Saturday, August 10, 2019

Festival of Cinema ’19: Baba Babee Skazala

Other nations have a nasty habit of negotiating Ukraine’s fate without their consent. It happened at the onset of WWII with the German-Soviet Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and it happened after the War with Operation Keelhaul. At least the Allies halted the latter when they discovered the brutal reception that awaited forcibly repatriated Ukrainian “Displaced Persons” and POWs. Yet, throughout it all, Ukrainians preserved their culture and national identity. Matej Silecky collects the oral history of Ukrainians who immigrated to the West in their teens and twenties in Baba Babee Skazala: Grandmother Told Grandmother, which screens today during the 2019 Festival of Cinema NYC.

By the time Poland was invaded from both sides, the Soviets had already committed large scale genocide in Ukraine through the collectivization and deliberate starvation campaign now known as the Holodomor. Basically, they continued the policy in what is now western Ukraine. First Poles and Jews were rounded up. Then the Soviets came for Ukrainians. Tragically, this is why many Ukrainians mistakenly welcomed the Germans as liberators.

Despite the oppression Ukrainians suffered at the hands of both the Soviet Socialists and the National Socialists, they maintained a sense of who they were as a people. Many of the survivors Silecky interviews credit their experiences in the Displaced Persons (DP) camps established by the Americans and British for allowing them to unify as a people again. Unfortunately, they also started to force them out of the DPs, because everyone wanted to assume the best with respects to “Uncle Joe.” That did not work out so well.

As a work of cinema, Baba is pretty straight forward, but represents some genuinely significant historical testimony. Frankly, both the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Operation Keelhaul are largely ignored in the media and school curricula today, so there will probably be a great deal of new material here for a lot of viewers. The contributions of Prof. Alexander Motyl as both an advisor and an on-camera commentator are particularly valuable. The tone is sensitive and respectful throughout, so the often-horrific incidents Silecky and his subjects chronicle mostly lead to humanistic, life-affirming take-aways.

Even though most of the participants’ recollections are confined to the 1940s, seventy-some years ago, it is still relevant and illuminating for our current age, when Ukraine once again finds itself threatened by a belligerent Russia that is determined to re-conquer its neighbors. More generally, it vividly illustrates the dangers of collective ideologies and unchecked government power. It just runs over an hour (69 minutes), but there is a lot of important stuff in it. Very highly recommended, Baba Babee Skazala screens this afternoon (8/10), as part of this year’s Festival of Cinema NYC.