Bitter Harvest sheds light on Holodomor tragedy
By Agnieszka Krawczynski
A devastating and little-known part of world history is finally receiving some screen time.
A forced starvation campaign in Ukraine that robbed as many as 10 million people of their lives between 1932 and 1933 is the backdrop of BITTER HARVEST.
The devastation took place a few years before the Holocaust, but although World War II became the subject of countless films, the mass genocide called Holodomor received far less attention. That silence is what the filmmakers behind BITTER HARVEST are trying to break.
The cameras begin rolling in a farming village on a peaceful Ukrainian countryside. The townsfolk have strong faith and a sense of pride in their culture and their land.
The fictional villagers (the film is “inspired by” true events) quickly become the targets of a real chapter in history.
In 1928, Joseph Stalin forced Ukrainian farmers to give up their private land, equipment, and livestock to join a collective. The film depicts those who refused being beaten or killed by Stalin’s cronies, who also stormed churches and homes to confiscate anything of value.
About half a million Ukrainians who didn’t want to give up their land were packed into trains bound for Siberia in 1930.
The Holodomor (which means “death by starvation”) began in 1932, when the Soviets raised the Ukrainian farmers’ grain quotas impossibly high and passed a decree saying anyone caught stealing food, even from their own fields, could be arrested or executed. Even children were at risk.
Meanwhile, Stalin, played by Gary Oliver, is shown feasting with supporters. One of them tells him stealing away Ukraine’s grain “will mean the death of millions.”
Stalin replies: “Who in the world will know?”
In the midst of these tragic events are two lovers, Yuri (Max Irons) and Natalka (Samantha Barks). The film’s syrupy tagline – “Stalin’s tyranny could destroy their country, but not their love” – announces that this movie is about them.
That tagline may draw extra viewers looking for a stirring love story, but it doesn’t give BITTER HARVEST enough credit.
Yuri and Natalka try to stay together as their village falls apart in manmade famine and violence. But while their relationship may move the plot along and offer moments of hope, the real story is when desperation and resilience collide.
As Yuri walks through a train station littered with bodies, he dares to seek freedom. His family and fellow villagers draw strength from their convictions, their deep faith, and their love for one another.
Like other films based on true events, BITTER HARVEST is hard to watch, but it shows a truly human face in the midst of so much suffering. Unlike the protagonists of so many new superhero movies, Yuri and other characters do not have special powers. They are simply driven by a love for their country, their people, and their God.
The film also contains one of the most beautiful and haunting soundtracks I have heard in a while, mixing mourning violins and vocals with traditional Ukrainian themes and instruments.
BITTER HARVEST is an educational work about a part of history too few know about. Even the lead actors, Irons and Barks, admitted they only learned about the Holodomor from acting in it. (Unfortunately, while some actors pull off a passable Ukrainian accent, others, including the young couple, sound more British than authentic).
After watching dozens of Ukrainian names scroll by in the credits, I walked out of the theatre and into a disconnect between the film I’d just witnessed and the cinema I saw it in.
Dazzling posters for the likes of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and LEGO BATMAN plastered all over the walls seemed superficial and inconsequential. I stepped into the lobby with its smell of richly buttered popcorn and its buy-one-get-one-free Poptopia coupons.
We’re so unfamiliar with tragedy in the West.