Prague’s Ponrepo cinema to screen existentialist masterpiece “Arsenal” as part of series exploring Ukrainian filmmaking

Oleksandr Dovzhenko, Arsenal

Ponrepo, the Prague cinema administered by the National Film Archive, will be screening a very special film this Tuesday evening. Arsenal is a revolutionary epic that depicts the January workers uprising in Kyiv in 1918. Directed by the famous Ukrainian-Soviet director Oleksandr Dovzhenko, it is considered to be the most prominent expressionist film in Ukrainian cinematography and was voted one of the best films of the year by the American National Board of Review when it came out in 1929.

When the average film fan is asked about early-Soviet cinema, the first name they are likely to come up with is Sergei Eisenstein. However, there were also other key proponents of what is commonly known as Soviet montage theory. Among them was the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleksandr Dovzhenko, who made several critically acclaimed films during the inter-war period.

Kino Ponrepo | Photo:  Jörg Pranger,  Radio Prague International

It will be his film Arsenal that viewers will be able to see at a screening at Prague’s Ponrepo cinema this Tuesday from 8:30pm. The 58-minute-long film recalls an episode from the Russian Civil War. Specifically January 1918, when an uprising of workers in Kyiv aided the besieging Bolshevik army against the forces of the Ukrainian national Parliament who were in control of the city at the time.

The chief person behind the selection of this controversial piece of early-Soviet filmmaking is Dr Larysa Naumova, a Ukrainian film expert currently working for the Institute of Art History at the Czech Academy of Sciences.

“The film contains a variety of experimental techniques, and has a unique form and style. It is the most symbolic and mysterious of Dovzhenko’s films.

"It is the most symbolic and mysterious of Dovzhenko’s films. The director himself took part in the events that are portrayed in the movie."

“The director himself took part in the events that are portrayed in the movie. However, not on the side of the Bolshevik protagonists, but rather on the side of those who were fighting for the independence of Ukraine.

“He had to make them the antagonists in the 1929 Soviet film and that whole side of things – his own experience and the version he had to portray in the film – is very interesting by itself.”

The screening of the silent-era film will be accompanied by music performed by the up-and-coming Czech composer Ian Mikyska, who will be playing an electric guitar and the viola de gamba. He will be accompanied by his colleague Jaroslav Noga on drums and percussion.

“I have been working with Ponrepo for a while, on several of their films. They invited us back for this film and this time we actually had a little input in regards to the selection, so we decided to go for something with more courageous editing, which is something that you find in a lot of early Soviet cinema.

“It works well with the kind of musical freedom that we are looking for, so that’s what led us to choose this film. We haven’t chosen any specific musical piece. It’s all going to be improvised tonight.”

The whole screening is part of a larger ongoing series going on at Ponrepo that seeks to introduce Ukrainian cinematography and its evolution to Czech viewers, says Dr Naumova.

“Aside from that, I would also like this project to serve as a sort of introduction to Ukrainian culture and history to the Czech public.

“This is why each film is also subsequently followed by a discussion where leading Ukrainian academics, who are currently based in this country due to the war, will be able to share their thoughts on the history, culture, philosophy and traditions of Ukraine.”

"I would also like this project to serve as a sort of introduction to Ukrainian culture and history to the Czech public."

The expert taking questions from viewers this Tuesday will be Dr Valeria Korablyova, a professor of philosophy at Kyiv’s Taras Shevchenko National University who is currently based at Charles University in Prague.

Asked about what other films she has chosen to be screened as part of the series, Dr Naumova says that they will include Koliyivshchyna, a 1933 film directed by Dovzhenko’s contemporary Ivan Kavaleridze.

“The project will also include later Ukrainian films, such as Kira Muratova’s 1971 movie The Long Farewell or Ivan Mykolaichuk’s Babylon XX.”

A description of the Ukrainian cinematography project at Ponrepo, as well as more details on the individual films can be found on the cinema’s website.