My Problems With: Bitter Harvest, and Dramatising a Historical Tragedy

SPOILERS!!!!! This article contains spoilers for the movie Bitter Harvest. You have been warned.

I was originally going to separate blog reviews for my best and worst films of 2017. While that idea was eventually scrapped and I just did an uncomplicated list form, the idea that I express why I loved or hated certain movies in more detail kind of stuck with me. So, as a break with my MCU retrospective, I shall be doing blogs exploring certain aspects of films I loved and hated from 2017 and why exactly they worked or didn’t for me.

Bitter Harvest is a romantic melodrama set during the Holodomor. For the uninitiated, it was a man-made famine in Ukraine during the USSR’s forced collectivisation policy during 1932-1933. This is a rather hotly debated point in history, but I have no interest in really discussing this. Nor do I really care about historical accuracy; it’s a movie. I think dramatising the Holodomor could be fascinating and tragic, but unfortunately this film fails to get across that in a very compelling way. Here’s why I think it fails in its mission to make audiences connect with this horrific famine.

Oversimplification of Conflict

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This movie borders on being propagandistic. Its intent is to inform people of the Holodomor and do so through an emotional connection. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even with how loaded the word ‘propaganda’ is, and certainly if the movie was better at executing these ideas it wouldn’t be so high on my worst list. The issue is more in how broad and simplistic everything is depicted. The good guys are good and the bad guys are bad.

That doesn’t mean you should give a cuddly depiction of the Soviet Union-that would be ridiculous. But their depiction in this film is so arch and silly that it’s kind of hard to take them seriously as a threat. Stalin is basically a cartoon character, and he’s hilarious in just how nasty and evil he is. I thought they’d go more into the broader politics within the USSR that led to this situation, especially as they kept cutting back to him early on, but nope! We have three scenes, including a hilariously on-the-nose cut from a man praising how Stalin works to provide workers with equal share to him dining in luxury.

I’ll go more into characterisations in a minute, but it’s not just the USSR that get the simplistic treatment. The film has this intensely on the nose colour palette that lights and sunny and great at the beginning, but gets noticeably uglier and darker as the famine wreaks havoc. This would be fine (if magnificently unsubtle) on its own, but it depicts Ukraine as a bit too picturesque and perfect, while also having Terence Stamp’s character outline how they still need to fight for their people. Even having this be a depiction of the protagonist’s naivety, he should at that point be aware of the issues his country faces.

There are smaller things like this as well: the rejection of technology vs the romanticisation of traditionalism (though this is brought up because the Ukrainians reject tractors given by the Soviets, which could be more them rejecting that which they are using to control them, but the film doesn’t outline this), the adherence to religion and spirituality making the antagonist an outspoken atheist. There’s just a lot of black and white framing here, and it’s a shame that such an ugly and devastating event is summed up in such a binary way.

The few attempts it does make to give more nuance are either minute or handwaved away. There’s a Soviet agent near the end who helps our hero expressing his guilt over what’s happening in Ukraine. This is great, but he’s barely a character and is out of the movie as fast as he’s in. it’s not that they can’t be villainous and compelling characters as well. The Death of Stalin depicts the Central Committee as corrupt and underhanded, but they’re a lot more human wrapped up in a system they’re grasping to control. If you want people to grasp onto the reality of this situation, you have to make the events feel real, not this binary reduction.

Everything is Underdeveloped to Make Room for Everything

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This movie has a habit of trying to shove Every Bad Thing That Ever Happened Ever ™ into the narrative, and it makes everything incredibly undercooked and hastily developed. It will distract from the main focus of the plot to essentially make the Bolsheviks look bad, which I’m not against on principle, but even ignoring the last point of the binary framing, do we really need to oversell the idea that the Soviet Union was kind of fucked up and authoritarian?

We have scenes of men being violently removed from trains for speaking against the USSR, we have the lead character joining a small revolution only to have them all slaughtered, like, five minutes later. We cut back to one of the protagonist’s neighbours who slowly loses everything because he refuses to sign for collectivisation. I think he gets involved in the final fight, but still that’s a lot of screen-time given to a guy whose purpose to the story is ‘Suffers a lot’.

Subplots are important. So are these kind of diversions from the main plot. It helps flesh out the world and stops the story from being too singularly focused. In this case it can help flesh out the severe suffering the Ukrainian people went through. But cramming all this stuff in doesn’t leave a lot of room to flesh out the more important narrative functions, like escalation and characterisation. The former just happens way too fast, and the latter leaves everyone just flat and two dimensional. Terence Stamp’s character, who the movie gives a lot of significance to, has only one flaw and that’s being too noble.

We bring up an interesting aspect of Yuri, his art, being stifled and muted to fit the Communist mantra. We have a scene where one of his art teachers wants him to be more expressive, he gets replaced by someone more fitting the party line, and that’s it. We get a cheap plot reveal later that actually renders a potentially devastating character decisions null, but as far as the Communist control of art goes, we get a chunk of it here and that’s all we need. A lot of the film’s scenes and moments play out like this. This reminded me of a Lithuanian film I saw last year, Emilija, which took on the issue of Communist censorship. While that film is far from perfect, it at lest illustrated just how limiting and stagnating this system was for the people living under it. In the case of adequately depicting oppression, less is more.

One of the most frustrating examples of this is Aneurin Barnard’s character Mykola, who is Yuri’s childhood friend who becomes and active and high-level member of the Ukrainian Communist Party. This could have been an excellent way of the film to air out its themes and explore just how these complex political systems can take hold of people and influence their lives. Instead, he’s depicted as mostly being blindly naïve, and when his worldview comes crashing down and he realises he was wrong, he tearfully writes a note to Yuri as Bolsheviks come to execute him and puts a bullet in his brain. All of this over the course of a scene. We never even get to see a change in him; he goes from blindly defending Stalin to abandoning his ideology. It’s rushed, lazy and an insult to the potential this could have had.

The Film’s Main Plot Undermines its Focus

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There are a lot of things I can call this film out for, or make fun of it over. I didn’t even talk about the scenery chewing villain Sergei. One of his first scenes is GTA-ing a woman using a horse, and it’s funny every single time. But this is also emblematic of the real issue with this film, and it’s how this lady trampling ended up being a huge plot point. The love story, the main focus of the movie, is shockingly uncompelling.

Love stories are easy to sell. There is a base connection they make to people and can be intrinsically elating or devastating depending on how you wish to end it. But they’re also really hard to make compelling, because they’re an extremely overdone element of fiction and can easily fall into cliché. The makers of this film had a desired interest to sell this film to a broader market to get people informed and discussing Holodomor. It’s why they have a pretty international cast of decently known actors, instead of casting Ukrainian actors. So making it a love story where two lovers are torn apart by the famine has that broad appeal. The problem is that it takes away from the focus of the film itself, that being the suffering of the people during this time period.

You could have minimised a lot of these issues if the focus was on peasant farmers. You know, the ones most affected by Holodomor. Instead we get this star-crossed lovers angle, which is half-baked and the two leads spend most of their time apart pining for each other. There really isn’t much dimension or tension given to the romance either-it’s just lovingly described in the movie’s opening in a scene that’s painfully mirrored in the final scene. Putting this story on a peasant farm getting ruined could have fixed a lot of these issues, but it doesn’t sell as well as an attractive couple being torn apart by tragic circumstances. The story’s appeal mattered more than its intentions in this case.

And it’s not like framing a real-life historical tragedy around a romance is unheard of. Titanic is the most famous example of this. But it’s an event well suited for this kind of story, where the romantic nature of the Titanic pre-iceberg and the tragic disaster post-iceberg bookends Jack and Rose’s relationship. It’s easier to streamline compared to the politically tumultuous, long-lasting and ugly famine.

Perhaps the biggest comparison, and likely a great influence to this film, is Doctor Zhivago. I mean, it’s a story about two lovers torn apart by circumstances brought on by the actions of the USSR. Just over a much longer period of time. The plots share a lot of base similarities. Here’s the difference, though; the love story in Dr Zhivago is its main focus. This regime that tears their life apart is the reason everything is happening, but our focus and concern is his life, not everything else. Our focus in this story is the love story. Bitter Harvest tries for both, and because of this lack of focus, it loses sight on how to make this event more compelling.

Conclusion

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Don’t get me wrong-there is so much potential to make a film of Holodomor a really gripping and satisfying watch. But I think its an insult to accept this confused, terribly directed, ill-thought out mess to be its representative. Ukrainian history deserves better coverage, even if said coverage is cinematic. Hopefully someday someone will have the vision to make a more competent movie out of this significant historical event.

Until then, at least we’ll always have a man ram into a woman with a horse for no reason. And I will laugh every time.

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