Famine 33 (1992): Ukrainian Drama about the Tragedy in which 7 Million Died

(Holod 33)

It took 57 years for the Central Committee of the Ukrainian Communist Party to officially acknowledge that the 1933 famine, in which over 7 million people died, was actually instigated by Stalin.

Famine 33, Oles Yanchuk’s feature film debut, pays tribute to this historical disaster, omitted until recently from most Soviet textbooks. Pic’s astonishing physical spectacle and emotional power should make it a welcomed entry in international fests and retrospectives of new Eastern European cinema.

In l933, frustrated by the slow progress of the revolution, Stalin began a forced collectivization of agriculture. Innocent framers were suddenly labelled by the state “enemies of the people.” Loosely based on “The Yellow Prince,” a popular novel about the famine, co-scripters Diachenko and Taniuk have fashioned a story that focuses on one family’s struggle and demise.

Through the eyes of Katrannyk, his wife Kateryna, and their three children, pic shows the devastating effects of the mass famine caused by the state’s seizure of crops. It forcefully chronicles the brutality of Stalin’s army, their raids on fields and physical torture of farmers. But even more stirring are sequences depicting betrayal of people by friends, stealing of children, and cannibalism–often within families. Death is everywhere: the ground is covered with bodies; desolate farmers hang themselves on trees.

In its long takes and lyrical style, pic may remind viewers of late Russian director Tarkovsky. Juxtaposing black and white with color, Yanchuk contrasts harsh present with idealized color flashbacks. After one son starves to death, helmer inserts a color sequence of family sitting around a plentiful table. Pic contains many lyrical and expressive tableaux, like one depicting the entire family eating out of a single soup bowl.

Among many strong scenes is one in which Kateryna goes to a store trading in foreign goods and exchanges her rings for flour. At the same time, a society lady buys a Japanese necklace and pays 450 US dollars in cash!

Occasionally, the helmer loses grip of his story and gets carried away with visual documentation. Pic’s longest sequence describes nasty massacre of farmers. Train loads of frozen farmers, some still alive, are dumped like garbage into a burial site. Using familiar imagery from docus about the Holocaust, Yanchuk consciously establishes a link between genocides conducted by Stalin and Hitler.

At the end, only the youngest son survives. But Yanchuk opts for a symbolic coda–a freeze-frame of boy’s recollection of his family running wild in the green fields.

Shot on location in the Ukraine, stylized pic is filled with visual pleasures. Borotin and Kretov’s camera takes on an aggressive personality of its own, panning across the landscapes, showing characters in impressive long-shots, then scrutinizing their faces in intimate close-ups. Evocative lensing is aided by proficient editing that smoothly integrate flashbacks into story. In one of those bizarre historical coincidences, Famine 33 premiered on Ukrainian television in December l991, on the eve of a referendum in which Ukrainians voted for independence from the Soviet Union.

One point that may stir up controversy is pic’s claim that Walter Duranty, a N.Y. Times reporter who visited in the Soviet Union, knew about famine but assisted in its cover-up.


Ukrainian Drama