Traumas and Discoveries

For more than a century of cinematography, the number of women working in the industry has been significantly lower than that of men, particularly in the role of directors. Ukrainian cinema is no exception to this trend. However, when discussing female directors, it is crucial not to overlook the fact that they possess diverse approaches and methods that cannot be easily generalized. Therefore, it is appropriate to focus on remarkable individuals who contribute uniquely but significantly to the overall filmmaking process.

Before delving into specific names and films, it is important to establish when Ukrainian cinema can be considered a noteworthy phenomenon. While acknowledging the significant contributions of figures such as Kira Muratova to both Ukrainian and global cinema, our primary focus will be on Ukrainian cinema of the past decade. Despite Ukraine's declaration of independence, films directed by Ukrainian women during this period can be seen as individual episodes, and many of their representatives, including Muratova herself, were associated with the broader post-Soviet space.

The momentous milestone of Maryna Vroda's victory with her short film "Cross" ("Кросс") at Cannes in 2011 marks the beginning of a new chapter in the history of Ukrainian cinema. However, our main emphasis will be on the cinema that experienced significant development after 2014. This can be attributed to two factors: the introduction of the pitching system in 2012 and the impact of the Maidan, which provided a powerful creative impetus for the industry's advancement.

"It seems to me that our cinema lacked stories. However, when the revolution erupted, followed by the war, significant things started happening to us. These stories are unfolding here and now, and they are both intriguing and truthful. We don't need to invent stories; we need to capture them. This is why I also began making documentaries," explained director Alina Gorlova.

"In general, everything that has transpired since the Maidan represents an ongoing process of experiencing traumas and discoveries simultaneously. It is important that we reflect upon and attempt to discuss these experiences," added Iryna Tsilyk.

We initiate the discussion about Ukrainian female cinema with Olena Demyanenko, whose two recent films serve as a defining point between the cinemas of the past decade. Demyanenko's film "My Grandmother Fanny Kaplan" ("Моя бабуся Фанні Каплан") symbolizes this transitional period. The filming began in 2013 and was intended to take place in Crimea. However, after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the crew had to search for new locations. The director herself referred to the film as "an act of decommunization."

Until 1993, the Kaplan case was classified as "Top Secret." Once it was made public, it was discovered that ten pages had been torn out of the case. These missing pages particularly occupy the director's thoughts. The film serves as a reflection and speculation, where the image and life of Fanny Kaplan become not only the focal point but also a metaphor embodying the tragic, absurd, and grim realities of the October Revolution.

"The border between the Soviet and the civilized world lies in the attitude towards the individual. After all, human life should be the primary value," says the director.

The theme of terrorism and dictatorship, resonating throughout the film via its intense personal and dramatic tone, echoes in the present.

Demyanenko's subsequent work was the film "Hutsulka Ksenya" ("Гуцулка Ксеня"), based on the legendary (and formerly banned) operetta by Yaroslav Barnych. The Hutsulshchyna of the 1930s is depicted in a somewhat conventional operetta manner, complete with contemporary resorts, beaches, gymnasiums, a modern railway, and a train to Vienna.

Serving as a bridge from the 1930s to the present day are the songs performed by Dakh Daughters. They serve as commentators, heralds, messengers, molfars, and witches, assuming the role of an ancient (or operatic) choir responsible for the tension and unrest within the film. The events of "Hutsulka Ksenya" take place in the summer of 1939, and the final credits, which alert viewers to the imminent future of the region, have a chilling effect akin to an ice water bucket. This successful decision places Barnych's operetta in a historical context and transforms a light operetta story into a prelude to future tragedies.

Marina Stepanska

Marina Stepanska gained recognition through her short films, which received numerous awards of different kinds. She skillfully and ironically experiments with the cinematic form, as seen in her short films "Desaturated" ("Знебарвлена") or "We, Europa" ("Ми, Європа"). In terms of her only feature-length film so far, "Falling" ("Стрімголов"), the director, known for her perfectionism, surprisingly pays meticulous attention to every detail, filling her chamber film with a significant number of them. These details create additional layers and meanings within the love story that unfolds in the here and now.

The film unquestionably appeals to the "here and now." It delves into familiar matters, depicting what happens on the neighboring streets and capturing the societal experiences in the year following the Maidan, when reality was unraveling. It resonates perfectly with the present day.

A generation in search of themselves seems to have found their own director in Marina Stepanska. She articulates the pain and relevance of their experiences, portraying vivid emotions without unnecessary notation or affected anguish. This subtle, quiet, and highly intimate film presents 27-year-old "non-heroes" in close-up, as they navigate the challenges of making difficult choices within the context of a "heroic time."

Kateryna Gornostai

Kateryna Gornostai, prior to directing her first feature film, had a successful track record of shooting award-winning short films. Her debut feature, "Stop-Zemlia" ("Стоп-Земля"), can be seen as a logical continuation of her earlier work to some extent.

The film showcases non-professional teenage actors with whom Gornostai collaborated in an acting laboratory back in the autumn of 2019. It had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it received the Crystal Bear award. In Ukraine, the film participated in the Odesa International Film Festival and garnered an impressive collection of awards.

This exquisitely delicate, almost fragile film delves into themes of adolescence, relationships, teenage experiences, and emotions. It offers adults a glimpse into their younger selves, assures teenagers that they are not alone, and provides parents with insights into their own children.

On the surface, everything appears as simple as possible, but there is a filmic magic that delicately touches something deeply personal and lingers long after viewing. At first glance, the film resembles a documentary observation of ordinary Kyiv teenagers in an ordinary Kyiv school, radiating warmth and coziness. However, the characters struggle to exist in a reality where everything seems fine, where nothing significant happens. It invites viewers to recall their own experiences at the age of 15-17, when the pain of growing up, uninvited problems, and complexes seemed to cause bones to crack. The deliberate ordinariness of both the circumstances and the characters is highly relevant as it accentuates the unbearable weight of the seemingly lightness of being, a feeling many of us have likely encountered. Not everyone manages to survive it.

The absence of a stunning plot is compensated by rapid montage, as the film competes for the audience's attention, while the lack of acting experience is compensated by the performers' naturalness and authenticity.

Alina Gorlova

Undoubtedly, Alina Gorlova is one of the most remarkable contemporary documentarians with a highly recognizable style. Her film "This Rain Will Never Stop" ("Цей дощ ніколи не скінчиться") premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), where it won the "Best Feature Film" award in the "First Appearance" section.

Subsequently, the film received the prestigious Golden Lady Harimaguada Award for Best Feature Film at the LPA International Film Festival.

The jury commented on the award, stating that the film deserved recognition for the director's ability to capture the effects of war on people without directly depicting it, as well as for using photography to reveal the complexity of reality. This description accurately reflects the essence of Alina Gorlova's film. With subtlety, delicacy, precision, and strength, the director addresses the juxtaposition of peace and war, exploring a universal world where landscapes may differ, but the problems remain similar. This black-and-white journey between peace and war unfolds as a finely crafted story, a nuanced observation, and a visually accomplished work of art.

The film revolves around the story of 20-year-old Andriy Suleyman's family, who moved to Ukraine from Syria when living there became impossible. However, they find themselves caught in another war as Russian aggression erupts in the East. Andriy becomes a Red Cross volunteer in the war zone, but following the death of his father, he travels to Syria to bury him in his homeland. From the conflict in Syria to the war in Ukraine, Andriy's existence seems framed by an eternal cycle of life and death.

The filmmaker explains, "I knew that not everyone would immediately understand where the events were taking place. After all, we didn't provide any captions. I didn't want to disrupt the world of this film; I felt that any additional information could affect it. I wanted to create a singular world where you realize that war can take place anywhere in the world."

Alina Gorlova's previous film, "No Obvious Signs" ("Явних проявів немає"), is also an emotionally impactful and accurate portrayal of "war without war." The story revolves around a female major returning from a war zone. The main character, 46-year-old Oksana Yakubova, seeks to reintegrate into normal life while dealing with PTSD and panic attacks through conversations with psychologists. The film crew follows her journey from the beginning of rehabilitation to her return to work.

"No Obvious Signs" further explores the theme of the visibility (or invisibility) of women's presence in war. Delving deeply into the protagonist's world, the film openly and emotionally discusses the rights of men and women in a context where equality had not been widely addressed until recently. The private story becomes universal, and the film presents the theme of defenders of the motherland from a non-glorifying perspective.

Oksana Yakubova was previously featured in another documentary project that garnered significant public response - "Invisible Battalion" ("Невидимий батальйон"), where Alina Gorlova was one of the directors involved.



Another director who participated in the creation of "Invisible Battalion" is Iryna Tsilyk. Her cinema is always infused with empathy, as she finds it impossible to remain a detached observer on the other side of the camera.

"For me, it's impossible to turn empathy off; I don't know how to do it. I always deeply let the heroes into my life. Andriana Susak, the protagonist of 'Invisible Battalion,' became my friend. I simply don't know any other way," she says.

One of her most renowned and acclaimed films to date is "The Earth Is Blue as an Orange" ("Земля блакитна, ніби апельсин"), which received the Directing Award in the "World Cinema Documentary" category at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in the USA.

The film depicts a family living in Donbas during the war, with Anna raising her four children single-handedly. Despite the incessant shelling in Krasnohorivka, the family finds ways to embrace life. Together, the mother and children create a film about their experiences during the war.

This process raises questions about the power of art in challenging times and how to convey the reality of war. It is not only a film about war but also a film about the essence of cinema itself, delicately portraying individuals who must navigate survival in times of war.

The theme of war, albeit in a less literal sense, also resonates in the director's debut feature film, "Felix and Me" ("Я і Фелікс"; "Rock. Paper. Grenade" internationally). The main character grows up alongside an individual traumatized by war, dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome. From his early childhood, the protagonist develops a deep aversion to anything military but eventually finds himself thrust into war. This autobiographical story is based on the director's husband, writer Artem Chekh, who was compelled to return to war due to the full-scale Russian invasion. The script is adapted from his book, "Who are you?" ("Хто ти такий?").

The film explores the complexities of human nature and the nuances of different eras. Tsilyk resists the temptation to merely depict another somber story about the 1990s. Instead, her characters at war – the writer, the woman, the children, and the people who had no reason to be there – accentuate the pathological nature and horror of the conflict even further.


Alisa Kovalenko, the acclaimed documentary filmmaker, goes beyond simply filming war. She actively defends Ukraine in the armed forces.

"So far, I don't feel the strength to make documentary films as I did before," says Alisa Kovalenko.

Her first journey to the war zone occurred in 2014 when Alisa was 26 years old. Like many other directors, she started capturing the significant events unfolding in the country. However, the boundary between the camera and reality soon diminished, with life and death becoming more important than simply filming a movie. Over the next two years, Alisa visited the most intense and dangerous areas, from Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv to the checkpoints of Slovyansk and the ruins of the Donetsk airport. This experience led to the creation of the film-diary "Alisa in Warland" ("Аліса у країні війни"), where historical events forcefully intruded upon the personal lives of the author and the protagonist. The film premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in 2015 and has been showcased at numerous international festivals.

Among Alisa Kovalenko's notable works is "Home Games" ("Домашні ігри"), the first film in the history of new Ukrainian cinema to be broadcast on Netflix.

In "Home Games," Alisa Kovalenko tells the story of Alina Shilova, a 20-year-old girl from Kyiv who finds an opportunity to escape poverty through football. However, her journey is complicated by the death of her mother, leaving two children behind.

Alisa Kovalenko's films have a remarkable ability to bring the heroes and heroines closer to the viewers, crafting honest and touching stories with each endeavor.


Nadia Parfan

Nadia Parfan infuses her stories with a touch of irony, even when it comes to the choir of communal workers in Ivano-Frankivsk, where her mother sings.

Documentary films are often perceived as reports or educational pieces with a series of interviews. How can one convey the truth, showcase real people, and simultaneously create something unique, authorial, and artistic?

Nadia Parfan's debut feature film, "Heat Singers" ("Співає Івано-Франківськ тепло комуненерго"), serves as a guide on how to approach a documentary about a commune not as a straightforward reportage, but as a captivating narrative film. This is not an exaggeration, as the director masterfully crafts a cohesive, personal, and captivating story from the opening titles to the closing credits, with sound playing a significant role. The film is infused with irony, music, and warmth, as it explores the choir of Frankivskteplokomunenergo.

All these key elements are meticulously thought out and presented with utmost quality. It encompasses drama, comedy, and musical elements, yet manages to retain the authenticity of the narrative. Nothing in this film feels forced, disjointed, or fabricated. Through laughter, singing, quarrels, and the dramatic start of the heating season, the story of these singing utility workers evolves into a tale of dignity and humanity.

The experience of watching this film is akin to returning home on a dreary autumn evening and realizing that the heating radiators have finally become warm. However, this film stands apart from the startup of boiler houses because nothing needs fixing; everything works seamlessly.


Natalka Vorozhbyt

Natalka Vorozhbyt is a renowned screenwriter, both in the past and present. Her play "Bad Roads" ("Погані дороги") was adapted into a stage performance in Kyiv. However, Natalka decided to take on the role of director herself, making "Bad Roads" her directorial debut.

"I didn't have the opportunity to tell this story entirely on my own until now. But this text has occupied me the most in recent years, and there was nothing else I wanted to direct so passionately from start to finish," Natalka Vorozhbyt explained.

The film premiered at the Venice International Critics' Week during the Venice Film Festival, where it received an award.

"Bad Roads" comprises five novellas centered around military personnel and civilians in Donbas. These stories feature different characters who coexist in an environment of intense animosity. At first glance, they may appear to have nothing in common except for the war and the challenging road conditions.

Above all, "Bad Roads" is a story about interpersonal relationships and how individuals undergo transformations in the face of traumatic events.

"I simply aimed to make a film about people, their complexity, and the intricate choices they face. I took into account the places they inhabit and the information landscape they exist in. My goal was to understand each of them, perhaps in that way," the director explained.


Eva Dzhyshyashvili

Another director making her feature-length debut is Eva Dzhyshyashvili with the film "Plai. A Mountain Path" ("Плай"), which received accolades at the DocudaysUA Film Festival.

"Plai. A Mountain Path" portrays individuals who, despite the uncertainties of the present, have managed to preserve more than they have lost. Love, whether for their country or their neighbors, is the driving force behind their strengths and weaknesses. They exhibit both disobedience and obedience, much like the mountains themselves.

To the eyes of an outsider, the Malkovich family may seem lost amidst nature, where harmony and love have prevailed since time immemorial, passed down through generations.

The filming of "Plai. A Mountain Path" spanned five years, during which the characters evolved and transformed before the eyes of the film crew. An intriguing aspect of the film is how the director captures the essence of war in regions that haven't experienced its intense phase and how she unveils the spirit of the Carpathians and its inhabitants.


Ganna Iaroshevych

To conclude this incomplete selection of contemporary Ukrainian female directors, we turn our attention to another debut full-length documentary, "As Far as Possible" ("Май далеко – май добре"), directed by Ganna Iaroshevych. Over the course of five years, the director has dedicated herself to this film, which revolves around the Carpathians' rare animals, specifically water buffaloes, and the German activist Michel Jacobi, who is deeply committed to their breeding.

"As Far as Possible" is a heartwarming film that centers on an individual and his aspirations. It captivates viewers with its exquisite cinematography, offering a fresh perspective on familiar landscapes.

In essence, each mentioned director and their films strive to provide a distinctive outlook, an individual viewpoint, and an original artistic approach. These Ukrainian directors engage in conversations about significant topics such as war, the future, and identity.

Kateryna Slipchenko

Kateryna Slipchenko is a journalist and film critic. She works as an editor in the culture department of the online portal ZAXID.NET. Kateryna is a member of the Association of Film Critics of Ukraine, the International Federation of Film Press (FIPRESCI), and the Ukrainian Film Academy.