Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World

It is not often that political documentaries intersect with culinary docs. Unfortunately for Ukraine, that is the case with this film. You can blame Putin because it is entirely his fault. This Ukrainian restaurant is located in the East Village, but its heart is definitely with Ukraine as it fights for its survival. Director-editor-producer Michael Fiore shines a spotlight on the restaurant and the family that still operates it, in Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World, which opens this Friday in New York.

Originally, Volodymyr Darmochwal founded Veselka (Ukrainian for “rainbow”) as a candy store, when the Second Avenue area below 14
th Street was considered “Little Ukraine.” His son-in-law Tom Birchard was not Ukrainian, but he started working at Veselka after college and somehow, he never left. Under his watch, it evolved into a diner and then expanded into a landmark restaurant. His son Jason (obviously half-Ukrainian) now runs Veselka and its related outreach efforts, but his father is never that far from the house floor.

Fiore provides a solid history of the restaurant, explaining how New York City’s financial collapse almost ruined Veselka too. Nevertheless, it survived, becoming a community institution that customers rallied around during freezing cold era of outdoor pandemic dining. Yet, quite appropriately, Fiore devotes the greatest screentime to Veselka’s role as a center of Ukrainian advocacy and fundraising, following Putin’s brutal invasion.

In fact,
Veselka is surprisingly revealing in the way it documents the change of attitude in the restaurant’s employees. At first, few of Veselka staff beyond the Birchards are willing to sit for interviews, but as Putin’s atrocities escalate, they feel compelled to tell their families’ stories on-camera. In fact, there are a lot of poignant moments in Veselka, because the drama is real and the potential for tragedy back home is a constant threat they must live with. Fiore really brings that reality home, while avoiding any sense of exploitation or manufactured melodrama.

Frankly, he made several shrewd decisions in the film’s construction. Fiore wore a lot of hats in the production, but he received from big-name help from David Duchovny, who narrates, and alto-saxophonist David Sanborn, whose solos perk up the soundtrack. Sanborn has a smooth-ish reputation, but he has great flexibility and can play with Michael Brecker-like eloquence, as you can hear during

releases at a pivotal moment. The Birchards and their staff and customers have worked tirelessly to support their embattled homeland, but they cannot do it all on their own. Congress needs to approve more military aid for Ukraine. Failure do so would betray our own national security interests and dangerously embolden the Axis of Authoritarians. Watching Veselka helps personalize the issue, while delivering a huge serving of local New York flavor. Highly recommended, Veselka fittingly opens right across the street, at the Village East, this Friday (2/23).