oDR: Feature

Scandal erupts over fate of legendary Ukrainian film archive

Ukraine’s state film agency wants to ‘reorganise’ the Dovzhenko Center. Opponents say the plan puts its legacy at risk

Maryna Yakovenko
7 September 2022, 3.24pm

The Dovzhenko Center in Kyiv is housed in a former film factory

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Aliona Solomadina

One of Ukraine’s most important cultural institutions is under threat, say opponents of plans to reorganise Kyiv’s Dovzhenko Center.

The Center, founded in 1994 and named after one of the country’s most famous 20th-century film artists, director Oleksandr Dovzhenko, is dedicated to preserving Ukrainian film culture.

Its extensive archive houses copies of early Soviet-Ukrainian masterpieces including Dovzhenko’s ‘Arsenal’ (1929) and ‘Earth’ (1930), and the 1929 classic ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ by avant-garde director Dziga Vertov. Since 2015, it’s also been open to the public, with a film museum and library, performance space, and bookshop.

But in August, Ukraine’s state film agency (known as Derzhkino) announced its intention to “reorganise” the centre. The proposal – which aims to split it into three separate institutions – has prompted a fierce debate about cultural policy during wartime, and a public campaign in the centre’s defence.

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Employees at the centre believe the plans could lead to the liquidation of Ukraine’s national film archive, which has gained international recognition for its work in preserving 20th-century classics. They also fear for their jobs.

“For many years, we have been proud to preserve our film heritage. And bring it home,” Oleksandr Telyuk, head of the film archive, told openDemocracy. “Part of the film archive was housed in Moscow in the 1990s and 2000s – we did a great job getting it back to Ukraine.

“We can say with absolute certainty that moving [the centre] will harm our collection. When archiving and preserving this heritage, the first rule is: do no harm.

“When the Russian army was outside Kyiv, we discussed at great length whether or not to evacuate our collection. We decided not to because this material is very sensitive to light and temperature.”

The liquidation of archives, sources of historical memory, especially during wartime, is nothing more than sabotage at the rearguard of one’s own culture

Ivan Kozlenko, former director of the Dovzhenko Center

Opponents claim Derzhkino’s proposal has been influenced by property development interests; the Dovzhenko Center occupies prime real estate south of the city centre, and high-rise buildings have sprung up around it in recent years. The agency is allegedly interested in receiving rental income from the property.

Derzhkino denies these accusations, saying its objective is to put the archive into the hands of “competent museum workers” – and that the move is connected to the Ukrainian government’s efforts at making state-owned companies more efficient.

Derzhkino’s reorganisation plans

Derzhkino took control of the Dovzhenko Center in July (previously, it had been under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture).

Almost immediately, the agency’s head, Maryna Kuderchuk, announced – vaguely – that “reorganisation” was needed in order for the institution to “move on”. Derzhkino later released a formal statement on the future of the centre, focusing on its supposed unprofitability and inefficiency.

The reorganisation plan proposes to create three separate entities to replace the current institution: a research archive that would house the institution’s 10,000 domestic and foreign films and archival materials on Ukrainian film history; an animation studio, which would get copyright over any animated films in the centre’s possession; and the Dovzhenko Center itself, which would focus solely on public events.

Kuderchuk claimed that an audit had shown the unsatisfactory results of work by the centre’s current leadership. But the audit has never been published, a decision explained by the agency’s unwillingness to air “dirty linen in public” in wartime.

Employees of the Dovzhenko Center and the wider Ukrainian film community believe claims that the institution is unprofitable are exaggerated.

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The Center has become a hub for public events and film screenings

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Dovzhenko Center / Facebook

Ivan Kozlenko, head of the centre from 2014 to 2021, says it not only returned the subsidy provided by the state in full, but also increased the income it raised, from 0.5m hryvnia (£11,000) in 2016 to 2.4m hryvnia (£60,000) in 2020. It also repaired nearly 50% of the premises between 2016 and 2020 – without asking the state for funding.

The institution’s cinema theorist, Alona Penzii, takes a different line. She says the centre should not focus on financial profit but on its “public capital” – that is, the cultural value of its assets (both tangible and intangible) and opportunities to increase that value.

People working in the centre will be able to work in a new institution and continue to do the work they did before

Yulia Shevchuk, deputy head of Derzhkino

As to the overall idea behind Derzhkino’s reorganisation plan, Kozlenko said: “The liquidation of archives, sources of historical memory, especially during wartime, is nothing more than sabotage at the rearguard of one’s own culture.”

Deputy head of Derzhkino, Yulia Shevchuk, stated that “people working in the centre will be able to work in a new institution and continue to do the work they did before.”

Is it all about property?

Dovzhenko Center workers have complained in recent years about underfunding and salary cuts, which, they say, are because the institution has fallen out of favour.

According to Maryna Skirda, its chief art historian, the state film agency wants to leave the centre in poor financial health and saddled with debts. This could lead to its bankruptcy and liquidation, Skirda says, which would be followed by “negotiations with investors and developers”.

She points out that property immediately surrounding the existing building has “long been sold and construction is under way on it”.

“Previously, the developers contacted us, and in the debate we made some mutually beneficial conditions for coexistence. But now they have found their way to the heart of [the state film agency] and are negotiating [with them] directly.”

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Critics suggest that the Dovzhenko Center (pictured prior to construction) is falling prey to property developers – much like other historic buildings in the Ukrainian capital

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Dovzhenko Center / Facebook

In situations involving the liquidation or sale of state institutions in Kyiv, large property developers who act as “grey cardinals” often manipulate regulators and law enforcement to ensure their takeover of desirable land.

In the case of Dovzhenko Center, the current development company is A Development, which is building three 24-storey blocks of flats around the edge of the centre’s land.

Ivan Kozlenko says that the centre has an agreement with A Development – a 2016 memorandum that says the developer will not attempt to purchase the centre’s building, but can use part of its territory for construction purposes.

In addition, A Development also promised to restore and pay for the overhaul of the institution while still maintaining its modernist facade – an investment worth approximately 27 million hryvnia (£600,000). Kozlenko says Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture would never have allocated this level of funding to the centre.

Kozlenko says he has no reason not to trust the main investor behind the property development, Oleksiy Baranov, who has stated that he has no plans to buy or develop the centre’s own building.

“Now all real estate in Kyiv is worth nearly nothing because of the war,” Baranov said. “I don’t need these premises.”

Kyiv has many interesting and valuable buildings from the Soviet era, but they are being destroyed without a second thought

Ksenia Semenova, Kyiv city deputy

According to Kozlenko, the fault lies with Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture, which refused to sign the agreement between the centre and A Development in 2016. Kozlenko has previously claimed that the ministry has no interest in developing the centre and in effect wants to get it off the state’s books.

Instead, in February this year, the Kyiv prosecutor’s office accused a former director of A Development of using the memorandum to unlawfully seize part of the centre’s property in order to build a shopping complex and sports centre.

“It was clear that all the land belonging to the centre was of interest to developers,” Kozlenko says, referring not to A Development, but other, as yet unidentified property developers.

Kyiv city council deputy Ksenia Semenova, who follows the fate of modernist buildings in the Ukrainian capital, says that A Development could easily give the premises of the Dovzhenko Center for privatisation to another, less ‘decent’ developer in the future.

“These kind of suspicions arise because this problem is quite typical for Kyiv,” Semenova told openDemocracy.

“Kyiv has many interesting and valuable buildings from the Soviet era, but they are being destroyed without a second thought,” Semenova said, pointing to a case last year where a late Soviet modernist building in the Ukrainian capital, Flowers of Ukraine, was purchased by a developer – who damaged part of its unique facade in the process.

In response to that situation, Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigations started a criminal case against the architectural experts who made an official recommendation to include the Flowers of Ukraine building on a cultural heritage list – a move activists have interpreted as an ‘act of revenge’ for protecting the building.

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Flowers of Ukraine is another historic Kyiv building that has been targeted for development

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CC BY SA 4.0 Dimant / Wikipedia. Some rights reserved

What’s next

Despite the scandal in Kyiv’s cultural and film scene over the Dovzhenko Center, Derzhkino appears uninterested in compromise. On the contrary, agency representatives give more and more interviews to explain why reorganisation is necessary for the Dovzhenko Center.

Speakers for Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture, as well as the parliamentary committee on cultural policy, tend to shift responsibility for the matter to the state film agency.

Ukrainian culture minister Oleksandr Tkachenko told openDemocracy that the agency had pushed ahead with the reorganisation plans without consulting the Ministry of Culture, and that preserving the archive and centre was a priority for the ministry.

The Ukrainian parliamentary committee on culture also expressed their solidarity with the centre, unanimously voting for an appeal to the Ukrainian government to cancel the reorganisation order in late August.

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Inside the Dovzhenko Center

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Dovzhenko Center

But supporters of the Dovzhenko Center believe the head of a different committee – the parliamentary subcommittee on cinema – is a ‘protector’ for the director of Derzhkino.

Ivan Kozlenko claimed MP Pavlo Sushko, a member of the ruling Servant of the People party, and Tkachenko, alongside the state film agency, were responsible for the reorganisation in a recent open letter.

Speaking to openDemocracy, Sushko refuted Kozlenko’s accusations. “I have always stood for the preservation of film heritage, for the preservation of state property, for the proper storage of historic films, for the proper financing of the film industry. Including the Dovzhenko Center,” Sushko said.

Ukrainian film directors, actors, cultural managers and producers oppose the decision to reorganise the Dovzhenko Center – and are concerned about the future fate of its unique collections. The co-founder of the Odesa film festival Denys Ivanov, for example, said that “any conscious person should resist this sabotage”. Since 17 August, a petition to the Ukrainian president to cancel Derzhkino’s order has already gained 21,000 signatures out of the 25,000 necessary for Volodymyr Zelenskyi to consider it.

But the final say still belongs to Derzhkino. “I believe it’s not the right time [for the campaign to protect the centre] when there’s war in the country, when the main aim is to protect everything,” agency head Maryna Kuderchuk said. “These kinds of issues are definitely not solved by petitions to the president.”

Top image: Aliona Solomadina.

12 September: Alona Penzii's name was corrected.

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