By David L. Stern and Kostiantyn Khudov
November 1, 2023
The Washington Post
KYIV — A rousing action drama set in 18th-century Ukraine about a legendary Robin Hood-like figure has struck a nerve in the country and become the breakout hit of the fall, with its themes of national self-determination and the struggle against invaders. “Dovbush” has broken box office records and has been seen by more than half a million people and earned close to $2 million — a princely sum for Ukrainian cinema — making it the second-highest-grossing Ukrainian feature film since independence in 1991. “It’s Ukraine’s ‘Braveheart,’ ” said Daniel Bilak, a Canadian living in Ukraine who is one of the movie’s producers and whose family came from Ukraine.
The movie tells the story of Oleksa Dovbush, a historical figure shrouded in myth and the subject of numerous folk songs and stories. “Dovbush” is an opulent tale of love, violence and betrayal set against the backdrop of castles, 18th-century villages and breathtaking Ukrainian landscapes.
Dovbush fought against the Polish gentry — who at the time ruled over his region of western Ukraine — and would swoop down from his lair in the Carpathian mountains with his band of “opryshky,” or outlaws. The money he took from the landowners, he then gave to the poor peasants — at least according to local legends.
It is the country’s first homemade blockbuster, running two hours, with a record-breaking budget (for Ukraine) of some $5 million. Bilak said the film “caught a wave.” “I think it’s quite phenomenal that we’ve had this success during a war, although we’ve probably had this success because we’re in a war,” he said. “I always believed in the success of the movie. I just think that the size has sort of taken me aback.”
The popularity of “Dovbush” provides a window into Ukraine more than a year and a half into Russia’s brutal invasion. It is a nation that is still up for watching movies and in need of a diversion, but also hungers for narratives that reflect the country’s fight for existence.
The movie has also become entwined in the war effort itself, given the power of its message and the emotions it elicits — which hasn’t been lost on Ukrainian officials. Bilak said that more than 12,000 soldiers had seen the movie in different spots around the country — sometimes in open fields near the front line — in showings organized by Ukrainian officials.
The timing of the film’s release was accidental, according to the movie’s makers — and it nearly didn’t get distributed at all. Filming ended in July 2021, while the conflict with Russia was still limited to the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. The next year, with February’s full-scale invasion, the premiere set for May was postponed until the war’s eventual end. But director Oles Sanin, who co-wrote the film, said he convinced distributors to finally release it, because more than a year into the war, Ukrainians had already experienced a “spiritual victory.” “The film is about hope, the film is about heroes who are very relevant now,” Sanin said, shortly before a showing at a veterans’ hospital in central Kyiv. “The importance of this picture is enormous and
the relevance is huge, so we decided to release it now.” Sanin said that he did not want to create a piece of “open propaganda,” which would have been “shameful.”
Bilak said that the government was not involved in the film’s production and “saying ‘you’ve got to put this or that message in.’ ” The state film agency did provide the bulk of the initial financing — some $2.5 million — but in the form of a loan that has to be paid back from the movie’s profits.
For many viewers, the film is “cathartic,” he said. Ukrainians still “have a lot of fight left in them” in the war against Moscow. The film “shows we have a history of fighting for freedom. But we never give up.” Some of those involved in the film say that part of its appeal was that it was historical — even if some of this history is shrouded in folk tales and legend.
One part of the film deals with a meeting between Dovbush and the Baal Shem Tov, the 17th-century founder of Judaism’s Hasidic movement, who allegedly gave refuge to Dovbush when he was on the run from Polish authorities. Legend has it that Dovbush gave him his pipe as a gesture of gratitude.
There is debate whether this meeting, enshrined in folk tale, actually took place, but Luzer Twersky, an American actor who plays the Baal Shem Tov — and a direct descendant of the mystic — said what counts is that this is a wholly Ukrainian story, countering Moscow’s claims that Ukraine is not a separate country from Russia. “[Dovbush] lines up with current events in a really important way, especially considering how much Russia is trying to deny Ukrainian history,” Twersky said by telephone. “This is a historical film. I mean, it’s also mythological history, but national mythology is part of a national history in a way. So I think that that is definitely a huge part of why it’s so popular.”
Twersky recently returned to the United States after spending weeks in Ukraine for the premiere and then appearing at showings. Viewers’ reactions were “very, very emotional — a lot of the comments were just superlatives and not like full, fully formed thoughts,” he said. “I’ve had people come up to me after films and tell me that this was the third or fourth time they’ve seen it — people keep going to see it over and over and over again,” he said.
In the eastern city of Zaporizhzhia, Twersky said he looked at the crowd entering the theater and saw a soldier come in. “A regular kid, you know, and he walks in and he’s clearly coming directly from the front. I mean, he’s barely triaged, right? He’s got fresh bandages. You can see where he’s wearing a makeshift arm sling.”
Twersky said that the image of a soldier arriving directly from the front “really messed with my head — it really brings it home.”
The war is a backdrop at every showing, adding an extra dimension to the action taking place on the screen.
At a screening for dozens of service members at the end of September at a community center outside Kyiv’s center, military officials held a medal ceremony for family members of nine soldiers who had been killed.
The families looked dazed as they received awards for their sons, husbands and fathers. Once seated, one woman stared at the medal and caressed it lightly with her fingertips. “Today we will show you a special picture. This is a historical drama,” said Alyona Starodubova, the center’s director, after the ceremony. “The events that you will see on the screen took place in the 18th century. But how relevant it is today. Exactly what happened to our ancestors is relevant today. History goes in circles.”
After the movie, Galina Koval, 56, whose son Oleksandr Ponomarenko died in August of last year from artillery shelling near Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine, said she liked the film, though it was sometimes difficult to watch the violence. “The violence was terrible because war is terrible,” she said, holding a framed photo of her son that she brought with her and the posthumous medal he received “for courage.” “It was a powerful film,” she said. “I think my son would have liked it very much.”
Anastacia Galouchka contributed to this report.
David L. Stern has worked for news outlets in Russia, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, the Middle East and Central Asia. He has lived in Ukraine since 2009, covering the 2014 Maidan revolution, war in the country’s east and now Russia’s 2022 invasion. Twitter