Ukrainian Film Industry Boosted by Increase in State Funding

The country's yearly budget for cinema doubled to $30 million as new features begin to roll out.

ODESSA, UKRAINE – A new wave of Ukrainian feature films, including Hollywood-style genre movies, musicals and new takes on history, is being fueled by a sharp increase in public funding.

Ukrainian producers who for years endured with little or no state support say recent increases in funding -- doubling this year from $16 million to $30 million -- are unleashing a storm of creativity.

"The word is that the president has American advisors who told him that if he wanted to gain public popularity he should spend money on film, culture, the internet and other feel-good areas," one producer told The Hollywood Reporter.

President Viktor Yanukovich, elected in February 2010, has been criticized in the West for his human rights record, particularly over the imprisonment on abuse of office charges of former prime minister Yulia Timoshenko, who stood against him during the presidential race.

But the recent introduction of $2 billion in welfare increases and other reforms have won him popularity that previously eluded him.

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The money for production support may represent a tiny percentage of Ukrainian public spending, but the wealth of new films on show Tuesday at a works-in-progress presentation during the fourth edition of the Odessa International Film Festival suggests that funds are being well spent.

All but three of the nine of projects presented were publicly funded and many of them were in Ukrainian, a language sufficiently different from Russian that the films need dubbing in order to sell to the large Russian market.

But with budgets from $500,000 to around $2 million, the range and quality of projects impressed a professional audience of more than 150 producers, critics, agents and distributors.

"I was first here three years ago and there was nothing," said Moscow-based producer Yevgeny Gindilis. "What we are seeing now is really impressive."

Projects include Unforgotten Shadows,  a horror-comedy that looks like an Eastern American Pie -- with teen romance and sexual adventures setting the tone before things go horridly wrong when ancient ghouls are accidentally awoken. The film is slated for release in the Ukraine on Sept. 19, and its producer, Andex Selivanov, is negotiating a DVD release and limited theatrical showing in the U.S., where there is a large Ukrainian Diaspora.

Igor Savychenko -- a producer, director and member of the Motion Picture Association of Ukraine who has three films in post-production and a range of projects at other stages -- is hoping for an international A-class festival premiere for The Guide, a thriller set in 1930s Ukraine as famine and revolutionary zeal combine to make life dangerous for a young American orphan on the run from police following the murder of his engineer father.

The film stars actor Jeff Burrell and a top Ukrainian cast, with the young boy played by the son of a Kiev-based American diplomat.

"Most films are fully funded by the state and that is allowing producers to make films that earlier they simply could not," Savychenko said. "There is a real burst of creativity coming to screens here now."

Examples of that creativity include Trumpeter, produced by Olga Zherzhenko, a kind of Ukrainian Glee set in a music school with a wholly original score, teen cast and high-octane feel-good factor.

And there’s Toloka, produced by Philip Illienko, a lyrical take on the violence of Ukraine’s long history set on one plot of land over several hundred years.

Renowned Georgian-born director Nana Djordjadze is also shooting here. Her new film, Fedor, is a comedy about a 14-year-old boy’s romance with a beautiful young woman who is also a local prostitute. Set in Odessa in the late Soviet period, it evokes a certain gentle nostalgia for first love and an era many now regard with fondness.

The Odessa International Film Festival runs July 12-20.