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BRAMA, August 19, 2002, 1 am ET


HARVARD STAGES U.S. PREMIERE OF FILM “A PRAYER FOR HETMAN MAZEPA”

Scene from “A Prayer for Hetman Mazepa”

On August 1, 2002 the Harvard Ukrainian Summer Institute (HUSI) staged the de facto North American premiere of Yuri Illienko’s latest film A Prayer for Hetman Mazepa (Molytva za Hetmana Mazepu). Students, professors and the wider community invited for the occasion to Jefferson Hall at Harvard University had a unique opportunity to view the first big-budget (almost $US 2,5 mln.) picture made in Ukraine since independence even before the Prayer has been released for general viewing in Ukraine. Despite very short notice, and the relative quiet of the late summer, more than a hundred viewers showed up for the screening. There were Harvard Summer School students, university instructors and academics, intellectuals, representatives of the Ukrainian American community of Greater Boston, some even drove from as far away as Connecticut. Also varied was the cultural composition of the audience - besides Americans there were viewers from Ukraine, Canada, Poland, Italy, Belarus, and, even, Egypt.

To present the film the HUSI invited from Las Vegas, the composer of the score Virko Baley. In his brief introduction Mr. Baley, as if trying to pre-empt the main line of criticism and arguing with the as yet invisible critics, warned the viewers that what they were about to see was neither a historical epic, nor an illustration to a history book, nor a narrative in the usual sense of the word. He could not have been more right. For better of for worse, the Prayer is like nothing else Ukrainian cinema has ever produced. The subject Yuri Illienko has chosen concerns one of the most fascinating periods of Ukrainian and East-European history and the drama of a man of truly epic proportions. Hetman Ivan Mazepa, man of a dazzling array of acumen, the polyglot, the statesman, the military leader, the lover, has captivated the imagination of such writers as Lord Byron, A. Pushkin, V. Hugo, J. Slowacki, R.M. Rilke, B. Brecht, to name just a few. His ill-fated attempt to exploit the war between Muscovy of Peter I and Sweden of Charles XII and to regain the independence of Ukraine inspired generations of Ukrainian freedom fighters.

Composer of the film score Virko Baley introduced the “Prayer” to the Harvard audience.
The film is based on some known historical facts:  Mazepa’s decision to side with the King of Sweden against Peter I, Charles’ and Mazepa’s defeat in the battle of Poltava, the bloody massacre of Baturyn (Mazepa’s capital) by the Muscovites - dramatic as they are these and other events assume in Illienko’s picture larger philosophical dimensions of the general Ukrainian condition, in Virko Baley’s words, they are “stations of the cross” on the way to Ukraine’s crucifixion and its hoped-for resurrection. In this struggle, Mazepa becomes for Ukrainians the messenger of liberation, the promise of regained national and human dignity. For Muscovites he is the devil incarnate, the despicable traitor. The relations between Mazepa and Peter I are a thematic and emotional pivot of the Prayer. They go well beyond the political, the two statesmen are deeply involved emotionally. This is a particularly riveting and, for some, shocking aspect of Illienko’s interpretation. This emotional aspect is the key to understanding the centuries-old relationship between Ukraine and Russia. Not incidentally love and passion in Illienko’s film go together with death and decay, domination and control, humiliation and murderous insanity.

The film is conceived and shot in such a way as to avoid even a hint of gratuitous entertainment. The set is deliberately made to look artificial, the costumes fake and often out of period, the blood is really only paint. Its aesthetic technique, its visual and acoustic arsenals are designed to shock, to antagonize, to revolt, to make the viewer not just register the action on the silver screen but literally to suffer it, to experience every moment of the sometimes endless 152 minutes of the footage. Small wonder that those who expected to be entertained were in for a cruel disappointment. Yet one can argue that for the Ukrainian viewers the desperate need to escape from the grim everyday reality into a Hollywood style pure entertainment does not override the desire to understand exactly why Ukrainians seem so doomed to relive the same national failure over and over again.

Obviously Illienko could not care less about pure entertainment. Hence the accusation of the “almost amateurish disregard for audience sensibilities” leveled against the director by the Variety magazine, the influential US film-industry mouthpiece. It seems like the Prayers director seeks to employ every means at his disposal in order to antagonize and provoke his viewer into a major soul searching, not to offer him a shallow satisfaction of the proverbial happy ending but to leave him perturbed, revolted even disgusted. Has Yuri Illienko succeeded in this?

Lead by the old vox populi, vox Dei maxim I did a polling of selected viewers after the screening:

Ivan Mazepa and Motria Kochubey


In your opinion, what is the film about?

Michael Flier
, the Oleksandr Potebnja Professor of Ukrainian Philology, Harvard:  ”The director is providing a meditation in dreamlike sequences on a number of major themes, all important to Ukrainian history and Ukrainian identity, themes of power (Who truly has it? Who freely uses it? Who is destroyed by it?) and its corollaries of dominance and submission, of self-absorption, of lust and jealousy, of love and hatred. Using the conceit of the Mazepa-Peter dynamic Illienko sees them as reflections of each other, both narcissistic, intent on control and independence, driven to sweeping theatrical gestures, and acts of dominance and humiliation. The homoerotic leitmotif provides a vehicle to comment on the attraction between powerful men and the need for physical domination and humiliation to prove their vitality and their roles as leaders.

“Ukraine as a woman becomes the object of lust in this contest, one in which she is both defenseless victim and controlling dominatrix. In the last analysis, the director may be commenting on Tolstoy’s notions about the ineffectuality of “great leaders” in the grand scheme of history. A naked Peter riding off on a wild horse, his hands tied behind him is matched by a similar scene with Mazepa later in the film.”

Federigo Argentieri, Ph.D., Professor of Political Science at John Cabbot University (Rome, Italy):  “The film is about Mazepa and the Ukrainian-Russian relations throughout the centuries.

Ksenia Kiebuzinski, Jacyk Bibliographer at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute:  “In my opinion, the film attempts at once to free Ukraine from a certain historical legacy, namely the unsuccessful attempt by Hetman Ivan Mazepa to regain independence for his nation, and to offer Ukrainians their own artistic interpretation of this heroic figure. Illienko’s film seems very much to be directed towards a Ukrainian rather than an international audience. It seems to be saying to present-day Ukraine that rather than dwelling on its tragic past – the “what might have beens” – that the country should live in the present. This in no way implies that the film is disrespectful of history or of a great figure in Ukrainian history. In fact, it offers a way for Ukrainians to claim back Mazepa as one of their own. Rather than priding themselves that he was mentioned in Voltaire’s history of Charles XII or was the subject of poems by Byron and Hugo or paintings by Géricault or Vernet, Ukrainians have now as part of their cultural legacy a film about Mazepa that parodies many of these European representations while also contributing to this body of works that includes over 300 works of art, literature, and music on the subject.

Roman Szporluk
, the Mykhailo S. Hrushevs’kyi Professor of Ukrainian History, Harvard:  “The message of the film is in the reflection that it provokes about certain permanent themes and issues of Ukrainian history, namely the problem of national solidarity, of loyalty to the cause. Here we get the critical message of Mazepa who mentions with sadness but little surprise the Cossack units that never arrived to the battle or that sided with the enemy.. In a more dramatic and explicit form the same message is re-iterrated in Charles’ XII monologue, when he explains that he is the king of Swedes and not of mecernaries without a national identity.

Wawa Baczynskyj
, a viewer from Boston:  “I am quite unsure of what the film is about. On the one hand it seems to describe of a series of historical events, and on the other hand it is incredibly preachy. “It was very clear to me that great parallels were being made between the past and the present. It was trying to teach the whole Ukrainian nation what it was supposed to be doing to be on its feet.

Lubomyr Hajda,
Associate Director of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute:  “The film seems to me to be an interpretation of Hetman Ivan Mazepa and Ukrainian history of his time as seen in a fantasmagoric dream in the mind of the director Illienko. For me the main message of the film concerning the figure of Mazepa is that he was neither an unequivocal hero, nor an unequivocal villain as, depending on one’s point of view, he tends to be portrayed in literature and scholarship. The director exhibits certain ambivalences in his attitudes toward Mazepa, though less so toward the historical situation and the difficulties that Mazepa found himself in. According to the film, no choice that Mazepa faced could yield the optimal result, though his devotion to Ukraine was true. The other is the image of Ukraine which is represented in many ways – in the women that populate the screen, or the map of Europe with Ukraine as a woman that gets raped by the powerful men around her, and other symbols. I think that the combination of this image of Ukraine as a victim of violence represented by sexual abuse and the image of Mazepa who attempted to do something for this country that was probably doomed to failure are the main messages that I got from the film

Anna Muller
, HUSI student, Poland:  “I think it is very healthy that Ukraine is presented in the film with a good dose of irony and sarcasm – always as a woman, sometimes raped, sometimes insane, at times as Mazepa“s lover, at times his godchild who becomes his lover. There is always, though, this strange sort of sexual relationship – someone always has to seduce and betray. This sort of martyrology proves particularly appealing to East-European artists


Another image that really appealed to me was the metaphore of history:  an old woman with very big motherly breasts, even though she has not always been a good mother to Ukraine, with insane eyes and incessant curses flowing from her mouth until the director covers it, saying – OK, that“s enough. History talks to us through different people:  Voltaire, Tolstoy, common people, legends handed down from generation to generation. Every generation creates its own history and every generation has its own dimension of objectivity. It the end does it really matter whether or not Peter the Great was insane? Not really. What matters is how his image affects us and what is the purpose we need it for. What really matters is the narrative and the way it influences us and not the historical truth. That is the post-modern dimension of the movie.

Yuri Illienko, film’s director on the set


Did you like the film?

M. Flier: 
« The film had some very strong points and is obviously provocative. I was impressed by wonderful allusions to the great East Slavic cinema tradition (especially Dovzhenko, Eisenstein and Tarkovsky), for example, the importance of landscape and the interaction with nature (especially water with its ability to destroy and generate), and the references to medieval orthodoxy and paganism (the effective use of the Blessing of the Waters ritual, the funereal rafts let loose on the river). Peter I is right out of the great Surikov painting when he presides over the execution of the rebellious Striltsi (riflemen). And the humor throughout animated the characters and the narrative in striking ways. It is important that a nation such as Ukraine is able to produce such a work of art at this point in its development. But the film is much too long and repetitive. It needs major editing.

F. Argentieri: 
I thought the Prayer was very provocative and good. I usually do not like allegoric and metaphoric films, unless they are very well done and clear in their message and “ideology”. It is a very powerful movie and I liked it a lot. In particular I was deeply impressed by the very striking scene of Ivan and Peter sitting at the feast table with the Battle of Poltava raging around them.

K. Kiebuzinski: 
I found certain images particularly beautiful, such as the scene of the vertep, and enjoyed the visual excesses of the film, such as the costumes, props, and painted backdrops. I also admired the characterizations and performances of the actors who portrayed Mazepa, Peter I, and Charles XII. Although the narrative had a complicated structure, I found that it was not too difficult to follow. However, the amount of time it took to tell the story was much, much too long. It was one thing to experience a film minute by minute, but quite another to endure what seems like hours. I was also left with the feeling of wondering if the film was overall humorous with occasional seriousness, or, vice-versa, overall serious with occasional humor.

Roman Szporluk,  “I am speaking only as a movie-goer, a non-specialist, as someone who sometimes, not too often, goes to the movies and sometimes likes what he sees and sometimes does not “— I found the film interesting and indeed fascinating. I really feel it to be a major achievement of the world class level. This is not an illustration to a history book, it’s a work of art, a post-modernist work of creative imagination.

W. Baczynskyj
:  “I found Illienko“s film very irritating. It needs a good amount of editing. It is unfinished and much too long. I do not think the creator has given his audience one ounce of credit for intelligence. I felt like I was hit over the head twenty five times by the same message. In my opinion the film is very moralistic. I feel bad that it is being released as the big Ukrainian movie.”

L. Hajda
:  «There is much in the film that I liked and much that I admired without necessarily liking it. Much of the cinematography was very effective, some of the symbolism, many images, the occasional humor. There were many very striking parts, in particular the vertep sequence, the devastation of Baturyn, the representation of Peter I. Despite the certain hyperbole inherent in this kind of surreal film, I think the picture of Peter is a powerful corrective to the hagiographic treatment of him in Russian scholarship, fiction and cinema. He was a very complex and, probably, psychologically a very sick man.

«On the other hand, the film is simply too long. It would benefit from editing and pruning, which could enhance its effectiveness both as a piece of art and as a medium to convey its message. It lacked a certain sense of economy particularly in the last half-hour. Although the historical context seems well enough realized and film – like historical fiction – allows great leeway for the imagination, I was not persuaded that making Liubov Kochubei the central female figure and Mazepa’s love/sex object is an improvement on his real interest in her daughter, Motria. Some of the sexual and scatological imagery (epecially that involving Peter) seems to me artistically valid and effective, but some seems gratuitous and by its overuse weakens the point it tries to make.

A. Muller: 
«I enjoyed it a lot. I wish movies like this were made in my country. We need to stop treating ourselves so dead seriously, as we do right now. Poland cannot be the “Christ of Nations” any longer, there is too much competition in this field.

Dream sequence in “Prayer”.

Do you think the film is anti-Russian?

M. Flier:  “No. The cynical view of history and its characters is cast on all characters and events.

F. Argentieri: 
“I do not think the film is anti-Russian. It is against the hegemonic and imperialist projects of Russia concerning Ukraine. Obviously it also related to today“s situation, when Moscow seems to have decided to let go of the Baltic states and instead try to gain greater control over Ukraine. Not all Russians are portrayed as bad, Peter is indeed portrayed as bad, but there“s a difference.

W. Baczynskyj
:  “The film is not anti-Russian or anti-Ukrainian, it is more anti-power. When people are in power, they make deals, they do things that in some ways have very little connection to what the people whom they represent really need.”

L. Hajda
:  “The film obviously presents certain figures and events of Russian history in a light the Russians might not like. That however does not make the film anti-Russian. Some Ukrainians may not like the representation of Ukraine and Ukrainians in the film either, but that does not make it anti-Ukrainian.

Is the Ukrainian audience ready for such a film?

K. Kiebuzinski: 
Probably not, although it is definitely made for them. Besides a complicated narrative, the audiences may need to be familiar with a number of historical events and figures to fully appreciate the film. Ready or not, though, it would definitely be worth their while to see the film just for the provocative debates that it may inspire, be they about the role of history in contemporary society, the current political relationship between Russia and Ukraine, or the future of the Ukrainian film industry.

R. Szporluk
“Watching this film I began to imagine what reactions it will generate — we already know the official Russian circles hate it, — but I am sure we may expect almost equally negative reactions — although for different reasons — from some traditionalist Ukrainian patriots. To them I would say:  Let’s face it. Do we want to forbid Ukrainian artists to do what artists in France and Britain, Italy and Germany, are free to do and actually do? Have we not answered yet the question Khvylovyi asked eighty years ago? Do we still think that for the Ukrainians “Prosvita” is enough, and that for “Europe” they are not ready even today?  To me, the film proves that at least the Ukrainian cultural elite is safely in “Europe”. I suspect that more regular viewers in Ukraine than we think are also comfortably in “Europe”.

“I would not worry whether or not the film is a commercial success. One should not forget that one of the most popular operas of all times Carmen was a total fiasco when it was first performed in Paris and the composer Georges Bizet died before learning that his opera was not that bad. The proof of the success of this film, and I agree here with what Virko Baley said in his introductory remarks, is that it does not leave you indifferent in terms of ideology, that it excites you as a work of art, it makes you mad, excited but you nevertheless want to watch it to the end. If you can get people to watch your film for two and a half hours even if at the end they say it was terrible you have already won.

L. HajdaI do not think that the broad Ukrainian audience is prepared for the film or will like it or appreciate it. This would be my main reservation. The approach that Illienko has taken, a kind of Freudian foray into the human psyche is quite valid, but I am not sure that this is the best way to introduce Mazepa to the Ukrainian audience or to a non-Ukrainian audience. For the non-Ukrainian audience, this film will be incomprehensible because of the lack of necessary knowledge of history. As to the Ukrainian audience, it will certainly attract the attention and probably the applause of the intelligensia and cultural elites. For the general viewer it will be incomprehensible, perhaps off-putting. A film like this is best made as perhaps the third or fourth picture on the subject, after, shall we say, more realistic representations of the characters and historical circumstances have been circulated. It is a bit like introducing a public to classical music by starting with atonalism, or to art by focusing on, say, Cubism. Both would be best understood and appreciated after exposure to their more accessible musical or artistic antecedents.

I think that the Ukrainian audiences are probably looking for and need something like the Ukrainian analog of Jerzy Hoffman’s “With Fire and Sword”, or Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart”.

The screening of A Prayer for Hetman Mazepa at the Harvard Ukrainian Summer Institute became possible thanks to the assistance of Virko Baley, composer of its score and the cooperation of Ihor Didkovsky, producer of the film. It became the de facto North American premiere of the film and took place before its release for general viewing in Ukraine slated for September, 2002.

– Yuri Shevchuk


About the author
Yuri Shevchuk, independent scholar and journalist, based in Toronto, Canada.
Since 1990, Dr. Shevchuk teaches Ukrainian at Harvard Ukrainian Summer Institute. Email: yurkosh@hotmail.com




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