When Slavko Nowytski came to America, he says he wanted to be a cowboy. When he learned that wasn’t possible, he decided he wanted to be an actor who played cowboys. He’s settled for a career as a filmmaker.
“I’m still fascinated by cowboy movies,” says the Ukrainian-born artist. “There’s something about this idea of fair play that every culture likes. I like the idea of ‘You’re the bad guy: Bang! Now you’re dead.’ People want to see justice. They want to see films with a happy ending where the good man wins. It’s very Ukrainian.”
Nowytski has an extensive resume of documentary films, many of them award-winning. His short film Pysanka–The Ukrainian Easter Egg won the Gold Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival. This weekend, the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art is planning a festival of his work, and he was in town recently to talk about it.
“He can put Ukrainian culture on a world level,” says Oryna Hrushetsky of Ukrainian Media Services, which is also sponsoring the event. “He can take the Ukrainian Easter egg and present it in such a way that now the whole world can understand what a pysanka is.”
Not all of Nowytski’s films deal with Ukrainian subjects. As head of his own film company in Minnesota, Nowytski has directed films about kite flying, the fur trade, and the southern praying-mantis style of kung fu. “I’m interested in culture, history, art, and religion,” says Nowytski. “Those are the topics I really go after.”
One of Nowytski’s most honored films is Harvest of Despair, which received an award from New York’s International Film and TV Festival and was aired on PBS. The film is about the 1932-33 famine in the Ukraine perpetrated by the government of Joseph Stalin.
“When PBS first saw it,” says Nowytski, “they said it was one-sided. They said, ‘We want to see the other side.’ I said, ‘This is the other side.’
“We brought in a representative from the Soviet Union, and when we showed him photographs of the famine he said, ‘These could be fake. They could be photographs of Canadians starving in the depression of the 30s.’
“Of course, now the Soviet government admits that the famine did take place. But when they were spewing this kind of nonsense, we thought it would cheapen the film to have somebody telling an outright lie.”
Nowytski moved around a lot as a child. After fleeing the Ukraine with his family, he wound up in Germany, where he developed two loves: cowboys and Margaret O’Brien.
“The first movie I ever saw was with Margaret O’Brien. The first cowboy movie I saw was with Joel McCrea,” says Nowytski. “The experiences of the cowboys seemed parallel to those of the cossacks–people on horseback, on the prairies. That was so close to the culture that I’d been brought up in, and I thought it was very romantic.
“Americans are very individualistic: ‘Don’t tell me what to do! I’ll do it my way!’ That aspect is also very Ukrainian. We both like to work independently. I suppose this is true in the Ukraine because 80 percent of the people there are farmers. When you’re a farmer, you have to be independent.”
Nowytski arrived in Hollywood when he was 18 years old. It wasn’t exactly what he expected, but he did get to meet Margaret O’Brien. “Of course my notions as a romantic boy were much greater than the reality of Hollywood. You got to the intersection of Hollywood and Vine, and there was nothing there,” Nowytski says. He nabbed a small part in a production of Romeo and Juliet with O’Brien and John Barrymore Jr. while he was studying theater at the Pasadena Playhouse. “I told Margaret O’Brien, ‘I really fell for you when I was ten years old in Germany.’ I thought she was much nicer in real life.”
After working at the Pasadena Playhouse, Nowytski received a master of fine arts degree from Columbia University. He worked as a film editor for WCBS TV before eventually starting his own Filmart Productions.
Nowytski, who will attend the festival on June 4, hopes it will raise some money for a documentary he plans to film, if all goes well, next spring. It will be the first, he says, to view icons from the historical, theological, and artistic perspectives.
“It will be a personal statement. All documentaries are personal statements,” he says. “They are not news films. A documentary is not a chronology of events –it is a creative effort to show the truth.”
Is there a cowboy movie in his future?