Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Bitter Harvest: Ukraine’s Tragic History, Finally on the Big Screen

On the spectrum of human enormity, the Holodomor, Stalin’s genocidal campaign to starve Ukraine to the brink of extinction, ranks somewhere near the Cambodian Killing Fields, just below the National Socialist Holocaust. Yet, many in the West never knew it was happening. The prime culprit of Stalin’s disinformation campaign was the compromised journalist Walter Duranty. The New York Times no longer stands by his reports but the Pulitzer organization refuses to rescind the prize they awarded for his denial of Stalin’s crimes against humanity. On one level, George Mendelok’s English language Bitter Harvest functions as a historical romance, but it is also a timely reminder of what happens when journalists chose to serve as propagandists. Truth is a victim along with upwards of 7.5 million Ukrainians in Mendeluk’s Harvest (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

There was no love for the Czar amongst Ukraine’s sturdy peasantry, so they initially welcomed the revolution as an opportunity to finally declare independence. Unfortunately, Lenin soon reconquered the republic, expressly so its grain could fuel the Soviet regime. After his death, Stalin pursued a more exploitative and intentionally brutal policy. All land was nationalized and collectivized. Harvests were almost entirely exported back to Moscow, leaving insufficient stocks for even subsistence living and the borders were sealed, with full knowledge mass starvation would result.

Like so many Ukrainians, Yuri comes from Kulak stock, the so-called “rich land-owning” peasants, a term that only makes sense to a Marxist-Leninist theorist or a Bernie Sanders intern. His childhood sweetheart Natalka grew up in even meaner conditions, but her family will still suffer and starve at the hands of the brutal commissar quartered in their village.

When Yuri is awarded a scholarship to a Kiev art school, he assumes it will offer opportunities to help his family, but conditions in the city turn out to be worse than in the countryside. He also witnesses the Party’s attack on free expression first-hand when Socialist Realism is rigidly mandated throughout the school. He assumes his old village chum will protect him when he is elected Ukrainian Party Secretary, but poor Mykola fails to understand the caprices of Comrade Stalin until he finds himself on the business end of a purge. When Yuri is also imprisoned, his hopes of reuniting with Natalka look grim, but the grandson of a legendary Cossack warrior has more fight in him than the art school pedigree might suggest.

On-screen, Bitter Harvest has the epic tragedy of its obvious role model film, Doctor Zhivago. However, if you sniff underneath the celluloid, you might smell the burnt rubber and tear gas that permeated many crew members who participated in the Maidan Square demonstrations on their free days from shooting. The parallels between the Lenin and Stalin eras of exploitation and attempted annihilation and the Putin era neo-Soviet militarism hardly need explaining. Yet, lingering ignorance of the Holodomor helps embolden Putin’s military incursions.

Much like Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn, Mendeluk and screenwriter Richard Bachynsky Hoover clearly illustrate the acrid demoralization of the propaganda that so brazenly denied the victims of Communism’s abject suffering (Duranty does indeed make an appearance in the film, but there is no context to explain who he is). Yet, the Zhivago-esque storyline has plenty of sweep and even harbors a handful of surprises. Samantha Barks was probably the best part of the Les Mis movie, but she is even more convincing as an illegitimate Slavic peasant than a French street urchin. Max Irons is a little stiff portraying Yuri’s puppy love years, but he shows some surprising grit in the second and third acts. Terence Stamp does his hardnosed thing as old leathery Ivan, while Tamer Hassan chillingly projects the wanton cruelty of the empowered extremist.

Bitter Harvest is not a pitch-perfect film. Frankly, Mendeluk’s dream sequences are far too woo-woo for a film that ought to be all about cold hard realism. However, it vividly shines a light on a criminally under-reported and often deliberately misunderstood case of systematic mass murder, while the family saga picks up speed and power as it develops. Highly recommended for fans of big picture historical dramas, Bitter Harvest opens this Friday (2/24) at the AMC Empire in Midtown and the Village East downtown.