Ukraine and Bulgaria have always been dear to the OKO film festival because our homeland, Ukrainian Bessarabia, is historically and ethnically connected with Bulgarians. Shortly after the start of the full-scale war, Sofia hosted the festival, providing a platform for screenings and discussions about Ukraine, its culture, and history. In 2023, Bulgaria officially became the second home for OKO. That is why we decided to announce two national competitions this year!
Ukrainian films mainly depict the current realities of the war, in which people of different ages, backgrounds, and professions continue to live and work despite all odds. Well, this is an ethnographic sketch of the life of the Ukrainian people today. Bulgarian films show local folk customs, rituals, and crafts in all the variety and complexity of the relationship between the traditional and modern worlds.
FEATURE DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION (UKRAINE)
We Will Not Fade Away, dir. Alisa Kovalenko, 100’
Donbas, 2019. The prospect of a new Russian invasion hangs in the air, while the sound of the gunfire resulting from the old one can still be heard in the distance. In this seemingly bleak wartime setting, five teenagers start to think seriously about their future. Their energy, enthusiasm, and hope allow them to fully live out their last golden hours of childhood despite the circumstances. The members of this imaginative band of dreamers paint, take photographs and fantasize about acting careers or becoming the next Elon Musk. They rebel, ride the waves of adventure, walk into minefields, and sunbathe by a local lake. They dream of escaping not only from the war but also, like teenagers all over the world, from the boredom of a small town. Then, an opportunity to embark on a long journey all the way to Nepal unexpectedly arises. Will their dream of conquering the world come true?
20 Days in Mariupol, dir. Mstyslav Chernov, 94’
An AP team of Ukrainian journalists trapped in the besieged city of Mariupol struggles to continue their work documenting the atrocities of the Russian invasion. As the only international reporters who remained in the city, they captured what later became defining images of the war: dying children, mass graves, the bombing of a maternity hospital, and more. After nearly a decade covering international conflicts, including the Russia-Ukraine war, for The Associated Press, 20 Days in Mariupol is Mstyslav Chernov’s first feature film. The film draws on Chernov’s daily news dispatches and personal footage of his own country at war. It offers a vivid, harrowing account of civilians caught in the siege, as well as a window into what it’s like to report from a conflict zone and the impact of such journalism around the globe.
Life to the Limit, dir. Pavlo Peleshok, 107’
From the Revolution of Dignity to full-scale war. Successful Ukrainian film producers took up arms to defend the country and cameras to capture the terrible reality. Veterans Pavlo and Yurko assembled a mosaic of causes and impacts that entailed the current Russian-Ukrainian war, from the end of 2013 to the present day, from the fragments of their memories and their film archive. The authors joined the frontline voluntarily, had been to the hot spots of Donbas, and created a homemade drone called Furia, named after one of the best aerial reconnaissance units. All the while, they continued working to show the world the truth about the horrific war that became possible in the 21st century.
SHORT DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION (UKRAINE)
Metro-tram, dir. Kateryna Yahodka, 9’
The main character of the story is the son of the good old subway and fast tram. This premature child lives in the city of Kryvyi Rih.
One Aloe, One Ficus, One Avocado and Six Dracaenas, dir. Marta Smerechynska, 8’
There is a washing machine wrapped in tape, meters-long indoor plants and their roots, and children's drawings among hundreds of boxes on which the addresses of Ukrainian cities are written. This place resembles a warehouse of lost things. The silence is broken by a woman's voice, that of the owner of one of these boxes. She is bidding farewell to her home in Kyiv, speaking of the belongings she left behind. Each item has a story, a memory that is being left behind. Through her words, the home seems to come alive, each item imbued with a sense of warmth and familiarity. People begin to appear in the so-called warehouse, taking their pieces of home in the form of parcels. They sift through the boxes, searching for their treasured possessions. Some are filled with joy, others with sadness. Meanwhile, a woman's voice questions: “Does the loss of belongings matter?”
Humans and subhumans, dir. Oleksandr Stoianov, 20’
A legal drama about human rights violations in Soviet Ukraine and modern Russia based on archival chronicles. Heimrad Backer, in some of his projects, used the text of nazi propaganda in such a way that it became self-evident, commenting on itself. For the same purpose, I use excerpts from a soviet newspaper. I title parts of the film scenes to emphasize the absurdity, theatricality, and cruelty of the trial as well as the propaganda chronicle.
Waking Up in Silence, dir. Mila Zhluktenko, Daniel Asadi Faezi, 13’
A former Wehrmacht barracks now serves as a refugee camp for people from Ukraine. Waking up in silence accompanies the children on their journey, where their own history intertwines with that of the barracks. A moment between past and future, war and silence, departure and arrival, which paints a portrait of Germany’s past and present through the eyes of its young protagonists.
Are you here, dir. Zlata Veresniak, 13’
Oryna, an 18-year-old Ukrainian girl, fled her homeland during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, while all her family, including her 7-year-old sister Ksiusha, decided to remain there. The film observes the daily remote communication between Oryna and her younger sister and reveals their close bonds of sisterhood, which remain strong despite their separation, the constant presence of the war, and the natural process of growing apart.
Chornobyl 22, dir. Oleksiy Radynski, 20’
An anonymous informant of the Ukrainian Armed Forces secretly films the movements of Russian troops in the occupied Chornobyl Exclusion Zone. Workers at the Chornobyl NPP share their experiences of living at the Russian-occupied nuclear power plant. Catastrophic scenarios from the past and present are intertwined in this macabre episode of the Russian invasion. The film was created as part of the project The Reckoning: Ukraine Testifies, which documents and investigates Russian war crimes in Ukraine.
SHORT DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION (BULGARIA)
Chergi Weavers, dir. Elena Stoycheva, 27’
A young designer arrives in a small Bulgarian village, where most inhabitants left are elderly women. She convinces the grannies to weave a new model of a traditional carpet-runner, called “chergi”. But as they start to assemble an old weaving loom, they find out that parts are missing. Now the women have to restore old knowledge and the missing links between themselves.
Aşk, dir. Vladimir Andonov, 20’
Jemal is a musician and saz player. He becomes seriously ill and doctors say he has a few months to live. His wife Barika began studying remedies and folk medicine, instead of waiting for death to come.
Benevolence, dir. Vladimir Andonov, 20 ‘
Ghalib is a descendant of musicians from an Alevi village. When the last dede in the community dies, the villagers choose him as their religious leader, but he refuses because is still young. However, fate seemed to have something else in store for him.
Inherited Crafts, dir. Osman Mehmedov Yuseinov, 31’
“Inherited Crafts” gathers together portraits of craftspeople in Stolipinovo – a large, racially segregated urban district in Bulgaria. The film shows a cross-section of a community: young, old, modern, traditional – all with something in common, the desire to live and work in a dignified way, through hand-worked crafts. People in the film are both fragile and powerful in their raw honesty against the backdrop of increasingly precarious conditions of labor. “Inherited Crafts” carries a self-reflective style, being made by Osman Yuseinov, himself a craftsman, a master jeweller, working and living in Stolipinovo.
Elbetitsa - Mysticism and Wonder, dir. Boyana Topchiyska, 25’
Elbetitsa is an ancient symbol that has been a central element of Bulgarian culture and history for thousands of years.
Horo between Two Shores, dir. Ekaterina Minkova, 38’
At the heart of the project “Horo between two shores” are little-known and already fading rituals in the Vlach villages in Northwestern Bulgaria and Serbia, related to the funeral and memorial tradition. The rites here provoke the senses with impactful juxtapositions of the borderline theme - life and death. A topic constantly opens beyond specific regional practices. The film focuses on the lives and personal stories of several people on both sides of the border who attended their own commemoration, as dictated by local tradition. The culmination is the chorus of the dead, which is still performed in Bulgaria and Serbia on the first day of Easter in every Wallachian village. They dance with the portraits of deceased loved ones and give away red eggs, treats, and towels. And finally, everyone joins in the dance for the living. Through the stories of the local people, we will look into some ideas about the possible connections between the living and the dead. How and can one soften one’s own fear of death, what is important to accomplish in one’s life, and if there is a way to weaken the pain of separation?
SPECIAL SCREENINGS (OUT OF COMPETITION)
OKO is a documentary film festival, but we dream of further growing and expanding our ethnographic horizons to include fiction and experimental films. Thus, this year, we have selected two Ukrainian films of this kind for the non-competition program.
Bohyni — Goddesses, dir. Sasha Theodora, 8’
In the Ukrainian tradition, the body of the deceased is washed and ritually prepared, honoring and cleansing the person’s spirit. In times of war, both the deceased and their loved ones are deprived of these rituals and final moments. In “Bohyni”, a body lies alone in a forest, in the liminal realm. The body is discovered by three goddesses who prepare its' spirit to be sent to the land of the ancestors.
The Edge of the River, dir. Vasil Barkov, 100’
According to the plot, a series of events brings the Bulgarian Fori to the Danube Delta. In the Ukrainian city of Vylkove, due to random tragic circumstances, Fory finds himself in custody. But in this city inhabited by Lipovans, the hero meets true love, and the beauty and spiritual atmosphere of “Ukrainian Venice” gives him the feeling that this is the place he was looking for all his life.
The OKO organizers are very passionate about cinema and about preserving their own cultural heritage, thus they will present their own projects as part of the special screenings.
The Place of Power, Tetiana Stanieva , 100’
At the beginning of the 19th century, Bulgarian refugees founded the village of Cheshme-Varuit, now known as Krynychne, in the Bolhrad district of Ukraine, on the shores of Lake Yalpuh, the largest one in Ukraine. For more than 200 years, they have been preserving their dialect, traditions, and folklore, making wine, and cultivating “arpadzhik” (small onions that grow from seeds). The author of the film was born in Krynychne. The plot depicts the uniqueness of Krynychne's inhabitants, the conflict between old and new, modernity and tradition, and the future and the past. The documentary makes the viewer search for an answer to the question: who am I?
Yours Vasyl, dir. Svitlana Rudiuk, Oleksandr Avsharov, 60’
The film tells us a story about a personality transformation of Ukrainian poet and dissident Vasyl Stus. He dreamed of engaging in literature, not politics; to be a famous poet, not a dissident. But the actions of the Soviet special services and the CPSU pushed him to a point of no return. How did this transformation take place? And what was “Yours Vasyl” really like?
Tales from Donbas, dir. Elena Rubashevska, 30’
Since 2014, when I lost my home for the first time, I am metaphorically referring to myself as a “tumbleweed” and trying to find the sense of the lost identity that keeps slipping away. Cities, countries, continents… Was I dreaming that once I had a home? In the “Tales from Donbas”, I am reaching back to my childhood memory and bringing out tales from my native land. During 30 minutes of a narrative experience, you will discover legends of four main industries of Donbas: the “Tale of Chalk”, the “Tale of Salt”, the “Tale of Coal”, and the “Tale of Metal”. The visual part of the project is composed of the materials I assembled during my last trip to Donbas where I was doing research for the documentary film “Symphony of Donbas”, just before the outbreak of full-scale war. Many of the shown places do not exist anymore.