The premiere of Oles Sanin’s film Povodyr (The Guide) took place on the 12th of November. The movie’s production had been finished on December 2012 and its opening had been awaited with great anticipation. The film was already a year old when it was released and, at just that same time, the events of Maydan started. Oles Sanin understood that it wouldn’t be a good time for a premiere. However, in only the first three days of its release, the long-expected film absolutely broke the attendance records of all Ukrainian films, combined together, since Ukrainian Independence.
The history of the film is complicated and multi-faceted, as is the story of its creation. It is a historical drama that illuminates events in Ukraine in the 1930s. The hero of the film, an American boy Peter Shamrock, comes to Ukraine with his father, an American engineer who lost his job in New York during the Great Depression. Through a series of tragic events, the boy becomes the guide of a blind Kobzar who becomes a father figure to him and with whom he travels throughout Ukraine.
As it is well known, the thirties of the twentieth century were among the most tragic years in the history of Ukraine. In the winter of 1932-33, Stalin and the Bolshevik Party created an artificial famine in Eastern Ukraine, in order to not only to kill the villagers who were refusing to enter the collective farms, but also to break the free spirit of the Ukrainian peasantry. During this time millions of people starved to death, leaving behind empty villages, which were quickly filled with ethnic Russians.
This was the period, which we now call the Executed Renaissance, when most of the Ukrainian intelligentsia, who ironically believed that their art was helping to build a better, brighter future, was killed. The best Ukrainian poets, writers, musicians, and actors were arrested, tortured, and shot. The Kharkiv theater Bеresil’ is portrayed in the film, whose director Oles’ Kurbas was shot in 1933, as well as the writer Mychajl’ Semenko, whose small role is played by the modern poet Serhij Zhadan.
This was also the time when the Ukrainian Kobzars were eliminated. For English-speakers, I would like to explain that Kobzars were blind musicians, who with the help of young guides, traveled from village to village, from city to city, singing epic historical ballades, which they composed. According to legend, the Kobzar tradition began during the time that Catherine the Second finally destroyed the army of the Zaporizhian Cossacks and their homeland at Zaporizhian Sich. She ordered that the Cossacks who were taken prisoner not be killed, but to be blinded, in order to leave them helpless and weak. But the Cossacks were able to turn their weakness into strength, since instead of swords, they took in their arms instruments, banduras and kobzas, and started to sing songs of freedom, of the time when Ukraine was strong, courageous, and free. They had their own secret language, not similar to any other language in the world, with which they communicated, so that nobody would understand them. The harmonic palette of their epics was also something different from that of traditional Ukrainian folk music. In succeeding centuries the Kobzars maintained the Ukrainian soul; thanks to them, Ukrainians remembered their heroic past, their freedom, their independence.
Obviously, sooner or later, the soviet government would understand the danger the Kobzars were to them. In December 1934, a convention of Kobzars was organized in Kharkiv, and they, together with their young guides, were shot. This execution was kept secret and documentation of it was destroyed as if it had never happened.
The film Povodyr is based on demonstrable facts. Even the existence of the American engineer and his son is documented. One of the invented aspects of the film is that an American boy becomes a guide to a Kobzar. Oles Sanin, himself a Kobzar, composer, and maker of musical instruments, was faced with an extremely difficult task: how to tell such a complicated story in a two-hour film in the historical-drama genre? Most of the time, viewers of historical dramas know the context, and know how it will end. But in this case not even all Ukrainians know, let alone foreigners.
The idea for this movie came to Sanin ten years ago, when he came to Hollywood for the screening of his Oscar-nominated film Mamai. Then, as Sanin recalls, one evening the telephone in his hotel room rang. The voice at the other end of the line spoke in Ukrainian: “Are you Oles Sanin?” “Yes”, answered Sanin. “And I am Jack Palance!” Sanin couldn’t believe that the great American actor Jack Palance, of Ukrainian descent with the original name Volodymyr Palanhyuk, had called him. They met and talked until morning. Palance was very interested in Sanin’s work and asked him about his future plans, asking him to show him various scenarios of possible future Ukrainian films. Everything Sanin showed, Palance didn’t like. He told Sanin, “You must come up with something exceptional, something that will show the world what Ukraine is and who Ukrainians are.” From this evening, the idea that would become Povodyr developed little by little. Many people who know the history of the film think that Jack Palance wanted to play the role of the blind Kobzar, according to Sanin, but he says that’s not true. Palance would have played the role of the American boy, but in his old age. He would have been the one explaining to the public, from a later time. Because of the political complications of financing the film, it was delayed eight years, and unfortunately Jack Palance died before it came to fruition. Sanin didn’t want to replace him with someone else, and so he changed the scenario accordingly. But according to Sanin, the spirit of Jack Palance is present in every moment note of the film, and in his dreams, Sanin dedicates the film to him.
The film is not constructed entirely from historical facts, but everything you see in it is authentic. There are no computer graphics or computer user effects in the film. The train and the tractor from the 1930s were restored especially for the film; the thatched-roof house by the Dnipro, the home of the Kobzar’s lover in the movie was constructed by authentic means; and the last scene of the film was done in a working quarry of rare basalt formations in the Rivne region, where the work was stopped for the filming of scenes.
That is not all. All of the blind Kobzars, except for the lead character, were played not by actors but by truly blind people and among them were real Kobzars. For them and for all people of damaged vision, Oles Sanin and his team made a special additional soundtrack, which with the aid of headphones describes the scene on the screen. With this method, 16,000 blind people have already seen the film.
The role of the American boy is played by a true American boy, Anton Sviatoslav Greene, from the city of Ann Arbor in the state of Michigan. After reviewing the applications of more that two thousand boys, Sanin still didn’t have his hero. He needed an extra-terrestrial aura, to understand Ukraine. At the beginning of the film there would be no comprehension of the events this understanding and transformation unfolded later. By September of 2012, many scenes without the boy had already been filmed, and ten days before the deadline, there was still no hero. Sanin began to review videos he had already seen, and then noticed Anton, a nine-year old boy, reciting poetry and playing the piano. Sanin said that at first the video seemed very ordinary, but when Anton started to play the piano, his expression changed, and he crossed over to the world of a musician, a performer. Sanin knew that it was this transformation that he needed. Five days later, Anton Greene flew to Ukraine alone, and his grandmother met him there and stayed with him throughout the three months of filming.
The other main roles are played by Stanislav Boklan, Jamala, Oleksandr Kobzar, and Jeff Burrell.
A film has never been more relevant than this one, when just a year ago the best sons of Ukraine died in the battle of Maydan, and up until this day are dying on the Eastern front. They died in the 1930s and they are dying now. A week ago there was a screening for the Oscar committee, attended by top filmmakers at the best American film school, at the University of Southern California. After the showing, one of the most important American directors approached Sanin and said, “after seeing this film I understand who you Ukrainians are, and why you stood there on the Maydan. Freedom is embedded into your genetic code! I welcome you to our club!”
In the film Povodyr there is a subtitle: “Flowers have Eyes”. This film is not only about one of the greatest Ukrainian tragedies of the 20th century. It is also about love, friendship, trust, hope, and belief in the victory of good over evil. The last words of the Kobzar to his young guide are: “And do you know why flowers always turn to the sun? Because flowers also have eyes, and they know that the dawn will come.”
By Solomia Soroka (Translated from Ukrainian)
Photo: Courtesy of Pronto Film