Saturday, December 03, 2016

Submitted by Ukraine: Ukrainian Sheriffs

They are Ukrainian border town sheriffs, sort of. Russia’s neo-Soviet annexation of the Crimea temporarily put Stara Zburjivka on the Ukrainian border. Suddenly, keeping the peace takes on vastly different meanings for the town’s two appointed lawmen. They keep plugging away as they can, while the town wrestles with the implications of grand geopolitical events beyond their control in Roman Bondarchuk’s Ukrainian Sheriffs (trailer here), Ukraine’s official foreign language Oscar submission, which screens next week at the Ukrainian Institute of America.

Technically, they are not formal police officers, but the nearest sub-station is so prohibitively far from Stara Zburjivka, the progressive town council chairman (mayor equivalent), Orange Revolution veteran Viktor Marunyak recruited Victor Grygorovych and his partner Volodya to act as referees. Generally speaking, the townfolk usually make nice when they intercede. Grygorovych is the small wiry one, but he is the one you really want to avoid antagonizing, rather than the big but genial Volodya.

Ever since Marunyak cut some featherbedding out of the town budget to pay their salaries, they have maintained civic order with relatively little trouble or ill feelings. However, a small but vocal faction is rising up to challenge Marunyak, not so coincidentally timed around the same time as the Russian annexation and subsequent invasion. Suddenly, the Sheriffs are serving not so far from a war zone.

Stara Zburjivka offers a fascinating vantage point for viewing recent events in Ukrainian history. However, viewers would get a fuller picture if Sheriffs were screened with the short doc Bondarchuk and producer Dar’ya Averchenko previously made on Marunyak, who was imprisoned on trumped up charges when he defied the attempted land grabs of the Yanukovich kleptocracy. There is maybe a little too much quiet observation in the feature follow-up, when they are so many true stories like Marunyak’s that need to be told.

Regardless, the Sheriffs are indeed worthy screen subjects, especially the flinty Grygorovych. During the third act, Bondarchuk duly captures a whole lot of unfolding irony from their point-of-view. We also get a vivid sense of how spirited (and in some cases, downright prickly) the Stara Zburjivka townspeople truly are. Frankly, Putin should think twice before trying to occupy the Sheriffs’ turf. Recommended as boots-on-the-ground, up-close-and-personal report from Ukraine (a friendly democracy experiencing predatory external pressure), Ukrainian Sheriffs screens this Wednesday (12/7) in New York at the Ukrainian Institute’s historic landmark building.