Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

#Film or no film?

On the causes and effects of a scandal around the film about Vasyl Stus, or when the truth “does not fit the runtime”
15 August, 2018 - 16:46

According to the announcement, the film about Vasyl Stus, which won the Ukrainian State Film Agency’s (Derzhkino’s) 10th competitive selection, deals with bright pages in the life and a Sixtier poet and his mysterious death. As the authors noted, events “unfold during the KGB’s last attempt to tempt the poet with ‘freedom.’” Quite logically, Ukrainian audiences expected to see a truthful story of Stus’ arrest, a false “accusation of anti-Soviet propaganda,” and, finally, the trial after which the poet was sent into exile which was tantamount to a death sentence because he never came back. But, according to actor Hennadii Popenko, the authors did not shoot all the scenes and offered spectators half-truth, concealing inactivity of Viktor Medvedchuk, Stus’ lawyer at that time and an oligarch now.


The film’s shooting ended in late July. It is planned to premiere it in February 2019. Everything would be OK if Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroisman had not posted a video clip on hid Facebook page on August 8. He announced joyously that a full-length film had been made about Vasyl Stus, with about half of the picture’s budget (20 million hryvnias) coming from Ukrainian state coffers. Readers inquired in comments about who was to play the role of Stus’ lawyer Medvedchuk. “He is a tragically significant figure in the life of Vasyl Stus. It is Medvedchuk who defended in court the Ukrainian poet who was eventually sentenced to exile from which he never came back,” Natalie Sedletska commented. But Alexander Derkach writes that “there will be no such character in the film.” In other words, this antihero was in the script, an actor was cast to play him, but the scene was cut out.

Actor Hennadii Popenko confirmed this fact on August 10. He wrote in Facebook that, according to those who take part in the making of the full-length film The Bird of Soul, directed by Roman Brovko and written by Serhii Dziuba and Artemii Kirsanov, the trial scene had really been deleted. “It was withdrawn from the shooting schedule without prior notice. There is no longer such a character as Medvedchuk in the film. But an actor was cast for this role. He was preparing to play,” Popenko wrote. The actor added that, in all probability, what caused the mysterious disappearance was the fact that “producers received a call from Medvedchuk’s inner circle and told to remove the scene of Stus’ trial if they wanted to shoot the film to the end and didn’t want provocations.”


Popenko’s post gathered thousands of likes in 24 hours, causing quite a stir. On the whole, 13,000 users reposted and more than 950 commented on it.

“The situation with the Vasyl Stus film is shameful. The public must not leave this intact – not only because a half of the film’s budget (20 million hryvnias) is money from Ukraine’s national budget but, above all, because Medvedchuk is a significant figure in the life of Stus (as well as in the life of Lytvyn). And even if – just in theory – nobody phoned from him, the story of the Poet cannot be told without this tragic episode in which Medvedchuk was involved because this amounts to a selectively suppressed story, and doesn’t matter whether it was suppressed intentionally or through stupidity. You don’t have to be a serious analyst to understand who stands to gain,” poet Serhii Tatchyn said in a comment on the situation, as did a lot of other Ukrainian writers and cultural figures.

Donetsk National University, which is named after Vasyl Stus, chose not to comment, while Stus’ son Dmytro said in a video clip posted in the film’s official Facebook page that the 1980s situation is being absolutized. “Undoubtedly, the defense attorney behaved inadequately. But many people behaved inadequately in those conditions. And if the point had been in the lawyer only, this wouldn’t have had any impact. Let us then recall investigators and the people who worked in ideological institutions. Let us then speak about all the other things if we are prepared for a conversation like this,” he says.


The public heatedly debated about the film scandal for several days, demanding explanations from Minister Nyshchuk, Derzhkino, and a response from the prime minister. The latter did it quickly. Hroisman wrote on his Facebook page on August 11 that he had instructed the Ministry of Culture and the Ukrainian State Film Agency to urgently gather this film’s makers and the public and do their best to avoid any distortions in the film about the Ukrainian poet and dissident Vasyl Stus – the picture should be shown truthfully and completely.

On the same day, a few hours later, the film’s authors made an official statement, promising to re-shoot the scene of the Stus trial, including the dissident’s lawyer Medvedchuk, in the immediate future. The film crew also admitted that, removing, among other things, this scene from the latest draft script, they “took an insufficiently serious approach to analyzing its importance for society.” Earlier, film director Brovko had explained to the media that the decision to remove Medvedchuk was made “in order to keep the dissident’s family emotionally calm and reduce the runtime,” as well as because the film crew was afraid that Medvedchuk might sue them in case some scenes were not true to fact.


Olha Koliastruk, Doctor of Sciences (History), a professor at Vinnytsia State Pedagogical University, believes that this situation must not be ignored even if the conflict is resolved and the film crew resumes shooting the film, particularly the trial scene. For we have another Stus now – Oleh Sentsov who has already turned from a political prisoner into a dissident. If you compare their life stories, you can find many points of contact. Therefore, if we forgive the system for maltreating Stus, we will thus repudiate Sentsov, displaying Soviet slavish obedience again.

“This situation is a bitter symptom for Ukrainian society. We are reading our history just nominally again, we do not plumb its depths, and we are not learning the ethic and moral lesson we need in order to hold out. If a director cuts out a scene that is supposed to show opposition to the system in a court of law and thinks that it can be deleted in order to reduce runtime, why then he took up this hard work, the truth?” Koliastruk asks. “Stus is a poet of enormous height, and he is not easy to read because this requires one to show the philosophy of thought and the ability to rise to him. He cannot be read for several hours in a row. You should read a few lines and analyze. He demands being prepared to reach his level. And the question is: are we all prepared to be at the same height with him?”

The situation around the Stus film shows that there are still people in Ukraine, who influence not only political and business processes, but also journalism, art, and cinema. In other words, they are dictating what should be shown and who to. So, the question remains open: what are we going to see at the premiere of the film about Vasyl Stus – truth or half-truth?

By Olesia SHUTKEVYCH, The Day, Vinnytsia