Upon first hearing about the film and its coming release in 2016, I was very sentimental. It was going to try to capture the horrors of one of the greatest man-made genocides in history: the Holodomor. Holodomor literally translates to “death by starving”. In 1932, the Soviet Union wanted to replenish their wealth, as well as kill off Ukrainian morale and patriotism. So, the Soviets and Bolsheviks went throughout Ukraine and took the grain that Ukraine would produce. The country that was once known as “the bread basket of Europe” was left desolate. Many starved to death all because the Soviets believed that everything that Ukraine produced was owned by the state, and because Ukraine wanted peace and liberty.
It wasn’t just the fact that the Soviets took most of everything that the Ukrainians had, but the Soviet government had systematically killed off millions of the Ukrainian people leaving many orphaned, starving, and even dying on the streets of major cities. When the Ukrainians tried to rebel and point out what the Russians were doing, they were jailed, tortured, and many were executed. In the end, the Holodomor left 7-10 million dead at the hands of the Soviets who didn’t even confess to this horrid crime until 2003, and only 10 countries consider this act to be a genocide.
As a Ukrainian American, the Holodomor was a piece of my family’s history that could not depart from me. After watching the trailer to Bitter Harvest, prior to its release, I asked my great-grandmother of the events of Holodomor. She was silent for what seemed like an eternity and then said, “Be grateful for what you have, love your family, and treasure the scent of bread.” I still don’t know the extent of the tragedy that my great-grandmother went through, and I don’t think I ever will. However, I saw Bitter Harvest as an opportunity to be able to see the cinematic portrayal of an event that has affected my heritage, my people, and my family. I have also met many others with stories too tragic to even begin writing, and so I went into the movie ready to expect quite the experience.
So the question is, did it live up to my expectations?…
My friends…it lived up to much more than my expectations.
The film follows the love story of Yuri, son of the great warrior named Yaroslav, and Natalka. Both grew up in their village together and had been in love since they were children. However, that same village was devastated by the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks shamed, robbed, and killed many of the villagers, including Yuri’s father. By the end of the film, Yuri and Natalka strive to fight off the tyranny of the Soviet rule and the oppression of the Bolsheviks. Their love lived on even in the midst of such tragedy, and it was their love and their patriotism that helped them survive.
Now the biggest complaint that I have heard about this film is that the romance got in the way of the events of Holodomor. I couldn’t disagree more. Throughout the film my eyes were never dry and my mouth was dropping in astonishment of the gripping imagery of what happened during the Holodomor. One scene in particular left me in tears: Yuri passes a boy who begs for food, to which Yuri succumbs to. The boy returns to the mom and says, “Mom I have bread!…Mom?…Mama wake up! MOM!” You see first hand the evil of Stalin and his regime in the film and I couldn’t see how the critics were so blind-sided to it.
Concerning the critics’ accusations about the romance within the film, I find it very hypocritical that Bitter Harvest would be bashed for telling a story of a tragedy through the perspective of two people in love, but had no problem when it was as expertly done in Titanic. I believe that Bitter Harvest is the Titanic of Ukrainian movies, except while Titanic was given a $250 million budget, Bitter Harvest was made with a budget of $20 million. I was emotionally invested into both characters as they tried to survive amidst the Holodomor, and I truly believe that just like Titanic, Bitter Harvest had used the romance between two Ukrainian villagers to an astonishing effect.
The critics on Rotten Tomatoes are too harsh on the film; it doesn’t deserve a score anywhere near 9/100. If I could do anything different concerning the movie, it would be these three things: 1) the movie to be a little longer, 2) for more of the Ukrainian language, and 3) for a supporting character named Mykola to get more story than he got.
Nevertheless, I strongly urge any person who has never heard of the Holodomor to go see this film. I encourage every Ukrainian to go see the film. I encourage every human being to watch this extraordinary tale of two lovers who, despite the oppression of the Soviet Union, lived on. I hope that just like Yuri and Natalka, Ukraine will be able to not only live on, but also become one of the leading nations in the world, despite the constant oppression from the Kremlin and Russia’s tyrannical rule.
Soli Deo Gloria.