Movie Marker’s Kat Kourbeti talks to Ian Ihnatowycz, producer of Bitter Harvest.
You’re a first time film producer – how’s that experience been for you?
Extraordinary, great learning experience. I realised just how little I knew about filmmaking, but it’s been a wonderful experience and I’d do it again in a flash.
I was about to ask that, actually, if you’ll venture into another film production in the future.
Well, this particular film was extremely important to me, and it felt almost like a mission. I wanted to bring knowledge about the famine genocide, the Holodomor, to the Western world, and that’s why I did it. Working with the stars that we have, Samantha and Max and Tamer and Barry Pepper and Terence Stamp, has been phenomenal. George Mendeluk, our director, all the other producers, our cinematographer Doug Milsome, and Ben Wallfisch who composed the wonderful score… it was a great team of people coming together with a purpose of telling this story.
Tell me a bit about your first meeting with Richard Bachinsky Hoover, the screenwriter. He approached you with the story, didn’t he?
He did, and I said “let me see the script”, and he gave it to me and I was immediately intrigued. It obviously needed a little bit of work, so we got George Mendeluk involved, who as a director is also a screenwriter, and he worked on the script with Richard until they developed ten or twelve different versions of the script, before we got to the point where we thought that it was strong enough to make the film. So I said “let’s go, I’ll finance it.”
I left all of the artistic interpretation and putting all of that together to George Mendeluk, he did all of that. You always need a little bit of poetic licence in telling the story, to make it appealing for the viewer. So he got the actors and all the other people on board. My participation was mainly in post-production, but also in verifying the historic accuracy, that was extremely important to me. I had a team of expert historians verify all of that, so that we could never be criticised or questioned about whether it was true or not. I wanted the historic accuracy to be beyond reproach.
It’s comes through on screen, definitely. The customs and traditions scattered throughout make the film feel very grounded, even to someone completely foreign to the culture.
I’m glad you noticed, because I know that Ukrainians who are familiar with that sort of thing will pick up 95, maybe 99% of those little moments. I’m glad that non-Ukrainians have picked up on them, actually. There are some very interesting Ukrainian customs, rituals, and metaphors that we used throughout, and historic facts that are important of course in telling the story. I’m very proud that we did it that way, cause it adds a little extra interest to the film.
It’s chilling to think these events were kept secret for decades. I couldn’t help but think about the film’s current relevance, and how important it is to seek out the truths that political leaders perhaps don’t want you to know.
That is a very important question. When we originally set out to make the film, it was strictly based on presenting the historic facts. We did not want this to be a political film.But as principal filming was coming to its conclusion, with two days left, the former president of Ukraine, Yanukovych, announced that they were not going to the EU but were going to Moscow instead. All hell broke loose, and there were protest demonstrations in the Independence Square known as the Maidan, and the Revolution of Dignity started, and we left. And so our original objective was to simply present the history, because the West is unaware of it, but since that time with the invasion of Crimea and the war in Donbass in eastern Ukraine, and the aggressive nature of Putin and his military throughout the world, and the cyber attacks, and the fake news in the media and the propaganda they’re spreading… it has become very relevant.
What I hope happens as we start to show the film in theatrical distribution around the world, is that the knowledge of these events will provide the conceptualisation for people to really understand the complexities and challenges that modern-day Ukraine is facing. It’s the old story, that if you don’t know history you’re bound to repeat its mistakes. We can’t understand any country unless we understand its history, and the challenges that its people have gone through. When we see in the world today political leaders idolising former leaders like Stalin, who was a monster who killed 20 or 30 million people in his reign, in addition to the people he murdered during the famine genocide, it’s a scary thought. I think the world needs to be aware of that fact and never forget it, so that things that happened under Stalin are never repeated again.
You could have filmed this anywhere, but you chose to actually go with a Ukrainian crew on location where the events of Holodomor actually happened. Was that harder than the opposite? Would you do anything differently, knowing what you know now as a film producer?
Oh, no, we would do it exactly the same. We intentionally wanted to film in Ukraine, the land where it actually happened. We wanted the authenticity of the villages and the scenery of the beautiful countryside there, and we had Dougie Milsome, our cinematographer, who captured those scenes beautifully. We also wanted to work with Ukrainian filmmakers and actors, and I’m proud to say the interaction between the Ukrainian crews and the British and Canadian crews was phenomenal.
They were very emotional, the Ukrainian crews, during production, because virtually everyone in Ukraine has family that perished or suffered and survived through the Holodomor, and they all have stories to tell. It’s very close to their hearts, and it’s an open, festering wound because even after it was over, Stalin forbade people to talk about it. It was never resolved. People couldn’t talk about it under penalty of imprisonment or execution, and until the Soviet Union fell apart people just didn’t talk about it. So it’s only now that they’re coming to that resolution, and it’s very painful, but it’s something that needs to be resolved and to be healed.
I was there for about half the filming time, and I noticed the crew being very emotional during the filming of several scenes, and when I asked them about it they said it reminded them of the stories their grandparents used to tell them about that time. Many of them would remark on how realistic the film is in terms of what they experienced, and in fact they experienced much worse, but we couldn’t show it as it would’ve been too harsh. The western actors and crew really experienced that as well, and it pulled the morale together so that everybody wanted to make this the best film they possibly could.
Where will the film be showing?
Everywhere – we’re in theatrical distribution in 45 countries. Every continent, every major country in the world, from the end of February in most places. We’re approaching 90 to 100 companies for TV and VOD as well, in territories that don’t have theatrical distribution. We just want to spread this story as far and wide as we can, because I think it helps people, and hopefully the leaders of the democracies of the world as well, to understand how important it is to stand together against others who want to wash away what happened and what Stalin did, and who might even want to repeat the monstrosities that he was known for.
Bitter Harvest is in cinemas now. Read our review here.