La Palisiada: Philip Sotnychenko gets to the grim heart of Ukraine’s post-Soviet trauma

La Palisiada (dir. Philip Sotnychenko, 2023)

Philip Sotnychenko’s La Palisiada is one of the most striking and unnerving debuts to emerge from Ukraine in years: a film that finds radical new ways to get under the skin of the country’s troubled post-Soviet nineties. The film tells the tale of two gunshots, separated by a quarter of a century. In the opening sequence, set in 2021, a dinner party hosted by a young artist boils over into an act of shocking violence. From here, we travel back 25 years to the summer of 1996 and the murky past of the artist’s parents. A police colonel has been murdered in the western Ukrainian city of Uzhhorod. Investigating the case are forensic psychiatrist Aleksandr (Andrii Zhurba) and detective Ildar (Novruz Hikmet), both of whom were once in love with the victim’s widow. As the pursuit of justice festers into personal vendetta, a suitable scapegoat for the crime is apprehended, leading by the end of the film to the fateful second gunshot: the final execution to take place in independent Ukraine.

Shot by cinematographer Volodymyr Usyk in pseudo-documentary style on outdated digital cameras that recreate the feel of nineties home video recordings, La Palisiada nests stories within stories and films within films in its invocation of complicity. Sotnychenko’s meta-cinematic investigation into the alienated underbelly of post-Soviet Ukraine is a muted reckoning with a past that must be confronted before its insidious grip on the present can be loosened. With translation help from producer Sashko Chubko, we spoke with Sotnychenko about the importance of film form, the intersection of personal and national histories, and the contrast between Russian and Ukrainian takes on the nineties.

 

My first question is about the formats that you and Volodymyr [Usyk] used for the film, the choice of these cheap digital cameras to capture this sense of time and place. What was the thinking for you both behind that?

Starting from film school, I was always very conscious when it came to choosing filming equipment. The camera is a such a [powerful] tool of representation, that when filming different eras, it’s like a time machine. At university, I filmed the funeral of a relatively famous actor, and I realised that it should be black and white. I was also fascinated by the work of the Dardennes brothers. They filmed with a documentary aesthetic, with an uncomfortable movement of the camera and choice of lenses. I’m always thinking about how to shoot and with which equipment. I say that I always have a casting for cameras as well [as for actors]. The camera choice depends on the time that we want to portray and the dramatic tension that we need to emphasise.

In 2015, I became fascinated with the topic of the nineties. I got my hands on a VHS tape of some birthday. I made my graduation film by basically reshooting this archive tape with the same [sort of] camera from the nineties. I love this approach. We wanted to film La Palisiada with a camera from that period as well. At first, my cameraman and I thought we would use a VHS camera, but it didn’t have manual settings; for [Usyk] this was also his debut fiction feature, and it was not very interesting for him to use such a camera. He suggested a more professional camera from the same period, a mini-DV camera. It’s a bit of a lie, historically, because in 1996 the mini-DV had only just been invented and it’s unlikely that it would have made its way to Ukraine and the Ukrainian forensic archives. But the cameraman and I loved the camera during tests because of how it represents that time.

Compared to Russian cinema, we have very different angles on the nineties. We don’t aestheticise the time. For Russians, it seems like they liked that time; for us, it was something to go through, to understand, and to close the issue

You mentioned police archives there. Visual research is such an important part of preparing for a shoot, and this film obviously plays with different archival formats: police videos, surveillance footage, home movies. What was your research process? Did you look through real police archives from the period?

I wrote the script, and then Sashko found some training tapes in the archives of the police academy. Some scenes are literal re-enactments of these VHS tapes which we found. It’s not as cool as [Romanian director] Lucian Pintilie’s film Re-enactment. Our film is 50/50: half is imagined, and half is taken from archival materials. I still have this archival footage, which looks almost identical to the film itself.

 

One of the things that’s so striking about the film is the way in which, from scene to scene, the camera is both part of the onscreen action and then not. Sometimes we’re seeing the perspective of the forensic cameraman capturing the footage we’re watching, sometimes we aren’t. It creates a sense of unease for the viewer, not knowing whether they are “inside” or “outside” the scene. Can you talk about that effect, the feeling you were trying to create?

That’s a great question. For me, it’s more of a theatrical technique: sometimes we break the fourth wall and sometimes we don’t. Usually, a film deploys one aesthetic: either you shoot in documentary or mockumentary style, or you don’t. I understand that, but for me it’s not very interesting. We decided to do it by feeling, not logically but more intuitively. Sometimes, we are inside the scene, and sometimes the point of view of the forensic cameraman disappears and we remain in the more intimate scenes without an outside observer. For me, it’s more like contemporary art, [in that] I wanted to avoid being defined by one concept. The rule exists to be broken.

La Palisiada (dir. Philip Sotnychenko, 2023)

The opening section, which is set in the present, establishes question of the generational divide. In a sense, the whole film is about the history of violence: how violence in the past relates to violence in the present. There’s also the fact that the characters from the previous generation are policemen and the new generation are artists: there are lots of contrasts being drawn there.

What we see is the post-Soviet space built on the ruins of the Soviet empire, where physical force was more important than any other force. We see at the beginning this moustached policeman character [Ildar]. In the present day, he’s tried to change his shoes, to talk about art and pretend to be a more sophisticated man. In Russian, there’s this joke, that it’s a bad lieutenant who doesn’t want to become a general. I’d rephrase it: it’s a bad lieutenant who doesn’t want to become an exhibition curator. These characters find themselves in a world they built. Their children live in it, but they feel that the world is a bit fake. It was built during a process of adaptation, when [the older generation] were trying to adapt to a new reality.

These characters, who symbolise the past, they have their own back stories. For example, we can imagine that this moustached policeman probably served in the Soviet army; maybe he was involved in the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh in the nineties. Then he ended up serving in independent Ukraine, but with his Soviet background and training. Then this man goes through certain metamorphoses. The Iron Curtain falls, and he can afford to go abroad with his daughter. Maybe in 1997 he goes abroad and sees some Flemish masters in a museum in Italy. When he’s already a pensioner, he realises that it’s cool to have a copy of Rembrandt hanging in your house. But at the same time, power remains his main tool. In the nineties, he was telling the people he arrested, “put your face on the ground!” Now, he’s telling people, “turn your face to this painting.” This aggressive rhetoric remains, and the younger generation feels it.

In Russian, there’s this joke, that it’s a bad lieutenant who doesn’t want to become a general. I’d rephrase it: it’s a bad lieutenant who doesn’t want to become an exhibition curator

From the outside, it seemed that for a long time, Ukrainian cinema didn’t deal with the nineties much – certainly compared with Russia. But in the last couple of years, there’s been a trend of Ukrainian films turning to that period: Oleg Sentsov’s film Rhino, Tonya Noyabryova’s Do You Love Me? Do you think that’s a fair reading of the situation?

Compared to Russian cinema, we have very different angles. We don’t aestheticise the time. For Russians, it seems like that was time that they liked; for us, it was a time to go through, to understand, and to close the issue. Now, this new generation has emerged that wants to reflect on it and then close the question. For example, in Russia at the moment there is a popular TV series, The Boy’s Word, which glamourises the nineties. In Sentsov’s film, the character repents: he doesn’t like the person he was at that time, and he tries to change.

 

The Ukrainian film critic Sonya Vsliubska wrote a piece for us about precisely this question, in which she suggested that the popularity of Russian depictions of the nineties – Aleksei Balabanov’s Brother, for instance – created a Russocentric perspective that prevented a more authentic Ukrainian views on the period from emerging at the time.

Balabanov is a great director, he knows his art, but I think Brother is a very harmful film. It’s a film about a murderer, a superficial anti-Semite who doesn’t even know why he doesn’t like Jews. He doesn’t like Caucasians, but only because he just came from a war [in Chechnya] that Russia itself started. The film is very attractive, with all its cool music, but it’s about a traumatised person who in Russia is perceived as a hero. What do you think about it?

 

I think that if you want to understand that mentality, it’s important to think seriously about Balabanov, because of how popular he was. I don’t think it matters what Balabanov “really believed”: the effect the film had is more important and I think you describe it correctly.

They take this harmful thing and turn it into a national idea, a national hero.

 

Finally: what’s the role of capital punishment in all this? Why did you want to make a film about the final execution in Ukraine; why is that such an important turning point for the independent nation?

It’s about the intersection of personal and state violence. And personally, for me, I was surprised to discover that in independent Ukraine we still had capital punishment. It creates a certain background around which the anti-plot of the film is circling. We see people living in this transitional space: with the abolition of the death penalty, the realisation that Ukraine is a European state. People go through a change, but it’s not complete. Around the dinner table, that aggressive rhetoric remains.

Watch La Palisiada on Klassiki now and explore our collection of Ukrainian titles here.