The hotly anticipated Canadian-produced Holodomor blockbuster “Bitter Harvest” opened to decidedly mixed reviews in late February. The movie is the first internationally released film to address the subject of the famine engineered by the Soviet authorities in early 1930s Ukraine, giving it added historical importance and geopolitical relevance.
The plot centers around a Ukrainian love story, with the film’s main characters Yuri (Max Irons) and Natalka (Samantha Barks) caught up in an increasingly apocalyptic environment as Stalin’s efforts to destroy Ukraine’s independence movement spiral downwards towards outright genocide. Not everybody was convinced by the film’s ambitious portrayal of one of the twentieth century’s most brutal yet underreported crimes. Variety’s Chief Film Critic Peter Debruge captured the essence of numerous negative appraisals by noting, “while ‘Bitter Harvest’ will undoubtedly serve to raise awareness, there can be no doubt that the events deserve a more compelling and responsible treatment than this.”
Spotlight on Stalin’s crimes
For Ukrainian audiences, the film’s ability to introduce international audiences to Stalin’s genocide will arguably prove more important than any perceived cinematic shortcomings. In this sense, it is a long overdue contribution. For decades, moviegoers around the world have been more than familiar with the image of dastardly Nazis perpetrating crimes against humanity, but the atrocities of the Soviet regime have rarely appeared on the silver screen. This absence has real-world implications. Relatively few people outside of specialist circles and survivor families appreciate the scale of the Soviet Union’s crimes against humanity, leading to a degree of tolerance towards modern-day revisionism and Soviet apologetics that would spark mass revulsion if directed towards Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist regime.
“Bitter Harvest” goes to considerable lengths to highlight the industrial-scale inhumanity of the Soviet authorities. The movie co-stars a suitably sinister Communist commissar (played by Tamer Hassan) who takes thinly veiled pleasure in the campaign of Kremlin terror he coordinates in the Ukrainian village that serves as the film’s primary focus. Stalin himself makes regular cameos, calling for increasingly savage measures to crush Ukrainian resistance. Audiences see mass executions taking place in Kyiv and witness the ghoulish results of Moscow’s starvation policy, with corpses littering the streets and piling up in rural ravines.
Many of the most notorious images associated with the famine also make it into the film. Starving peasants appear like ghostly apparitions at railway carriage windows. A journalist is bundled away and brutally beaten for speaking openly about the unfolding catastrophe. Red Army troops confiscate sacks of grain at gunpoint as forlorn villagers look on. For anyone familiar with surviving first-hand accounts of the genocide, these scenes will prove particularly harrowing, creating the impression of a previously hazy nightmare imbued with all the clarity and power of twenty-first century cinematography. Audience members who see the film without any prior knowledge of the Holodomor will leave wondering why they had never heard of the Ukrainian famine before.
Holodomor and hybrid war
“Bitter Harvest” comes with plenty of contemporary political baggage. Russia’s 2014 occupation of Crimea and ongoing hybrid war in eastern Ukraine have made the subject of Soviet atrocities in twentieth century Ukraine particularly potent. Moscow has always downplayed the famine – in Soviet times, the Kremlin opted for blanket denials followed by attempts to portray it as a natural disaster. More recently, Russia has sought to depict the mass starvation as part of a Soviet Union-wide agricultural collectivization campaign, while accusing Ukraine of attempting to politicize a shared tragedy.
Ukraine is one of more than a dozen countries to recognize the Holodomor as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian nation. The official Ukrainian narrative characterizes the famine as a deliberate attempt to wipe out entire agricultural communities in rural Ukraine, thus extinguishing the smoldering embers of Ukraine’s 1917-21 independence bid. The release of “Bitter Harvest” will likely reignite the debate over the nature of the famine. The case for genocide enjoys powerful posthumous endorsement from Raphael Lemkin – the man who originally coined the term ‘genocide’. Lemkin wrote at length about what he termed as “the Soviet genocide in Ukraine”. He argued that Soviet policies in 1920s and 1930s Ukraine were a textbook case of genocide encompassing the Holodomor itself as well as additional campaigns against Ukrainian elites and the deliberate displacement of the Ukrainian population by Russian immigrants.
Inevitably, many observers will interpret the appearance of “Bitter Harvest” at this particular moment as the latest salvo in the information war currently raging around Ukraine. In fact, the timing of the movie is pure coincidence. Work on the film actually began prior to the 2013 outbreak of the Euromaidan Revolution, with preparations stretching back many years. “Bitter Harvest” co-author Richard Bachynsky-Hoover first had the idea for the movie while in Ukraine during the heady days of the 2004 Orange Revolution. The son of second-generation Ukrainian immigrants, Ontario-born Bachynsky-Hoover has a background in TV acting work and an artist’s eye for a good story. However, he had never written a screenplay before becoming inspired to explore the Holodomor theme while in witnessing Ukraine’s first post-Soviet people power uprising. “I was inspired to write the script by my experiences of travelling around Ukraine. I wanted to echo the pain I sensed on so many elderly faces, as if there were deep stories locked up inside each line on their faces and behind the eyes that peered at me in villages and cafes and buses and trains,” he tells Business Ukraine magazine.
Educating international audiences
The untold story of Ukraine’s 1930s terror-famine was an obvious focus for a feature-length treatment. It would take years before Bachynsky-Hoover finally completed his screenplay, and even longer until he was able to find supporters willing to take on the project. The Canadian readily admits that many of his friends and family doubted whether the film would ever appear in cinemas, and says his belief in the significance of the project helped him to persevere. “It is of paramount importance for the global community to learn about the famine in Ukraine. I would estimate that around 98% of international audiences are not even familiar with the term “Holodomor”. For over eighty years, the truth has been covered up.”
Bachynsky-Hoover is not the only member of the “Bitter Harvest” team with an emotional stake in raising awareness of the Soviet genocide in Ukraine. The film’s Director George Mendeluk and Producer Ian Ihnatowycz both hail from Ukrainian immigrant backgrounds. Many of the leads in the movie had no prior knowledge of the Holodomor, but with filming taking place on location in Ukraine, this allowed Ukrainian extras and crew to share tales of the famine with them that had been handed down from generation to generation.
The use of Ukrainian backdrops adds a touch of authenticity to “Bitter Harvest”, with scenes shot at Kyiv’s military hospital, the city’s splendid central railway station, and a number of other well-known locations in the Ukrainian capital. However, the most powerful moments take place in the Ukrainian countryside – the key focus of Stalin’s terror famine and the traditional repository of Ukrainian national culture and identity. The overall visual impact is strong, with plenty of striking scenes highlighting the majesty of rural Ukraine and the more colorful aspects of Ukrainian folk traditions. The vibrancy of this Ukrainian agricultural idyll only serves to heighten the horror of the encroaching famine. This is the film’s overriding message – a land of immeasurable natural wealth left deliberately destitute by totalitarian terror.
The plot and dialogue in “Bitter Harvest” may not be to everybody’s liking, but the powerful aesthetics of the movie should be enough to generate renewed interest in the Holodomor itself, while also encouraging other filmmakers to explore this relatively unexplored chapter of twentieth century history. “Bitter Harvest” is an imperfect piece of cinematography but it is a groundbreaking genocide movie in its own right. It may also end up becoming a trendsetter.