This spring the Gene Siskel Film Center presents two series of films exploring countries and cultures that are often neglected in popular media. The Ukrainian Cinema series is timely for obvious reasons; through five films, the Film Center endeavors to shed light on the Ukrainian experience, both past and present. Screening through April 7, the series illuminates the role of cinema not only in relating information but in appreciating the lives of others by way of art.
No film embodies these efforts more than Dziga Vertov’s 1929 silent documentary Man with a Movie Camera. Just a little over an hour, it nevertheless towers over film history as an example par excellence of cinema’s ability to communicate in unique and transgressive ways. Though he was born in Poland—then part of imperial Russia—Vertov (whose real name was David Kaufman; the alias he assumed translates approximately to “spinning top” in Ukrainian) made his landmark opus for a Ukrainian film studio and filmed it largely in Kyiv and Odessa. It centers on the titular figure, who wanders around filming the stuff of life, which is made even more sublime by the frenetic and revolutionary editing of Yelizaveta Svilova, also Vertov’s wife.
On April 7, the Chicago Film Society will co-present Mikhail Kaufman’s recently rediscovered silent film In Spring (1929) on 35-millimeter and with live piano accompaniment by David Drazin. Kaufman was Vertov’s brother and the cinematographer of Man with a Movie Camera; this later film was made after a disagreement between the two. Using spring as its grounding metaphor, Kaufman films life in Kyiv with an eye toward the cycle of sometimes elegiac, sometimes brutal regeneration.
In a roughly translated interview, Kaufman presciently exclaimed about the film and the transformative season that inspired it, the one into which this current struggle will be waged: “By all available means of expression, I tried to convey a violent turning point in nature, spring, sung by many generations of poets in lyrical terms. I did not want to idealize it, because destructive processes also take place in the spring. But man turns out to be stronger than poetry, he can prevent her whims and correct destruction.”
Two contemporary documentaries, Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan (2014) and Iryna Tsilyk’s The Earth Is Blue as an Orange (2020), explore recent conflicts in Ukraine. Loznitsa’s staggering testimony bears witness to the Euromaidan protests of late 2013 and early 2014, which resulted in the ousting of then-president Viktor Yanukovych, whose reluctance to sign into an association with the European Union was viewed by dissidents as pro-Russian sentiment. Where Vertov and Kaufman deployed frenetic shooting and editing styles in their depictions of Ukrainian life, Loznitsa opts for long, static wide shots that wholly embody the gradations of the conflict at hand.
Ukrainian Cinema Series
Through April 7
Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State; Film Center members $6 per film, general admission $12 per film. siskelfilmcenter.org/ukrainian-cinema
As Vertov sought to create “an authentically international absolute language of cinema,” per the introductory title cards of his city symphony (which makes a cameo in Tsilyk’s film), the resilient family in The Earth Is Blue as an Orange likewise turn to film as a means of representation—and also catharsis. Centering on a young girl who aspires to be a cinematographer, the documentary follows her, her single mother, and three siblings as they make a short film about their experiences during the onset of the war in Donbas following the Revolution of Dignity at the end of the Euromaidan protests in 2014. The melding of Tsilyk’s documentary with her subjects’ film is a generous approach, granting the family co-author status along with the director.
Also playing in the series is Valentyn Vasyanovych’s 2020 film Atlantis, a Stalker-esque speculation on a post-war Ukraine in the not-so-distant future. Naturally the film has emerged as one to watch during the present-day turbulence; such timeliness is eclipsed only by its visual splendor, further reflecting the ability of art to transmit by way of form in addition to content.
In partnership with the Foundation for Asian American Independent Media (FAAIM), the annual Asian American Showcase returns to the big screen with several films from the past two years about Asian American characters and subjects. The showcase takes place between April 1 and 13, with several filmmakers in attendance. Julie Ha and Euguene Yi’s Free Chol Soo Lee (2022) opens the series; the documentary details the plight of the Korean immigrant who, in 1973, was wrongfully convicted of murder in part because white tourists were unable to distinguish one Asian person’s features from another.
Kate Tsang’s Marvelous and the Black Hole (2021) is a charming coming-of-age story in which the troubled young protagonist, Sammy (Miya Cech, one to watch), copes with her mother’s death through magic after forging a heartwarming relationship with an older magician (Rhea Perlman). Brimming with imagination and unafraid of darker themes related to adolescence and death, this is the kind of film cool parents might consider bringing their teenagers to, though it’s perfectly enjoyable for adults as well.
That might not be the case with Debbie Lum’s documentary Try Harder! (2021), which may trigger flashbacks to high school and the grueling college admissions process. Set at a top-ranked public high school in San Francisco, the film explores such issues as the stress put on students during said process and the intersectionality of how this affects kids from different backgrounds, including the children of immigrants, for whom achievement is often a measure of their family’s success in a new country.
Asian American Showcase
Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State; Film Center members $6 per film, general admission $12 per film. www.siskelfilmcenter.org/asianamerican
The Kartemquin-produced breakout hit Finding Yingying (2020) is a fresh but still heartbreaking take on the true-crime documentary format, as director Jiayan “Jenny” Shi (who will be in attendance at the screening) had a somewhat personal connection to the crime it documents, the brutal 2017 murder of Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. Shi also includes snippets from Yingying’s diaries, which serve to construct her as a person rather than just a victim.
Also screening in the showcase are a collection of short films as part of a program called “Asian American Shorts: Resilience”; Ann Kaneko’s 2021 documentary Manzanar, Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust, which explores the role of Japanese American women along with other cultural and activist groups in defending the water supply on California’s Indigenous land; Chris Chan Lee’s Silent River (2021), a slow-burn sci-fi trading in questions of being and identity; Patricio Ginelsa’s Lumpia with a Vengeance (2020), the sequel to the 2003 film Lumpia, a cult classic among the Filipino American community; and the closing night film, Tom Huang’s Dealing with Dad (2022), about adult siblings who return home to contend with their depressed father.