Stalin once said “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of a million is a statistic”. He killed more people than Hitler, and is generally considered to be one of the most evil, destructive men to have lived. So much so that some of his atrocities are yet to receive global recognition. A new film attempts to change that.
Bitter Harvest tells the often overlooked story of the genocide through starvation, perpetuated on the Ukrainian people by Stalin, from 1932-1933. Known as the Holodomor, it claimed millions of lives. The regime took foodstuffs from people’s homes with brute force. It was part of the Soviet famine – the result of a policy of collectivisation in agriculture, which set impossible production goals across the dictator’s territory, known as the five-year plan.
There’s a compelling love story at the centre of the film. Artist Yuri and his childhood sweetheart Natalka live in a small village but are separated by political upheaval. Believing it to be the best way to fight injustice, Yuri travels to Kiev to study art. Once there he is moved by the poverty and devastation he sees, and becomes involved in activism.
The film is violent and bleak, but its director George Mendeluk, who is of Ukrainian descent himself, wants to show audiences the terrible reality of what happened. In some ways it’s an action film, with much sword and gunplay. But the commercial sensibility of long fight sequences and fast camera work doesn’t detract from the real severity of Stalin’s crimes.
Tamer Hassan plays a malevolent Bolshevik law enforcer, confiscating ikons from the peasants’ church and forcing himself on Natalka. It’s a chilling performance, equal parts smarmy and threatening. The dictator’s Bolshevik men contributed to death on a massive scale by seizing foodstuffs from people’s homes.
Stalin himself, portrayed by Gary Oliver, is perhaps underplayed. It must be tricky to convey the heartlessness of a genocidal dictator without being too casual, or so sinister it’s implausible. He attempts to underplay the role for effect, emphasising the leader’s indifference to mass murder by demonstrating little emotion, but unfortunately misses the mark.
The plan to starve a nation was ensured by orders to secure its borders, preventing anyone from getting to somewhere they might survive. The tale begins with sunny country vistas and children frolicking in corn fields. As things get darker and more desperate the cinematography becomes cold and grey. A brooding orchestral soundtrack underscores this stark change.
Bitter Harvest is a bleak depiction of one of many small farming communities who once lived in peaceful happiness, being destroyed by an evil empire. The villagers’ bravery and defiance in the face of savage oppression, as well as their love and comradeship for each other, makes it bitter sweet.