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Film brings Ukrainian atrocities in wartime Poland to big screen

Polish director Wojciech Smarzowski’s film 'Wolyn' is the first to deal with the war-time Volhynia Massacres. With today's Ukrainian crisis playing itself out, this raw and powerful movie is a reminder of crises past.

Smarzowski has said he made the film in the hope of improving relations between the two countries, and that it is "aimed against extreme nationalism."

"I want to present this history in a way that is balanced but honest. One cannot build a relationship by sweeping the truth under the carpet," Smarzowski said.

Just a week after the film's Poland release, it has already aggravated some tensions on both sides of the border.

The tale

The movie follows the fate of a young Polish woman who wants to marry a Ukrainian from the same village against to her parents' wishes. Set during the Second World War, the film follows the pair as the area in which they live becomes the scene of violent ethnic cleansing.

The region of Volhynia had been within Polish borders before the war. It was first occupied by the Soviets in 1939 and then by the Germans in 1941.

Some 100,000 ethnic Poles were slaughtered in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia from 1943 to 1945 by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA).

The UPA was a guerrilla force seeking Ukrainian independence and which cooperated with local Ukrainians in some of the very brutal killings. Later reprisals by Poles claimed the lives of 10,000-12,000 Ukrainians, including 3,000-5,000 in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia.

A screenshot from the film

A screenshot from the film

History never ends

With the election of Poland's Law and Justice (PiS) party in late 2015, the idea of reclaiming a patriotic narrative for the telling of Polish history has gained ascendency in many quarters. This, however, has grated against a more pronounced nationalist agenda in Ukraine in light of Russian interventions over the last three years.

In July, for example, the Polish parliament passed resolutions declaring the Wolyn massacres genocide, to which the Ukrainian government responded by accusing Poland of ‘politicizing history,' with the deputy speaker of parliament promising ‘retaliation.'

Kyiv city council also in July named a street in honor of Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera and in August a Ukrainian MP forwarded a resolution declaring that Poland had committed genocide against Ukrainians in the years 1919-51.


But most reviews of the film have focused on its balance and lack of finger pointing. Poland's largest newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, for example, notes that the film does not just focus on events during the war, but places them in a longer-term context. "This reveals the entire chain of evil," including the pre-war Polish state's mistreatment of its Ukrainian citizens. "Poles in this film are not only victims, but also avengers," conducting violent reprisals against Ukrainians. As such, the newspaper notes, the film "does not judge" - nor does it, as many had feared, play into any group's "historical politics." It will not "disrupt fragile Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation, support Polish nationalism or the Russian point of view."

The right of center "NaTemat" publication agrees that the film "does justice to the thousands of Poles murdered" in the massacres, but without resorting to "simple generalizations: not every Ukrainian is a devil, not every Pole has a pure soul."

The newspaper Rzeczpospolita wrote that it hoped the "groundbreaking and painfully true" film can act as "a powerful opening for genuine Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation." Still, it adds pointedly that "the only question is whether Ukrainians are ready to accept the truth."

A bridge not a wall

"This is not so much about a settlement with the past as a warning about the future," Tadeusz Sobolewski, a film critic at Gazeta Wyborcya told DW.

Polish President Andrzej Duda visited his Ukrainian counterpart at the end of August in an attempt to initiate mutual dialogue on historical issues. But since then the Polish Institute in Kiev has postponed a special screening of a new film after a "strong recommendation" from Ukraine's foreign ministry.

"I can only tell you why I didn't go to see this film - as a person who is dealing with post-colonialism, Polish political myths," says Warsaw-based sociologist Aleksandra Sekula. "This film could probably go together with Andrzej Wajda's "Pan Tadeusz," with its wild cruel and thankless Ukrainians (our colonial imaginary hell) versus calm peasants from Lithuania/Belarus."

Warsaw-based financial advisor Marcin Drewniak, meanwhile, says this is a film in which realism and truth flow from the screen. "They grab you by the throat and throughout do not give a moment of peace. Afterwards they are also not easily forgotten."

"Many people, maybe unable to understand the minutiae of Polish-Ukrainian relations that came to such a bloody head in Wolyn and elsewhere, will understand the universality of the film - a masterpiece - rather in the same way that we may appreciate Goya's 'Disasters of War' or Callot's engravings of the 'Thirty Years' War, without knowing anything about Napoleon's invasion of Spain or the Defenestrations of Prague. Wolyn strikes at the heart of the Ukrainian state's creation myth and the UPA as the manifestation of all that is noble and brave," says Warsaw historian Jan Darasz.

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Inside Europe: Film tackles Polish-Ukrainian taboo

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