Narratives of reflection: how Ukrainian cinema revives and reinterprets the 1990s

Karina Khymchuk in Do You Love Me? (dir. Tonya Noyabryova, 2023)

As nations under the strain of political upheaval or war strive to preserve their cultural identity, they are prone to reinterpret it to align with contemporary realities. This often manifests in the representation of past collective experiences, whether of success or hardship. For nearly ten years, Ukrainian documentarians have been capturing the ongoing conflict in the country with exceptional depth. Notable examples include the unique form of Roman Liubyi’s Iron Butterflies (2023) or the rocketing success of Mstyslav Chernov’s 20 Days in Mariupol (2022). The surge in non-fiction filmmaking during wartime is understandable, attributable to technological advancements and the diminished capacity for feature film production. Nonetheless, Ukrainian fiction films have not receded into obscurity; on the contrary, Ukrainian directors continue to feature prominently at global festivals. Intriguingly, a number of these titles, filmed on the verge of the full-scale invasion, are united by a common focus on the 1990s, either narratively or metaphorically. By turning back 30 years, these directors have, paradoxically, crystallised contemporary anxieties. While it may be premature to call these films a “wave”, their recurring narrative and visual motifs cannot be overlooked.

Parents within the post-Soviet space whose youth coincided with the nineties often reminisce about them as a terrifying period. While Stalinist repression had ended, and Russian bombs had not yet begun to fall, it’s undeniable that this era was fraught with fear. The decade was both revolutionary and disappointing, marked by instability and danger. Like most post-Soviet countries, Ukraine struggled with the aftermath of imperial collapse at the same time as it achieved cherished independence and embarked on a journey of national and economic transformation, formalised on 24 August 1991.

In those early years, weak governance and policing in the post-Soviet sphere led to unprecedented criminality. Thousands of self-organised criminal groups emerged, dominating state and commercial enterprises by the mid-90s. Power was effectively placed in the hands of criminals, unafraid of law enforcement. Witnesses from the nineties frequently recall the fear of leaving their homes due to street violence, and many people know somebody who was killed simply for running a successful business that criminals were looking to muscle in on. Beyond banditry, the nineties were marked by poverty and scarcity, driven by rampant inflation and currency devaluation. This led to widespread unemployment, with no means to pay salaries or protect one’s future. Many intellectuals and artists, often left jobless, either emigrated or resorted to selling imported jeans on street markets.

a number of recent Ukrainian titles, filmed on the verge of the full-scale invasion, are united by a common focus on the 1990s, either narratively or metaphorically. By turning back 30 years, these directors have, paradoxically, crystallised contemporary anxieties

Hence, it’s unsurprising that the cinematic development of independent Ukraine was considerably restrained. A potential wave of creativity, akin to those in then-Czechoslovakia and Romania, could have emerged following the relaxation of censorship. However, this did not materialise. Very few films were produced, filmmakers often left to work in Russia, and a coherent law defining a quota for national cinema was created only at the decade’s end.

The creativity of directors in the first decade of Ukrainian independence was only scrutinised in retrospect, as exemplified by the Dovzhenko Centre’s 2018 programme Unknown 90s. Unknown, because during this most challenging of periods, these films hardly made it to theatres, failed to find their audience, and did not deliver in terms of a much-needed representation of Ukrainian identity. Indeed, in films of the nineties, the experience of the average Ukrainian citizen did not receive even a fraction of the international or domestic attention afforded to Alexei Balabanov’s film Brother, a film that became the main visual connotation of that period. Films like Balabanov’s, made in Russia, limited the space for expressing Ukrainian experiences on screen.

The contemporary “nineties turn” began with Oleg Sentsov’s Rhino, which depicts the path of one man from a small-time thug to a powerful criminal, and which premiered in the Venice Film Festival’s Orizzonti section in 2021. On 15 February, a grand premiere was held in Kyiv, attended by cultural figures and previous presidents, who were already discussing looming Russian aggression. Sentsov began working on the film back in 2012, two years before the initial outbreak of the war. Over the next decade, he participated in the Revolution of Dignity at Maidan, engaged in political action against the annexation of Crimea, and was subsequently imprisoned by Russia. Following global attention to his cause and hunger strikes, Sentsov returned to Ukraine and completed the film.

Rhino (dir. Olg Sentsov, 2021)

In interviews, the director has emphasised that Rhino is about the lack of human choice in the nineties and the impossibility of escaping one’s environment. This film, taken as a starting point in rethinking the era, does not hide behind veiled meanings. It’s a straightforward and vivid picture that directly conveys the horrors of the then-prevailing violence and moral decay. The visual language, steeped in the era’s popular attributes – jeans, markets, saunas, leather bags, and carpets on the walls – tells a story as familiar as folklore: a male protagonist must choose between being an aggressor or becoming a victim.

Journalists frequently ask Sentsov to reflect on parallels with Balabanov’s Brother, but the director rightly notes that Rhino has a clear pro-Ukrainian and anti-Russian stance. The less it reminds viewers of Balabanov, the more it compliments the director. This is not St Petersburg, and it never will be. The heroes speak Surzhyk (a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian), and the characterisation of the bandits contrast starkly with the folk ornaments in their houses. Sentsov, drawing on personal experience and marshalling the nineties setting, speaks about the spirit of violence that Russians continue to direct against modern Ukraine. Today, he is continuing his fight in the Armed Forces, defending Ukraine against its occupiers.

Buryachkova challenges the old adage “there is no sex in the Soviet Union” by depicting the abrupt advent of sexual freedom post-Union, revealing the unpreparedness of a generation raised in scarcity to educate their children about boundaries and a sense of proportion

Contemporary Ukrainian films about the nineties do not always focus on male protagonists. Female directors have likewise revisited the era of their childhood to reflect on the post-Soviet adolescent experience, marked by parental absence, and the even harsher lack of pure love. The title of Tonya Noyabryova’s 1991-set Do You Love Me?, which premiered in the Panorama section of the 2023 Berlinale, reflects a question that troubled adolescents 30 years ago just as it does now. The main character, Kira, is at the peak of adolescence and self-love. Emotions begin to surface. Her parents, mirroring the Soviet Union they grew up in, undergo the collapse of their relationship. Kira, initially filled with a blind love for herself, painfully removes her rose-tinted glasses, confronting the coldness and loneliness surrounding her, stepping into a brutal era. Anna Buryachkova’s Forever-Forever (2023) also focuses on a teenaged perspective. Set in 1998, the film tells the story of high schooler Tonya, who, amid a lack of attention from loved ones, also seeks intimacy – particularly physical. During her thorny search, she encounters the sort of violence that typifies the epoch. The film challenges the old adage “there is no sex in the Soviet Union” by depicting the abrupt advent of sexual freedom post-Union, revealing the unpreparedness of a generation raised in scarcity to educate their children about boundaries and a sense of proportion. Buryachkova has repeatedly mentioned in interviews that the post-Soviet nineties taught Ukrainians to defend ourselves, mentally and physically, and to assert our boundaries: a metaphor made literal during the full-scale invasion.

Equally fascinating is how these directors portray the parents of their heroines. In Do You Love Me? Kira’s parents represent the cultural intelligentsia, losing not only each other but also their careers along with the Soviet Union. Each scene featuring the parents is fraught with an atmosphere of anxiety and closure, inaccessible to the child, who also does not want to burden them. In Buryachkova’s film, the parents are almost entirely absent. While their child disappears, or else walks around bruised and in tears, the parents, filmed from a distance within a mise en scène of constricting doorways, fret over money. The director herself has said that today she cannot give her children the attention she would like to.

La Palisiada (dir. Filipp Sotnichenko, 2023)

Beyond the basic fact of a nineties settings, we might also consider the kinds of visual content consumed by people at that time. The world around them was recorded on widely available amateur VHS cameras; replication of that medium grounds nineties recreations in a mix of nostalgia and frustration. Filipp Sotnichenko’s long-awaited La Palisiada (2023; coming to Klassiki in February 2024), which won the FIPRESCI Prize at the Rotterdam Film Festival, is a story about a pair of old friends – a forensic psychiatrist and an investigator – who come together to unravel the complex case of a police officer’s murder. The film is a complex, dual-narrative puzzle, centred around an extensive flashback that transports viewers from the present to 1996, the final months of capital punishment in Ukraine. That year, Ukraine held second place in the world after China in terms of death sentences, a shocking fact not only for audiences, but also for the film crew during their research.

This film stands out for its ability to convey the ineffable. Avoiding dramatic plot twists, its true value lies in its unique approach to narrative and form, which non-verbally conveys an atmosphere of oppression, as well as the grim processes of law enforcement and the confusion then reigning over Ukrainian society. Driven by total frustration in its narrative, staging, and editing, the film rejects clarity. The inquisitive camera becomes a character in its own right, fearlessly focusing on confused faces. This approach to cinematography, devoid of decorative speculation, immerses the viewer in the sensation of life in the nineties more profoundly than any other film mentioned here. Sotnichenko, a keen fan of VHS aesthetics, spent hours researching judicial video archives, aiming to recreate an atmosphere he remembers from his childhood – much like many Ukrainians (and other nineties kids) whose childhoods were tenderly captured on VHS tapes.

these films are bound by a desire to reflect on a decade that, as their authors almost unanimously declare, we have yet to fully overcome

Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s Pamfir and Antonio Lukich’s Luxembourg, Luxembourg (both 2022), two recent titles that have received international acclaim, diverge from these direct re-enactments of the nineties: both are set in the present, but feature symbolic structures that can be said to revive the spirit of the bygone era. This is reflected in a visual style that pays tribute to the nineties, in antiheroes who act like real bandits, or in long-lost similitudes that contemporary characters nostalgically crave as if feeling a phantom pain. Pamfir, showcased at the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, is a family drama with Western genre elements. The eponymous father returns home after working in Europe. To solve some domestic problems, he returns to his former life as a smuggler traversing the Romanian-Ukrainian border. The antagonist, a caricature of a nineties bandit, has a brutal gang ready for any execution, drives a huge black car, wears black suits, and is always lurking, ready to claim his share. The bandit represents Pamfir’s criminal past, which keeps pulling him back. Accustomed to the quick, illegal financial solutions offered by smuggling, he struggles to change with the times and succumbs to past temptations, allowing the unchanging bandit spirit to drag him further down the rabbit hole.

On the other hand, Lukich’s film is a beautiful tragicomedy about very different twins sharing a common sorrow. Their father, a respected figure during the nineties, disappeared long ago, leaving the children with a single mother. Years later, one twin hears from the Luxembourgish embassy that their father has died. Barely remembering his face, the pair blindly travel to the other end of Europe. Lukich’s treatment of the father figure is smart: he is remembered vaguely but powerfully, as a man whose boot could stop a train, while his tattooed hand was holding a gun. Transitioning from flashbacks to the present, the father’s nineties spirit crystallises in the artefacts he left behind – music cassettes, photo albums, a business card holder with the contacts of important people, now devoid of their former power but gaining new levels of significance as physical proof of a bygone era and the only evidence of their lost father, regardless of whether he was good or bad.

A return to the nineties, whether conscious or not, literal or metaphorical, unites these films – but in superficial terms the similarity ends here. They are independent and wildly different pictures, each with its own unique value to the contemporary Ukrainian viewer. On a deeper level, though, they are bound by a desire to reflect on a decade that, as the authors of these films almost unanimously declare, we have yet to fully overcome. Together, they have crafted a varied but definitive representation of Ukrainian identities at the dawn of their independence – an act of representation that will help to ensure the nation’s independent future.

Explore our collection of Ukrainian titles here.

Sonya Vseliubska is a film critic and a member of the Union of Film Critics of Ukraine, whose work mainly focuses on Ukrainian and European cinema. She is currently a student in the Film and Screen Studies course at the University of the Arts, London.