What shall we do with these buildings?
Shot in September 2021, What Shall We Do With These buildings, Jonathan Ben-Shaul’s film about Soviet-era buildings in Kharkiv, is innocent and prescient, tragic and terrible, the passionate controversy between modern Ukrainians’ ambition to ‘Ukrainise’ Kharkiv and Russian-speakers’ pride in and affection for, buildings that to them symbolise their culture, heritage and historic achievement. Months into a horribly destructive and cruel war, this is no longer a debate, the people of Kharkiv are now united in a struggle to survive the Russian bombs and missiles that don’t distinguish who speaks which language.
Each Soviet-era public building is introduced by local voices, Russian speakers, Ukrainian speakers. This film isn’t polemic, it’s not propaganda, it’s a patient observation, an illustration of the challenges of dissonant heritage; what do cities do with buildings when the political system and dominant culture for which they were constructed, is over?
The film weaves together concrete, people and movement
There is a wistfulness about the film, an effort to express the issues other than simply in words and in the eloquence of the buildings themselves. Mykola Naboka, the film’s producer, an actor trained in movement, mime and physical theatre, who until the invasion was teaching a movement course at Kharkiv’s School of Architecture, allows us, together with Igor Klyuchnik, to experience the power of these concrete edifices in a very physical way, as the film weaves together concrete, people and movement.
Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city and the first capital of the Soviet Socialist Republic in 1919 (replaced by Kyiv in 1934), has been at the centre point of an epic tug of war. It was a battlefield in the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis and now it’s under siege again. We don’t know which of these buildings still stand; we don’t know what’s happened to the people who appear in the film.
The filmmakers have pledged all proceeds from the film to support humanitarian aid on the ground
The city revealed in the film goes to the heart of the dissonance dilemma; how should Soviet-era architecture be considered? If that question was relevant when the film was made it is even more pressing now. The discussion about the post-war reconstruction of Ukraine is well underway – decommunisation was already enshrined in the law On the Condemnation of the Communist and National Socialist (Nazi) Regimes, and the Prohibition of Propaganda of their Symbols. Buildings have potency and all across Europe buildings from communist and fascist regimes still exist, are still used, too expensive to re-purpose, too controversial to demolish but we must not underestimate their symbolic power.
The filmmakers have pledged all proceeds from the film to support humanitarian aid on the ground.
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