An unexpected find in a garden shed leads to a belated journey down the memory lane of Odesan cinema: “Fragile Memory” at the goEast Festival of Central and Eastern European Film5 min read
Fragile Memory, a 2022 Ukrainian documentary, was screened at the goEast Festival of Central and Eastern European Film after having previously garnered a Special Jury Award at the Sarajevo Film Festival last year. The film is a celebration of the filmmaker Igor Ivanko’s grandfather — the renowned cinematographer from Odesa Leonid Burlaka — and an archive of everyday Soviet life that Ivanko discovers in his grandfather’s garden shed. The documentary, however, is only partly a biography: much more than that, it is a contemplation of the unofficial histories of the Soviet period, the memories of which are rapidly disappearing, and of the fragility of cultural heritage—including that of cinema itself.
Burlaka was born in Odesa in 1938 and, after studying at VGIK (currently known as The Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography) in Moscow with the second generation of Soviet cinematographers, returned home to work for Odesa Film Studio, the studio which released films by legendary directors such as Oleksandr Dovzhenko and Kira Muratova. Odesa itself is one of the birthplaces of world cinema, where the revolutionary Battleship Potemkin (1925) and The Man with a Movie Camera (1929) were shot. However, as the documentary reveals, this legacy nowadays is nothing but a distant, fading memory.
When Ivanko accidentally finds a box filled with damaged photo stock — 450 rolls in total — it is an extraordinary discovery. The enigmatically dilapidated material is stunning; the photographs his grandfather took while on set and on the streets portray his life as a young man and artist in Moscow and Odesa, while also offering a glimpse into everyday Soviet life as witnessed by a private kinoeye. As Ivanko told in an interview, this is an unofficial archive of Soviet life that counters the state-verified grand visual narratives we’re used to seeing. Moreover, unlike a chest of amateur photographs of family gatherings that most people possess, it was captured by a professional, placing it in a league of its own.
It’s not only familial flattery — the photographs are gorgeous personal mementos of friendship, work, and love in 1960’s Ukraine, created with an exquisite taste, still stunning despite the decay. For those who find exceptional, melancholic beauty in decomposing early film footage, such as in the works of filmmaker and archivist Bill Morrison, this particular assemblage is a special treat, and I’m not quite sure anything else like this exists in Eastern Europe. Later on, it turns out the damage was caused by nitrate in the film stock itself, a highly flammable substance with a fleeting shelf-life that made filmmaking quite a dangerous profession in its genesis. An inescapable decay, then, like that of organic matter, like that of memory.
The photographs Ivanko finds are not, in fact, the fragile memory the film’s title alludes to, or at least not only — Burlaka is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and the grandson’s quest to decipher these mementos is nearly futile. When he digitises the photographs, Ivanko sits down with his grandparents by the kitchen table in their dacha, revealing his discovery. Burlaka’s illness is too far advanced, however, and, to Ivanko’s disappointment, he does not recognise any of the people he captured some sixty years ago, including the members of his own family.
To me, this inability to uncover the not so distant past — still, too little too late — struck a personal chord. I am of the same generation as Ivanko, having been born in independent Lithuania, just after the fall of the Soviet Union. Growing up in a society eager to forget its traumatic past, I was met with silence that encouraged me to think that nothing of interest could have happened in my family, a working-class family devoid of artists, prisoners, or partisans. Of course, I now know that there is no such thing as a ‘regular’ Soviet family without losses and exiles, and that no people could manage to live in an ahistorical, apolitical vacuum without paying the price for it.
It turns out that the philosophical, terrifying, humourous, and cynical fatalism running in my family, so common across the region, has its roots in real and horrific, yet very common, events that have befallen us throughout the last centuries. However, I can only glimpse at this history with a human face. As Fragile Memory attests to, the people who lived through this immense turbulence of the 20th century are rapidly vanishing, taking their memories with them. Now that we have finally found our interest in hearing these stories, it turns out it’s too late.
In the film, Ivanko points towards the wide-spread issue of “no strong trend or habit of preserving cultural heritage in post-Soviet societies,” with personal memorabilia at best ending up in flea markets instead of museums. Having myself found a reel of wedding celebration photographs in an old camera obtained at a bazaar in Kyiv, surely the only photographs taken during that event, I can only agree. The issue is not only due to indifference of individuals; Fragile Memory exposes an institutional neglect of cultural heritage when Ivanko visits Odesa Film Studios and discovers the dire storing conditions of all of its film stock, only marginally different from the conditions of the garden shed where Ivanko’s odyssey began.
This neglect stretches towards the people possessing memories of the Soviet period, too — the ‘90s brushed aside the complex Soviet history and wiped out the legacy of the people who were too old to reorient themselves during the economic and ideological collapse. Burlaka, having worked on some of the most expensive and iconic productions of the era, found himself completely unable to work. This moment echoes many of Svetlana Alexievich’s interviews in Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, which, as a statement about oral history falling on deaf ears, makes for a great companion piece to the film about history with a lowercase h.
Fragile Memory is, on the one hand, an admiring tribute to one of the great Eastern European artists behind the camera, stitched together by a young apprentice. On the other hand, it attests to the difficulty that the younger generations face when trying to understand where we come from, and why we are the way we are. Memory of the 20th century in Eastern Europe is truly a fragile and fraught thing; half-remembered, half-concealed. Tucked away, misplaced, or ignored, yet somehow it manages to rise to the surface, and never fails to astonish.