- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 19, 2017

The creators of the new film “Bitter Harvest” believe that audiences instinctively have a feel for what makes a Holocaust movie. But few in the West, they say, know much about the “Holodomor,” Stalin’s death-by-starvation pogrom against Ukraine in the late 1920s and 1930s that ultimately resulted in the deaths of millions.

Even less have seen it ever represented on film.

“There are lot of people who think socialism and communism are a good thing, and those who have lived it and experienced it know how bad and monstrous it is,” said producer Ian Ihnatowycz, whose ancestors escaped from Stalin’s purges to Canada while they still could. “You can only enforce communism at the point of a gun because people resist.”

Estimates of the death toll of the “Holdomor” are in the millions by the time of Stalin’s death in 1953.

“Bitter Harvest” opens on an idyllic Ukrainian village not long after the Russian Revolution, with people believing that Lenin’s reforms and the tossing out of the czars will bring a new dawn to the land. Young Yuri (Max Irons) dreams of moving to Kiev to become an artist and earn enough to marry his sweetheart Natalka (Samantha Banks).

But then Lenin dies, Stalin sweeps into power and, nearly overnight, institutes a despotic cloud over the entire Soviet empire.

“Communism promised this great brotherhood of workers and society, and it was bogus,” Mr. Ihnatowycz said. “Stalin realized that food could be a weapon. In 1931-33, he decided to really clamp down on the technique of starving people into submission.

“Most people in the West may know fleetingly of it but don’t really know a lot of the history.”

In the film Yuri is hurried away from his village when the Soviets begin reigning down terror. In Kiev he joins an upstart underground — all the while painting. “Bitter Harvest” becomes by turns historical epic in the mold of David Lean, a melodrama and, at times, an action picture.

Like his producer, director George Mendeluk’s ancestors escaped the Ukrainian genocide. Mr. Mendeluk was born in Germany before he too migrated to Canada.

“One of the things we want to offer is to educate as well as entertain,” Mr. Mendeluk said of his film. “I don’t want people to lost sight that … Ukraine isn’t the little Ukraine that Russia always talks about. Russia evolved out of Ukraine. It has its own identity that precedes even the Russian identity.”

“Bitter Harvest” shot much of its footage in Ukraine, often with Ukrainian actors and crew members. Many of them, the producer said, wept during the filming.

“I asked once ‘Why are you so emotional?’ They said [the scenes] remind us of stories” told to them by their grandparents, Mr. Ihnatowycz recalled.

In 2014 Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed the disputed Crimean Peninsula. Messrs Mendeluk and Ihnatowycz see some unfortunate parallels with the Russian media apparatus of today and the state-sanctioned oppression of the time portrayed in “Bitter Harvest.”

“Under Putin, the position is the famine was a hoax,” Mr. Ihnatowycz said. “Out come the deniers.”

Mr. Mendeluk said some brave writers at the time of the Holodomor attempted to get the word out about the starvation, while other Soviet-controlled media referred only to “widespread malnutrition.”

“Masters of euphemism,” Mr. Mendeluk said.

“Bitter Harvest,” which opens Thursday in the District, will be showing in over 40 countries around the world, including many of the former Soviet republics. It opens in Ukraine Thursday as well.

And while tens of millions perished in Stalin’s Holodomor, Mr. Ihnatowycz notes that many, many more Ukrainians survived, as have their descendents.

“It was awful, but the country lives on,” he said. “The country was left leaderless for three generations, but it did not die, and I think that’s a true testament to the strength of the spirit and the capacity for love that all Ukrainians have.”

Mr. Mendeluk hopes “Bitter Harvest” might also be the beginning of a future thriving film industry in his ancestral homeland.

“I’d like to foster a greater film industry in the Ukraine, but always showing Ukrainian culture and indomitable spirit,” he said.

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