Beliefnet
Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith and media.

In theaters this weekend: Bitter Harvest

Synopsis (from the press release): Based on one of the most overlooked tragedies of the 20th century, Bitter Harvest is a powerful story of love, honor, rebellion and survival as seen through the eyes of two young lovers caught in the ravages of Joseph Stalin’s genocidal policies against Ukraine in the 1930s. As Stalin advances the ambitions of communists in the Kremlin, a young artist named Yuri (Max Irons) battles to survive famine, imprisonment and torture to save his childhood sweetheart Natalka (Samantha Barks) from the “Holodomor,” the death-by-starvation program that ultimately killed millions of Ukrainians. Against this tragic backdrop, Yuri escapes from a Soviet prison and joins the anti-Bolshevik resistance movement as he battles to reunite with Natalka and continue the fight for a free Ukraine. Filmed on location in Ukraine.

Background: First-time screenwriter Canadian actor Richard Bachynsky-Hoover had carved out a comfortable career working steadily in film and TV. He had never written for the screen before but that changed when a visit to his ancestral homeland in Ukraine cause him to become obsessed with telling the story of Stalin’s “Holodomor,” a forced starvation policy that decimated Ukraine’s population in the early 1930s. He spent several years studying Polish, Russian and Ukrainian history books before writing the first draft of the script that would become Bitter Harvest.

In 2011, he approached Toronto-based financier/philanthropist Ian Ihnatowycz with an early version of the script. Ihnatowycz, whose own family fled Ukraine in the late 1940s, sw the importance of telling the story of this terrible famine genocide to a broader global audience and agreed to finance the movie and come aboard as a producer.

1. JWK: You’ve produced a movie before. Why Bitter Harvest?

IAN IHNATOWYCZ: I felt it was an opportunity and almost a mission to produce a feature-length film that would bring knowledge of the Holodomor to the western world.

2. JWK: Had a major motion picture ever tackled the subject before?

II: No, not at all. In fact, there were a number of films made in Ukraine and a number of very good documentary films but really nothing of this size or ambition. It was important to me to make a film that was in the western tradition. You know, Hollywood-style for lack of a better term, with reasonably well-known and accomplished western stars, a great script, great cinematography, great music — and to bring it in a way that would be interesting for western audiences. That had never been done before.  

3. JWK: How is this film personal for you?

II: My background is Ukrainian. My parents came from Ukraine but I was born in Canada. I grew up in Canada (jokes) where I learned all my bad habits.

My family was touched by the reign of terror under Stalin. They lived in West Ukraine which was under Poland at the time (after WWI)…East Ukraine, the majority of the Ukraine’s borders were under Stalin’s control. Although they heard about it and there were food shortages, they were not directly affected by it. However, after the Second World War when they Communists were advancing and the Nazis were retreating and fleeing, many ten of millions of people fled because they knew what it was like — how bad it was under communism and under Stalin. They ended up as refugees in Germany…My parents in 1948 had the opportunity to come to Canada and that’s where I was born. Effectively, I won the world lottery in a sense because I was born in one of the two best countries on Earth — which are Canada and the United States. You compare us to all the other countries and we’ve got it pretty good. 

4. JWK: What do you hope audiences take from Bitter Harvest?

II: It was such a terrible genocide orchestrated by Stalin — and then he completely suppressed it and covered it up. That’s why the rest of the world doesn’t know. So, I am hoping that when people see it, Bitter Harvest will connect people around the world with this tragic part of history and provide some degree of resolution to the survivors and their descendants whose story whose story will finally be told to a wider audience through the medium of cinema. That’s important, I feel, because with a feature-length film you can touch the emotional buttons. By moving audiences with this human drama, the Holodomor death-by-starvation program gets the recognition and awareness that history demands. Although our film is strictly about the Holodomor — it ends in 1933–  many, many have told us that this awareness also provides contextualization for a better of understanding of the challenges faced by modern-day Ukraine.

5. JWK: What is your take about what’s happening there today at the hands of contemporary Russia and Vladimir Putin?

II: There’s the old saying that if you don’t learn from history, you’re bound to repeat its mistakes. Stalin forcefully took Ukraine. He was a murderer. He was awful. In his reign as leader from 1926 to 1953, it wasn’t just the starvation of ’33. He killed 25 million people throughout that reign. It was a reign of terror. My parents fled from that and that is now happening again under Putin. They’ve invaded Crimea. They’ve invaded East Ukraine. You look at what they’re doing in Aleppo, in Georgia, all the other countries, wherever they come in. I mean they’ve been accused of war crimes in Aleppo. That happens just about everywhere they go.

I think that what our film will do is to raise the awareness of people because what is really scary in today’s Russian Federation is that Putin idolizes Stalin and they’re bringing back and glorifying him. He was, in fact, a monster. People in the west should know that he was a monster. (He) killed many, many people and made them suffer horribly. Putin was to recreate the Soviet Union, it seems…It’s something that the west should be aware of and not underestimate and not sit by idly.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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