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In Features, Issues

THE ODESSA CONNECTION

BY MIKE PLANTE

PHOTO BY: LISA MARR

One way to overcome today‘s dismal theatrical distribution is to take your films, a projector and hit the road. Much like a garage band on tour, filmmakers are finding love from audiences directly in microcinemas, clubs, galleries, warehouses, and anywhere else with chairs and a sound system. American artist and filmmaker Naomi Uman is one who has embraced this form of DIY theatrical distribution, but she‘s taking it much farther than most of her peers. She is touring her films to the Ukraine.

Last year, while exploring family roots in the country, Uman lived in Legedzine, a small village, and made a film — employing the same diary film style as seen in past works Leche and Mala Leche — about the people there. When her friends Paolo Davanzo and Lisa Marr, the duo behind the Echo Park Film Center in Los Angeles, visited Uman in the village, the three decided to explore the country while showing films and making music. They rented a van, bought a gas-powered generator, and headed out.

NAOMI UMAN SCREENS FILM IN UKRAINE. PHOTO BY: LISA MARR

“We had no plans and no gigs,” Uman explains. “I had a rudimentary working knowledge of Russian/Ukrainian. We had some maps. We decided to make a big circle around the country during our month-long tour, stopping back at home for a break of a few days.”

Once in a new town, they simply asked for permission to do a screening from someone who might be “in charge.” A la the Blues Brothers, they walked or drove around, advertising the show over their speaker system, handed out stickers and buttons, and invited people one by one.

“It was often pure comedy,” Uman says, “with xenophobic Ukrainians unused to anyone different, or anyone doing something simply for the sheer pleasure of doing it and not for any personal or political gain. We screened in Odessa at a small oceanside bar near our hotel where one Russian man who was vacationing there told his son, who had been politely captivated by our show, that we were ‘orange Americans‘ who were showing ‘shit.‘ We showed in a tiny village, the birthplace of Ukrainian hero Bogdan Khmelitsky, where we were thanked profusely and given huge sunflowers at the end of the show. We showed in big cities, guerilla-style in plazas or parks in the center of town. We had a screening in an underground room in the Museum of the Idea in Lviv, a gig organized at the last minute by a friend of a friend.”

Uman says she is not sure what the average Ukrainian‘s usual access to cinema is because she lives in such an isolated small village. In that town the citizens used to watch films twice a week in a local 35mm house but today the films are too expensive to rent, and if the building doesn‘t get repairs soon the roof will fall in.

On Uman‘s tour the films were language neutral and from around the world, including Oira, a historical fiction film about the Ukraine made by Vlad Chabaniuk, a filmmaker/archeologist from Uman‘s village. Uman also screened her own short Kalendar, the first from her new series of films made in the village called Ukrainian Time Machine. “It was quite amazing,” Uman says about the audience reaction. “Unaccustomed to silent film, they felt free to add their own running commentary. It was so beautiful to hear them commenting about the months and my accuracy in filming, and they laughed heartily at the month of September (with all the passing vehicles) on different occasions.”

After some time in the States, Uman is back in the Ukraine, not really on tour but living in the village again, showing her neighbors the films she made on the tour depicting their land.

“I had my screenings in the village clubhouse on my own 16mm projector,” Uman says. “They loved seeing themselves and they loved seeing some folks who have died in the time since I shot the films. Also, many people said to me, ‘This is the way that we live, you have captured that. We ourselves could never have made this film. We do not see these things about ourselves as something to film, yet you have made a truly accurate portrait of our lives.‘”Naomi Uman‘s Ukrainian Time Machine is close to being finished and will be hitting film festivals next year.



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