Good or Not – Bitter Harvest is a Must-See Movie

  • Good or Not – Bitter Harvest is a Must-See Movie
  • Good or Not – Bitter Harvest is a Must-See Movie
  • Good or Not – Bitter Harvest is a Must-See Movie
  • Good or Not – Bitter Harvest is a Must-See Movie
  • Good or Not – Bitter Harvest is a Must-See Movie
  • Good or Not – Bitter Harvest is a Must-See Movie
  • Good or Not – Bitter Harvest is a Must-See Movie
  • Good or Not – Bitter Harvest is a Must-See Movie
  • Good or Not – Bitter Harvest is a Must-See Movie
  • Good or Not – Bitter Harvest is a Must-See Movie
  • Good or Not – Bitter Harvest is a Must-See Movie
  • Good or Not – Bitter Harvest is a Must-See Movie
Issue 99, March 2017.
Good or Not – Bitter Harvest is a Must-See Movie
 
Let’s get this out of the way right now – if you are a foreigner that lives or spends any amount of time in Ukraine, you have to see Bitter Harvest. The Canadian-made movie about the Soviet-manufactured famine in Ukraine in the 1930s has polarised the critics, but that shouldn’t stop you from this cinematic treatment of a subject integral to Ukrainian-Russian relationship that is not widely known in the Western world. The film tells the story of two star-crossed lovers struggling to survive the Holodomor, a genocidal famine in Ukraine caused by Joseph Stalin’s collectivisation policies.  The film labours to be as meaningful as other cinematic treatments of horrific wartime atrocities, such as Schindler’s List’s take on the Holocaust or The Pianist’s portrayal of the Warsaw Uprising. Bitter Harvest doesn’t quite live up to it’s subject matter though, reminding viewers more of Passendaele – another Canadian wartime movie about a famed World War I battle. Both movies have $20 million budgets and plots that, despite the important subject matter, fail to sufficiently impact viewers. Despite this – or perhaps because of it – the films are required viewing. Good or not – Bitter Harvest is a must-see movie.
 
Love in a tumultuous time
 
The film follows the story of young Yuri (Max Irons) and Natalka (Samantha Barks), lovers since childhood, who are separated shortly after marriage. Yuri is an artistic soul from a family of revolutionaries, including Barry Pepper and Terence Stamp as Yaroslav and Ivan. The brutal effects of Joseph Stalin’s (Gary Oliver) collectivisation policy are brought to bear by a brutal Russian commissar (Tamer Hassan). Yuri and Natalka are forced to extreme lengths to stay alive and, predictably, manage to get by even as those around them are lying dead of starvation in the streets or shot dead by the Russians in the fields around them. While the plot pretends to be a love story, one never quite gets past the feeling that it is simply a ploy to present the politics of its producers.  
 
The diaspora’s view of the Holodomor
 
The topic is as important now as it is timely. Believed to be the second worst genocide of the 20th Century, the Holodomor is just not that well known in the West. This is what drove the Ukrainian-Canadian team behind the film. Co-screenwriter Richard Bachynsky Hoover, director George Mendeluk, and investor Ian Ihnatowycz – who funded the $21 million film in its entirety – all have connections to Ukraine. Mendeluk, in fact, even has family that survived the Holodomor. From scenes highlighting the ancient Ukrainian holiday of Ivana Kupala Day, to traditional wedding and funeral ceremonies, to old-fashioned harvesting songs, the film has a distinctly Ukrainian diaspora understanding of events. “I wanted to immortalise, resurrect, and preserve for posterity the ritual and culture for Ukrainian generations to come and for the world to see”, Mendeluk told The Ukrainian Weekly. There is even a scene where Natalka’s mother shows her a flyer offering free land in Canada – a policy that happened a generation earlier. The portrayal of Russian commissars is also decidedly one-dimensional; in fact, the one time a Soviet officer is presented in a positive light, the screenwriters make sure you know that he is from Kazakhstan, not Russia.
 
A timely release
 
Despite the quibbles, the film is still a solid effort and decidedly worth the time investment. It is clear that the actors and crew have invested a lot of themselves in the movie. The film was shot just outside of Kyiv at the time of the Revolution of Dignity, and several of the crew would spend their free time on the square. Their portrayal of the Holodomor, which many Ukrainians believe was a determined effort by Stalin to neuter any sort of Ukrainian independence movement, has obvious parallels with that revolution. While the love story to frame the events may be seen as cliché, the victory is bringing a movie of this scope to a Western audience. And it looks to be the first of a few. Polish director Agnieszka Holland, twice nominated for the Oscars, is set to bring the Holodomor-era story of Gareth Jones to the big screen soon. Jones was the Western journalist that first reported the famine. While Jones makes an appearance in Bitter Harvest, Holland’s feature is set to show how he stood in opposition to New York Times reporter Walter Duranty, who peddled the Soviet propaganda of the time. Now there is a story with parallels to today. Regardless, Bitter Harvest is a film that will introduce the uninitiated to one of Ukraine’s most important stories, and it does an adequate job of doing just that. 
 
-- Lee Reaney