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Review: Demiurge


- Ukrainian director Olga Semak's first feature-length documentary is an engaging portrait of a village community in which an enthusiastic artist puts his heart into creating theatre

Review: Demiurge

The first feature-length documentary by Ukrainian director Olga Semak, Demiurge [+see also:
interview: Olga Semak
film profile
, is a small-scale story with a big heart, populated by immensely engaging characters, and featuring rich cinematography and dynamic editing.

The protagonist is Petro Panchuk, an accomplished, middle-aged Kyiv theatre actor and director who returned to his home village of Lobachivka, in the north-west of the country, ten years prior to filming, which was in 2020. The documentary opens with archive footage of his childhood hero, a local blacksmith who developed theatre performances in the village, one of the film's rare instances of voice-over in which Panchuk tells of his early fascination with the masks and costumes used in village rituals.

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Together with his wife and three children, Petro brought along his enthusiasm to create a theatre troupe. Apparently, they had initially had some success, but now it is difficult for him to even find three actors in order to stage Chekhov's The Bear. Times have changed, the locals are increasingly leaving in search of a better life in the West, and the youngsters have little interest in what they perceive as an anachronistic art form.

The troupe has thus dissolved, and the only person employed at the community club where they held their plays, Andriy, has got into an argument with Petro. The reasons are unclear, and so is the way it is resolved, this being an almost exclusively observational documentary, save for a remarkable scene, probably shot in a professional Kyiv theatre, where Petro speaks into the mirror as he puts his make-up on.

The lead protagonist has a poetic soul, charisma and an apparently endless supply of energy – early in the film, we see him practising yoga in his yard in cold weather. The film goes through various seasons – there is snow and scorching sun, both palpably captured by cinematographers Serhiy Syvko and Oleksandr Techynskyi (best known as the director and DoP of All Things Ablaze and Delta [+see also:
film review
film profile
) – and this being a farming community, naturalistically filmed exteriors alternate with scenes in the run-down community club. Lighting plays a big role on both fronts and creates a welcome contrast.

But it is the characters that drive the film. Besides the “demiurge” and his wife, who suffers a stroke after the birth of their fourth child, but readily steps into the Chekhov role along with Andriy (with Petro playing the third character), there is the captivating presence of Sveta. An immensely likeable middle-aged woman who both has an administrative job and tends to beetroots and potatoes in the family garden, she puts her heart and soul into the rehearsals early in the film, despite being a total amateur. However, even if she is not a talented actress, she sings like an angel, and does so in the church during Mass.

This is the only place in the film where we can feel a foreshadowing of what is to come in less than six months: half a dozen protagonists in the church sing: “We were baptised when Moscow didn't even exist / So why should my glorious people bow to them?”

It is refreshing to see a Ukrainian documentary that is not driven by social and political issues, and is instead a heartfelt and poignant portrait of everyday people, and their hopes, dreams and enthusiasm. This makes them heroes in their own right.

Demiurge, produced by Ukraine’s Metropolis Film, deserves wider exposure than it has got so far after its world premiere at this year's Galway Film Fleadh.

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