CANADIAN film Bitter Harvest, starring Max Irons and Samantha Bark, is a romantic-drama set against the backdrop of famine in 1930’s Soviet Union.
But is this Doctor Zhivago-esque tale really the most appropriate way of teaching the world about Stalin’s terror?
For those not familiar with the ‘Holodomor’ (‘death by hunger’ in Ukrainian) – between 1932-33, as part of Stalin’s collectivisation policy – vast swathes of Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan were subject to a mechanised famine.
Grain was forcibly taken by the Red Army from collective farms in order to satisfy disproportionately-large quotas set by Stalin’s five-year plans.
Those who resisted were killed, but most perished as a result of starvation – something which is widely recognized as a genocide against the Ukrainian people, though still denied as such by Russia.
With much about this desperate and barbaric period of history not widely-known, it seems odd that the film is advertised as a romance while earnestly attempting to be educational.
For me, given the the context, this doesn’t quite wash. It strikes me as simply being disrespectful and detracts from the real events of 1932-33.
That is not to say, however, that positive stories cannot be found among tragic circumstances. If anything, these should be found and celebrated, as opposed to making them up.
The classic comparison is of course Schindler’s List – where a poignant and inspirational story intertwined with the barbarity of the holocaust is perfectly balanced.
To recreate Speilberg’s classic is a tough ask but it can certainly be used to influence another production.
Bitter Harvest‘s makers have said they have spoken to survivors and relatives and that there is a respect for their memory at the heart of the film. Which is puzzling, especially when looking at their marketing for the film, where cheesy lines about Stalin destroying the main pair’s love really seem crass.
Where there seems to be genuine intent to educate with Bitter Harvest, I would say that discomfort comes more from the film’s execution rather than it’s intent.
[pullquote]Stalin’s tyranny could destroy their country. But not their love[/pullquote]
It seems that with tough subject matter, the film’s production team have taken the approach that the famine was not tragic enough without a romance.
The Washington Post has already described the film as a heavy-handed melodrama and similar first impressions have seen the film being described as ‘sappy’ and ‘uneven’.
This a real worry because romance narrative shouldn’t detract from the horrific events going on around it and it certainly feels like, in this care, the story an arbitrary addition with the sole aim of ‘jacking-up’ the tragedy.
Sadly, this makes me uncomfortable with an unshakable feeling that the memory of those who perished is not adequately respected by the addition of this trite love story.
— Holy Transfiguration (@UCC_Kitchener) February 10, 2017
Though I can accept that there are some positives, especially given the reach the wide UK release will have. As realistically, films like Bitter Harvest are one of the only ways in which awareness of the horrors of the Holodomor can be increased.
And I would hope that those viewing the film can see past the dull romance and perhaps learn about something that they never knew about before.
Nevertheless, I maintain that the serious nature of these historic events means they should be treated as such – including the way in which the film and the love story are promoted.
Bitter Harvest is released today and can be seen in cinemas across the UK