it could easily be trimmed down to an hour for TV, the wryly nostalgic journey into Ukraine’s Soviet past should also find its way into those movies-on-movies sidebars increasingly popular at film festivals.
The crucial role of legendary director Alexander Dovzhenko, the giant figure around whom so much of Ukraine’s checkered film history revolves, will boost such exposure — likewise the prominence here of films by such luminaries as Sergei Paradjanov (who shot 1961’s Ukrainian Rhapsody in his adopted homeland) and Andrei Tarkovsky. The latter captured the watery-bosky splendors of the area in his 1962 debut Ivan’s Childhood, and the picture’s now-sexagenarian star Nikolai Burlyayev is one of a slew of talking-head contributors. None of these offers very much in the way of penetrating analysis; Chorny steadily gathering anecdotes into an oral history of a “lost paradise” which serves as microcosm and metaphor for much wider, even more savage ironies pertaining to the Soviet and post-Soviet era.
Dovzhenko stumbled across Buchak not long before his death in 1956, proclaiming the valley “Ukraine’s Swizerland … the most poetic films have to be made here.” The consequent arrival of film crews from Kiev — only 100 miles away — and even Moscow was a preharbinger of modern ‘industry’ that was to wreak terrible environmental damage on the surrounding countryside from the 1980s onward. The construction of a hydroelectric plant and reservoir involved flooding large portions of Buchak’s environs and the evacuation of nearly all residents. Only a small handful of houses remain, and the glory days of this mini-Hollywood are a matter of fond nostalgia for locals and film experts alike.
But what glory days they were! Chorny’s film doesn’t have the scope or inclination to explore the nature of Soviet propaganda, nor delve into the government’s mismanagement of Buchak’s amazing natural resources. Instead, alternating interviews and alluring clips from more than a dozen Buchak-area productions, he provides tantalizing glimpses of some little-known but evidently remarkable works. Viewers will be rabidly keen to know more about The Eve of Ivan Kupalo (1968), directed by Paradjanov’s sometime cinematographer Yuri Ilyenko and shot by the latter’s brother Vadim. Hallucinatory images include dwarf Orthodox priests, weirdly colored cows and a solarized deity who seems to have floated in from the world of Alejandro Jodorowsky.
Even when transferred to 21st century digital, the boldness of such films’ celluloid-era imagination retains a hypnotic power. In jarring contrast to such epically strange richness, Hollywood on the Dnieper is itself a decidedly conventional affair, with tourist-advert visuals and a TV-style excess of blandly atmospheric music courtesy of Ihor Stesiuk. The final reel takes on a campaigning tone, with optimistic talk of Buchak’s possible future as a tourist destination — though one local resident, beefily charismatic Ukrainian rap star Oleh ‘Fagot’ Mykhailyuta, speaks amusingly and persuasively about his desire that the village and its surroundings should remain a well-kept secret.
Production companies: Directory Films, Ukrainian State Film Agency
Director-editor: Oleh Chorny
Screenwriters: Stanislav Tsalyk, Oleh Chorny, Dmytro Ivanov
Producers: Ihor Savychenko, Roman Klympush
Cinematographer: Oleh Malovitsky
Composer: Ihor Stesiuk
Sales: Directory Films, Kiev, Ukraine
No Rating, 89 minutes