”Culture can help us emerge from the imperial shadow.” Olena Honcharuk manages the Dovzhenko Center during the war, promotes Ukrainian films, and argues with the Ministry of Culture — an interview

Yuliana Skibitska
Tetyana Lohvynenko
”Culture can help us emerge from the imperial shadow.” Olena Honcharuk manages the Dovzhenko Center during the war, promotes Ukrainian films, and argues with the Ministry of Culture — an interview

Andrey Boyko / «Babel»

The Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Center is a state film archive, the only one in Ukraine, which is a member of the International Federation of Film Archives. Its main task is to preserve archival Ukrainian films. They are recorded on tape and require special storage conditions so that they can be digitized in the future. Since April 2021, the duties of the director of the Center are performed by the head of the Museum of Cinema, Olena Honcharuk. The Ministry of Culture still hasnʼt signed a contract with her, the Center itself is to come under the control of the State Film Agency — and Honcharuk fears that the institution may be closed. Now this is especially critical for the Center, because, according to the director, it actively promotes Ukrainian cinema in the world. Babel editor Yuliana Skibitska spoke with Olena Honcharuk about the beginning of the full-scale war, communication from the Ministry of Culture, about how Europe is changing its attitude towards Ukraine — and why culture plays an important role here.

What is the Dovzhenko Center doing now?

In peacetime, we worked with the art of cinematography and film heritage: collected, preserved, and researched Ukrainian cinema, restored films and created a digital archive, popularized Ukrainian cinema — because the Dovzhenko Center maintains the largest collection of Ukrainian tapes in Ukraine. We organized and conducted lectures, film screenings, museum exhibitions, festivals. Unfortunately, most of these events cannot be held now.

In the first months of the Russian invasion, our main task was to secure our film, archival and museum collections. We prepared fire extinguishers, packing materials and means for storing the exhibits, created backup copies, and set up elementary administrative work, because some employees were evacuated. Now most of them have returned [to Kyiv]. But we have serious budgeting problems, so everyone had to temporarily switch to a three-day work week.

Currently, the Dovzhenko Center interacts a lot with international institutions. And also with Ukrainian cinemas and cultural centers — more and more of them are returning to work, and they are ready to show films stored in our film fund to their audiences.

Andrey Boyko / «Babel»

What are the problems with budgeting? Has funding for the center been cut?

We receive 7 million UAH from the state, but this money is only enough for half of the staff salaries. We have to get the rest ourselves. We are trying to do this, and cooperation with foreign institutions helps us, in particular. But, still, we barely make ends meet — itʼs even difficult for us to cover the cost of heating and electricity supplies. And it is impossible to turn off the electricity, because all our activities are based on it, including the climate control in the warehouses.

Lack of funding is an accumulated problem. Covid hit all institutions hard in 2020, it also affected the culture. That year, the budget sequestration took place. In the annual financial plan, we declared that we need 10 million hryvnias, and received 7.6 million. This is for the work of a large institution that cares about the entire Ukrainian film heritage, all Ukrainian cinema. At the same time, the budget of one film can be over 10 million UAH.

In 2020, we managed to get a grant for institutional support from the UCF, so we managed to balance a little and close the year without losses. Some of our premises are rented out. It was these funds that we invested in maintaining and development of the film fund, its study and restoration. This year, because of the war, tenants of state property were completely exempted from rent, so this income was lost — and, accordingly, opportunities.

Andrey Boyko / «Babel»

Where exactly is the film fund kept now?

I donʼt comment on that. I will only say that all our funds: film, archival, museum — are under supervision and protected as much as possible.

Before the full-scale invasion, you discussed a plan with the Ministry of Culture to protect the film fund [if Russia invades]?

[We] had a feeling and a premonition that something bad might happen, it was hanging in the air. At the beginning of February, we addressed the Ministry with a letter and asked about the algorithm of our actions. The Center preserves the state film fund, so certain directives still have to come from the Ministry responsible for preserving cultural heritage. We have not received any response to that letter. There were no initiatives from the Ministry of Culture to inform us [about the plan in case of a major war]. I thought it was only us, but this situation was in many museums.

And after February 24?

In March, State Film Agency contacted us and asked us to send lists for the evacuation of movable cultural monuments. This is it.

Andrey Boyko / «Babel»

That is, you did all the work on preserving the collections yourself?

If you mean the support of management bodies, then it is absolutely correct. However, the museum community showed great solidarity, and we received the support of the Heritage Rescue Headquarters, the Museum Crisis Center and FIAF, which is the International Federation of Film Archives, of which the Dovzhenko Center is a member.

Back in January of this year, the Center was to be handed over to State Film Agency. But you still remain under the Ministry of Culture. Why did this process stop?

This procedure is already on the finish line. Now [on June 30], the transfer process is already underway, according to which the Dovzhenko Center will come under the control of the State Film Agency.

What will change with this transfer?

The goals and objectives were not announced to me. This program was initiated by the Ministry of Culture. Obviously, it has some motivation. The law does not allow this to be done simply because of someoneʼs desire, it is preceded by a certain procedure, there must be serious grounds for that. Usually, the reason is what is stated in the law: "In order to optimize and improve the enterpriseʼs activities, improve its economic indicators".

Our problem is that the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Center is a state enterprise, and it is approached appropriately. A state-owned enterprise must make money, be profitable. But our institution works with heritage, and this is a subsidized area in all civilized societies. Museums, archives or other institutions can, of course, earn from the events they hold, attract funds through patronage, grants, charity. But they create not material good, but social good. The Dovzhenko Center works to make our society and the international community aware of Ukrainian cinema. We research, write, tell, communicate with film experts, with people who create films. It is interesting to us as art, as a special type of human activity. Because in Ukraine people are used to talking about it only as an industry.

Andrey Boyko / «Babel»

It is obvious that itʼs incorrect to apply the standards of a state-owned enterprise to us. When the ministry initiated the change, it either deliberately or foolishly did not display information about our main activity — the preservation and development of film heritage — anywhere. Their motivation is not transparent to me. We were never directly told, for example, that we do not meet some criteria or KPI — and it is the direct responsibility of the Ministry to set them, we were not consulted about it. They formed their own vision and submitted it to the Cabinet of Ministers. The Cabinet of Ministers agreed, because, according to formal signs, the Dovzhenko Center works with cinema, and the State Film Agency implements policy in the field of cinematography, which means that we have to obey it directly. Whether the Agency will be able to work with the Dovzhenko Center as a film archive institution is not a fact at all. Because there are simply no such specialists at the moment.

I can understand the logic of the Ministry wanting to get rid of an institution it doesnʼt know what to do with. The Ministry is unable to include the Dovzhenko Center in the general system of heritage protection: museum or cultural. Therefore, it wants to transfer this task to another body, which may be more effective. As a result, the Center may be closed. Because basing on formal signs, they will say: "You are a state-owned enterprise and do not generate the expected profit. Why are you so necessary?". But it is obvious that different criteria should be applied to cultural institutions than to industrial enterprises.

More than a year has passed, and you are still only acting director. Why?

It is better to ask Minister [Olexandr] Tkachenko.

Do you have a conflict with him?

I have no conflict with the Minister. Maybe he has a conflict with me? I do not know. I spoke with the Minister about the Centerʼs development strategy, we talked about the fact that the Dovzhenko Centerʼs focus is still the preservation and development of cultural heritage. This does not mean putting dusty items on the shelves and not giving access to them. On the contrary, heritage work is a very broad range of activities, including the display and reinterpretation of that heritage. The Minister was not excited by this idea.

Andrey Boyko / «Babel»

Was it last year?

Yes, it was summer [2021], I proposed my strategy because I felt certain threats to the institution. I sincerely offered the Minister ways to balance these threats. For example, the status of the State Film Fund has not yet been established for the Dovzhenko Center. Although in essence and fact of activity we are this fund. I will not say that the Minister ignored my suggestions, but he was not very interested in them. And he stopped developing this topic. My strategy was directed at the Deputy Ministers. I received a letter from Deputy Minister [Rostyslav] Karandeiev that there is no money to create the State Film Fund. Although it actually already exists.

If the Center is transferred to the State Film Agency, your powers, due to the fact that you are "acting", will be very narrow?

Not necessarily. But the question remains whether they will sign a contract with me. Perhaps I will fulfill my duties for many more happy years. And my team and I will be able to implement what we set out to do.

You said that you communicate a lot with Western institutions. What exactly are you doing?

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, many European colleagues have approached us — they are very interested in Ukrainian cinema. Most often, we are asked for film classics of the silent film era, films by Oleksandr Dovzhenko, Earth for example, Bread by Mykola Shpykovsky, Unprecedented Campaign by [Mykhaylo] Kaufman. There is great interest in poetic cinema — of course, [Serhiy] Paradzhanovʼs, [Yuriy] Illenkoʼs, interest in Kira Muratovaʼs films. We additionally offer films that are less well-known, but no less important for understanding the language of Ukrainian cinema.

This year we were supposed to celebrate the 19th anniversary of "Ukranimafilm", and our film experts started the development of this project. They recorded many interviews with animators who, thank God, are still alive and can talk about their work at the film studio. We have a lot of interesting, unique material. Perhaps we will be able to present part of it abroad, as Ukrainian animation is of great interest to everyone. We learned, for example, that the cartoon Alice in Wonderland is very popular in Japan. It was made in Ukraine in the 1980s.

We also communicated with various museums of the world, because the Dovzhenko Center is also actually a museum institution. For them, we organized film screenings accompanied by lectures.

Andrey Boyko / «Babel»

Screenings in museums, not in mass cinemas?

Yes, in museums or in small municipal cinemas.

Do you feel that interest in Ukrainian cinema is growing in the world?

And not only in cinema, but in Ukrainian culture, music, and literature in general. With the beginning of the war, Europeans realized that they knew little about Ukraine and wanted to learn more.

In general, this is a good question — what is the role of culture, cultural activities and actors, is it timely? In one of his daily addresses, the President said that the countryʼs activities should now have two priorities — its protection and the promotion of this protection. I have the audacity to believe that the sphere of culture serves both of these tasks. Many residents of Ukraine donʼt even imagine what makes Ukraine strong, what it is known for, what it can be proud of. This emptiness is filled by something else, Russia "mined" everything here with its own meanings. Culture is something that can help us, Ukrainians, to get out of the imperial shadow and see who we really are.

I spoke with foreign partners who have now united to help Ukraine. They literally push us and say: "Letʼs do joint exhibitions, screenings, events, tell us about yourself." I felt that the world is interested in us. If we talk about the cancellation of Russian culture, then a huge free space is formed in its place. What will fill it? Now it is already felt that many Europeans are fascinated by the courage of Ukrainians, our vitality, and zest for life. They themselves are very inspired by this, because in recent years Europe has become somewhat stuck in comfort, coherence, and bureaucracy. Ukraine gives the world a feeling of pulsating life. Culture plays a very big role in this.

The West sees Ukraine as a partner. But they need to know that we are a reliable partner, not a savage. All this may sound very pathetic, but I think that culture should now be supported by its own state. If the budget cannot now provide all the demands and needs of culture, it should at least give the green light to this support and do everything necessary at the legislative level.

Andrey Boyko / «Babel»

Letʼs get straight then. Would you like the leadership of the Ministry of Culture, its composition, and approach to change?

For more than a decade, the Ministry has been a preserve of some Soviet system, which still has a strong bureaucratic imprint, and then also a commercial one, because everyone wants to make money. In this infernal mix, values seem to be a little forgotten, although the Ministry could be the point where they are formed. The Ukrainian community is very independent. Artists do not need to be told what to paint, archives and museums perfectly understand what they are responsible for and what they preserve. And the function of the Ministry is service, it should ensure the legal framework and justice and respect for everyone who works in this field. That is, to change the old system. But it cannot be changed unless the approaches there change. We have seen different ministers at the head of the ministry. There were former party workers, diplomats, people from the theater, artists, and media people, and something was constantly wrong, they went the same circle again. With the Ministry in its current composition, it is impossible to change it.

What joint projects are you planning with the West now?

We are negotiating to participate in a large international project dedicated to the Ukrainian avant-garde. A significant part of it — cinematographic, artistic, literary — was appropriated by Russia. Now there is an opportunity and a demand to talk about it. Plus, we are discussing with foreign partners the possibility of restoring some tapes. They are still stored on film, but it is time to convert them to digital and show them to the general public.

Do you think this fruitful cooperation with the West will continue after the victory? Wonʼt Ukraine stop being interesting?

There is always such a risk. Dovzhenko Center has been working in the field of cultural diplomacy for many years. We have been working with cultural representations of various countries for a long time — for example, the British Council, the Goethe Institut, the Polish Institute. We also cooperate with the International Federation of Film Archives — since the beginning of the war, our relations have only strengthened, because they have experts of the kind which, unfortunately, are not available in Ukraine. These connections have already existed, and I really hope that they will develop. We will not be isolated, we are looking for new partners, new friends. This is what will enrich us and help us develop. It would be a crime to lose these connections.

The name of the film of In the Claws of the Soviet State.

Andrey Boyko / «Babel»

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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