Based on one of the most overlooked tragedies of the 20th century, Bitter Harvest is a powerful story of love, honor, rebellion, and survival as seen through the eyes of two young lovers caught in the ravages of Joseph Stalin’s genocidal policies against Ukraine in the 1930s. As Stalin advances the ambitions of communists in the Kremlin, a young artist named Yuri (Max Irons) battles to survive famine, imprisonment, and torture to save his childhood sweetheart Natalka (Samantha Barks) from the “Holodomor,” the death-by-starvation program that ultimately killed millions of Ukrainians. Against this tragic backdrop, Yuri escapes from a Soviet prison and joins the anti-Bolshevik resistance movement as he battles to reunite with Natalka and continue the fight for a free Ukraine.
Filmed on location in Ukraine, this epic love story brings to light one of the most devastating chapters of modern Europe.
The stellar cast also includes Barry Pepper, Tamer Hassan, and Terence Stamp. Director George Mendeluk co-wrote the screenplay with Richard Bachynsky-Hoover based on Bachynsky-Hoover’s original story. The film is produced by Ian Ihnatowycz, Stuart Baird, George Mendeluk, Chad Barager and Jaye Gazeley. Dennis Davidson, Peter D. Graves, and William J. Immerman serve as executive producers. Richard Bachynsky-Hoover is executive producer (Ukraine). Roadside will release the film in the U.S. on February 24, 2017.
About the Production
First-time screenwriter Richard Bachynsky-Hoover had carved out a comfortable life for himself, working as an actor in various TV and feature film roles. But the Canadian’s career shifted gears dramatically after he visited his ancestral homeland in Ukraine. Inspired by his travels, Bachynsky-Hoover became obsessed with telling the story of Stalin’s “Holodomor,” a forced starvation policy that decimated Ukraine’s population in the early 1930s. He spent several years studying Polish, Russian and Ukrainian history books before writing the first draft of Bitter Harvest.
In 2011, Bachynsky-Hoover approached Toronto-based financier Ian Ihnatowycz with an early version of the script. “I often see interesting proposals,” says Ihnatowycz, well known in Canada for his numerous philanthropic activities. “Richard sent me his screenplay and it really captured my interest. I’d never read a screenplay before so I tried to imagine how it would play on the big screen.”
Ihnatowycz, whose own family fled Ukraine in the late 1940s, did some digging. “I discovered there had been a few documentaries and some interesting Ukrainian-language films portraying the Holodomor, but there hadn’t really been any English-language features,” he says. “I became intrigued by the opportunity and understood the importance of telling the story of this terrible famine-genocide to a much broader global audience. I wanted to portray it in a way that touched human sensibilities so that audiences could experience the emotion of what happened in Ukraine.
“Richard had approached a few people for financing in the film industry unsuccessfully,” Ihnatowycz continues. “I came to the conclusion that the film was too important to not get done. So I decided to serve as the film’s sole financier, funding the film in its entirety. Recognizing the need to develop the screenplay further and get a team of professionals involved, we got in touch with George Mendeluk.”
Like Hoover and Ihnatowycz, Mendeluk grew up in Ontario with Ukrainian parents who emigrated from Europe in the 1940s. Hoover and Mendeluk had something else in common: Hoover performed a small role in the 1999 movie Men of Means, which Mendeluk directed. “Years later, when he approached me with his script about the Holodomor, I was happy to become involved in the project.”
The historical aspects of the story resonated personally for Mendeluk. His Ukrainian mother survived the Stalinist starvation policy in the early 1930s before meeting her husband in Germany and fleeing with young George to Canada. Inspired by their experiences, Mendeluk, in collaboration with Hoover, re-wrote Bitter Harvest, enhancing the narrative around a fictionalized romance between a young artist and his wife. “The story had a three-act structure,” he says. “The main theme I developed further was the journey of a peasant boy, the metamorphosis of an artist who becomes a warrior.”
In the summer of 2013, Mendeluk approached production veteran Chad Barager to join the project as a producer. “He wanted a guy used to make quality films on a small budget,” says Barager, who was initially reluctant to tackle a shoot in Ukraine. “I had never been and I didn’t know much about it except that it was part of the former Soviet Union and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster took place there. But I was attracted to the story. As it turned out I fell in love with the country and eventually met my wife, a Ukrainian, in Kiev.”
The Leading Man
To anchor his movie, Mendeluk cast British actor Max Irons in the role of Yuri, the young villager who travels to Kiev to study art, becomes a political prisoner and then risks everything to reunite with his wife. “My archetype for the role was Omar Sharif,” Mendeluk says. “I needed somebody who could play a romantic lead and really make himself emotionally available through his performance.”
Max Irons eagerly embraced the opportunity to participate in a film dramatizing the horrors of the Holodomor. “We know a lot about other devastating historical events but this chapter of Ukrainian history, which affected tens of millions of people, is a story that has not often been told. When I met George it was clear to me the passion he had to tell this story, and that sort of passion and drive is infectious.”
To prepare for the role, Irons studied Ukrainian history and even took life-drawing classes in order to more realistically emulate his character’s work on screen. “I was interested in the trials that Yuri faces, and how he copes in the face of such adversity,” says the young actor. “He goes on an incredible journey and experiences the suffering in Ukraine from quite a few different vantage points. I think that’s what interests me: telling those unique stories that happened to so many people and investigating those moments in time.”
According to Medeluk, Irons’ combination of classical training and emotional depth allowed him to connect with the character. “Stalin’s actions affected Yuri and Natalka’s love affair in a big way and we needed an actor who could show that. Max is extraordinary because he’s schooled, yet at the same time, he’s willing to delve into places in his own psyche that come out on screen. I believe great actors should have a secret to tell through their characters. I don’t need to know what that secret is, but I think Max had one and held on to it because that sense of mystery really comes across on screen and draws the audience in.”
A Resolute Heroine
Acclaimed for her performance in the 2012 movie musical Les Miserables, English singer and actress Samantha Barks gravitated to the challenges posed by her character, Natalka. “Playing somebody like Natalka is an actress’s dream because she goes through every high, every low,” Barks says. “We take her from the extremes of falling in love, getting married to being torn apart by her lover and being abused by a Russian officer. Just reading the script, seeing Natalka survive all these awful things was very emotional for me. I knew it would be a real whirlwind.”
After seeing Barks’ performance as feisty revolutionary Eponine in Les Miserables, Mendeluk sensed in the 26-year-old actress an intensity perfectly suited for Bitter Harvest’s tormented heroine. “Like so many young people, Samantha didn’t know anything about the Holodomor but she threw herself into that character and did a brilliant job,” he says. “Samantha and Max make Bitter Harvest come alive as an epic love story.”
Irons was deeply impressed by his co-star’s portrayal of Yuri’s beleaguered wife. “Samantha is an incredibly passionate actress,” he says. “Natalka goes on a traumatic emotional journey similar to Yuri’s and it requires an actress of a certain caliber to bring those emotions to life. Samantha had easy access to all of that. She was wonderful.”
Barks didn’t know Irons before filming began but she quickly forged chemistry with her leading man. “On the first day of shooting I had a sex scene with Max and I hadn’t even met him yet,” she recalls. “Before the cameras rolled, we had a laugh together about that because it’s obviously a strange situation: Day One, we’re in the forest, we don’t have any clothes on … the sex scene, great! I remember thinking it’ll either be horrific or it’ll be okay. I’d say it turned out really brilliant.”
Like most films, Bitter Harvest was shot out of sequence, which meant Barks had to keep track of her character’s tumultuous emotional timeline. “You have to deal with it in your head and prepare yourself to be in a dark place for a lot of these scenes. I needed to do a lot of work before I set foot on set because there were so many things to wrap your head around in order to play the character with the right emotion.”
Barks says she was shaken up by the experience of filming on historically accurate sets overseen by production designers Martin Hitchcock and Vladimir Radlinski. “When we filmed the scene where Tamer, as Sergei, comes into the village shooting people, I learned the vehicles on the set were the actual trucks used to transport bodies in the 1930s. Lucy Brown, who plays Olena, and I got the shivers realizing, ‘this really happened!’ It’s heartbreaking and you can’t help being moved.”
The actress was happy to be a part of a film that revisits this underreported and horrific chapter of European history. “One of the things that really drew me to the script is the fact that this huge tragedy happened in Ukraine but the story really isn’t out there,” she says. “People should know about the Holodomor.”
A Different Kind of Villain
Admired in the U.K. for his portrayal of big-screen bad guys in projects including Batman Begins, Eastern Promises and HBO’s “Game of Thrones” (as Khal Forzho), Tamer Hassan jumped at the chance to play a different kind of villain in Bitter Harvest. He sees his character, Bolshevik leader Sergei, as a brute with his own set of twisted values. “Sergei’s probably the worst screen villain I’ve ever played,” Hassan explains. “But he’s a soldier and believes what he’s doing is right, even though he does his job in such a cold-hearted way. It was an amazing role to take on. Unlike the typical villain, Sergei has five or six layers, he goes from a calloused killing machine to a cowering little baby in some parts of the movie. Maybe Sergei was abused as a kid. There’s something he’s not comfortable with inside himself that drives him to do these bad things.”
Mendeluk appreciated Hassan’s willingness to go deep as Stalin’s ruthless point man. “I like Tamer’s understated power,” he says. “I had been looking in other directions to cast the part but Tamer convinced me he could play this evil puppet created by Stalin. In our story, he comes across as truly the bad guy with Stalin pulling the strings.”
Although Hassan is not Russian, his ethnicity proved to be a selling point for Mendeluk, who wanted to represent the Soviet Empire’s wide array of nationalities. “Tamer comes from a Turkish background, which is something I liked for the character,” Mendeluk explains. “I didn’t want a stereotypical Russian actor to play Sergei. I wanted somebody who could express the ethnic diversity of the Soviet regime, and that included people from places like Chechnya and Georgia in addition to Ukrainians.”
The Iconic Terence Stamp
The role of Ivan, the proud patriarch forced to contend with Bolshevik invaders, required an actor of uncommon gravitas, says Mendeluk. The director found his man in veteran British actor Terence Stamp. “He is a legend,” says Mendeluk. “I first saw him in The Collector when I was a young man and was extraordinarily moved by his performance. Now, he’s an icon. Terence was perfect as the archetypal grandfather in Bitter Harvest.”
Irons savored every moment on set with the man who plays his grandfather. “Terence Stamp is one of the most interesting and inspiring human beings I’ve ever come across and obviously an incredible actor,” Irons says. “He reminded us all that being in the moment and thinking through what you’re doing is essentially all you need as an actor.”
Onset, Mendeluk was impressed by Stamp’s understated approach to the role. “He’s a very economical actor,” Mendeluk explains. “Terence doesn’t like to do or say any more than the scene requires. But when he does do something, it’s memorable.”
The director vividly remembers one domestic scene in which Stamp’s Ivan watches Natalka put rouge on her face so she can go work as a prostitute to get food for her family. “Terence had several lines of dialogue but he said to me, ‘I’m a supporting player here, let me say just one word,’” Mendeluk recalls. “So Terence simply said ‘Natalochko,’ the diminutive version of ‘Natalka.’ It’s a very soft, tender way of saying ‘Please don’t do this.’ Terence understands that sometimes it’s important to let the audience put one and one together, as opposed to spelling everything out.”
Ukraine for Ukraine
Bitter Harvest could easily have been filmed in Canada, where the central prairies bear a striking resemblance to the wheat fields of Ukraine. But the filmmakers felt it was essential to shoot on location in the farmland, villages, and cities of the country where the atrocities of the Holodomor took place, according to Ihnatowycz.
Kiev-based production company Radioaktive Film coordinated the logistics for Bitter Harvest, assembling a team of local professionals to supplement the Anglo-American cast and crew. “The biggest challenge was that the local crew had never worked on such a large production,” says producer Chad Barager. “We had 50 shoot days with 20 second unit days and even a few third unit days. There were many horses to wrangle, along with stunts, fire, gunfire and special effects. Some days we had 300 extras working on the multiple units. Not to mention the language barriers and the frigid temperatures and snow.”
Re-enacting the wide-ranging historical tragedy on location proved to be a moving experience for the Ukrainian members of the production. “Of course it takes a huge team to make a movie, and many of the people involved lived in Ukraine,” says Ihnatowycz. “Virtually every Ukrainian working on the set knew of someone in their family who had suffered during the Holodomor. It was very emotional because we sometimes filmed scenes similar to stories they’d all heard from their parents and grandparents. This film was very important to them and their passion was felt by everyone on set.”
To shoot the village scenes, Mendeluk and his crew gained permission to film at the Museum of Folk Architecture and Life of Ukraine. Located in Pyrohiv a few miles outside of Kiev. the 370-acre site showcases different periods of the country’s history. “It was really important for us to have the scenery and the locations replicated correctly so I wanted to film in the authentic cottages,” says the director. “At the museum, we found cottages that were 100 to 150 years old.”
Mendeluk worked with Ukrainian costume designers Tatyana Fedotova, Galina Otenko and Aleksandra Stepina to re-create the folk garb and military uniforms seen in the film. “Some of the wardrobes the actors wore was created in the period when our story takes place, in the ’20s and ’30s,” Mendeluk says. “It was chilling to see actors dressed as army officers and secret police with their insignias, wearing what they did at the time, riding in on horses. It was eerie. Recreating this history, many scenes were so emotional that extras, the cameramen, everybody had tears in their eyes.”
The director also knew it was essential to capture the traditional reaping of wheat crops for the film’s harvest scene. “In August, even before the film had been fully greenlit, I said, let’s get over there and film this whether we end up doing the movie or not.” Mendeluk traveled to the Ukrainian countryside and shot the scene in two days. “We brought in local actors to do the harvesting and sing the traditional songs. The music is a fascinating mixture of pagan and Christian traditions and we wanted to record that part of Ukraine’s culture because it’s almost vanished now.”
Returning to the country with his full cast and crew in October, the filmmakers shot in a variety of historical locations, including the prison where Yuri gets locked up. “That’s a real dungeon, no longer occupied,” says cinematographer Doug Milsome. “It was below ground, and most of the area around it was original to where Ukrainians were imprisoned, persecuted and executed on a large scale.”
Although Irons had studied Ukraine’s rich culture before traveling there for the shoot, he says that once he experienced it first-hand, he felt a deep connection with the land and its people. “Ukraine is an amazingly beautiful, romantic place,” he says. “I feel like people of Ukraine have a determination to rise beyond the tragedies of the past. That attitude is evident everywhere you look. We had a Ukrainian film crew who hadn’t shot a feature film ever before. On the first day there was a bit of a language gap, but by the end of production, they were on top of things and did an amazing job.”
As fate would have it, filmmakers shot their Bitter Harvest story of Soviet oppression just before Ukrainian citizens revolted against Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovych. “We had to be very careful because Yanukovych was one of those people who denied that the Holodomor ever happened,” explains Ihnatowycz. “We were very quiet about the subject of Bitter Harvest. We were concerned the authorities might shut us down before we could finish filming.” Bitter Harvest wrapped principal photography just three days before the Ukrainian citizens launched the wave of protests known as Euromaidan on the streets of Kiev on November 21, 2013.
In January 2014, filmmakers returned to Ukraine for three more days of additional photography. “It was in the middle of the revolution,” recalls producer Barager. “For insurance purposes, we had to place our actors and crew on lockdown at the hotel one kilometer from the unrest.” Some members of the Bitter Harvest team defied the ban, however, and made their way to Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti or Independence Square, where the protests were taking place. “They witnessed a true revolution in progress.” The film’s climactic underwater scenes were filmed at Shepperton Studios in England.
From Warm Hues to Cold Reality
Aiming to imbue Bitter Harvest with an epic look befitting its subject matter, Mendeluk took inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s legendarily picturesque period film Barry Lyndon. “I was always captivated by the painterly qualities you see in Kubrick’s films,” Mendeluk says. To emulate that lush look of Bitter Harvest, Mendeluk recruited Doug Milsome to serve as director of photography. The British cinematographer, who worked on Barry Lyndon as well as Kubrick classics Full Metal Jacket and The Shining, shot Bitter Harvest primarily on the ARRI ALEXA Plus digital camera. To capture a film look, he equipped the camera with Cooke series 5 lenses — the same type used on Barry Lyndon.
Milsome collaborated with Mendeluk to design three distinct visual palettes for Bitter Harvest.” Milsome says. “The characters look so healthy; the tone is warm and luscious. The sense of innocence in the village dictated the feel at the beginning of the movie. ”The first look has to do with Ukraine’s harvest where you have these golden flesh tones,
The cinematic tone shifts in Bitter Harvest as Bolshevik forces arrive to wreak havoc on the villagers’ peaceful way of life. “Getting into the second phase of the film we follow the lovers Yuri and Natalka in the town of Simile during the early 1930s,” Milsome says. “The color palette in these scenes is paler and more neutral to show the growing tyranny. We continue with this stark tone in Kiev when Yuri visits the city.”
The third Bitter Harvest look matches the mood experienced by hero Yuri as his fortunes spiral downward. “At the lowest point in the story, when Yuri gets imprisoned and he’s facing execution, I really have no color at that point,” Milsome says. “This reflects the horrible, emotional state of the country. We continue the look when Yuri escapes in the grey dawn and we move into the battle scene. Only the gun traces and explosions are vivid, and then this burgundy-colored blood, which to my mind was the color of reality. We also got these red and maroon pop-ups in the Russian uniforms, always a symbol of Soviet menace. Apart from these flashes of color, everything else was played against this neutral grey background.”
A Sweeping Score with Ukrainian Folk Elements
The sumptuous Bitter Harvest score was recorded at London’s famed Air Studios by composer and conductor Benjamin Wallfisch, who recently received a Golden Globe® nomination for his work on Hidden Figures. Wallfisch deployed a large orchestra and choir to emphasize the story’s bigger-than-life quality. “I felt the orchestral instrumentation would express the weight of the victims’ emotional desperation as well as the relationship between Yuri and Natalka,” Wallfisch says. “The Holodomor is such a significant historical event that I felt it was critically important to give voice to the many millions who died. I was also drawn to the film’s grand scale because, at heart, this is an epic love story. I tried to find a balance that juxtaposed this very intimate story with universal tragedy and mass carnage.”
Working closely with editor and producer Stuart Baird and music editor Christopher Brooks, the British composer’s thematic approach featured a signature music cue that accompanies appearances by Stalin. “I created these gestures of imperious orchestral percussion to convey Stalin’s unrelenting cruelty while sinuous contrapuntal lines in the strings suggest a sense of calculated deceit,” Wallfisch explains. To reflect the rich national heritage dramatized in Bitter Harvest, Wallfisch incorporated traditional Ukrainian folk instruments into his score.
Anatoly Mamalyga played the mandolin-like domra while Iryna Orlova performed on the bayan accordion. “I was very fortunate to work with these master musicians because they provided cultural context,” Wallfisch says. “I also worked with the great Ukrainian vocalist Mariana Sadovska. These musicians not only provided cultural context to the score but also offered very distinct voices to the story. Mariana’s voice became the voice of Ukraine in the score. I felt that it was important to fuse together elements of traditional Ukrainian music with the sound of the orchestra in a subtle way, which felt like it developed from within the narrative.”
Like many others involved with the project, Wallfisch recognized the gravity of contributing to the presentation of a true story of such magnitude. “One truly feels responsible to honor the memory of the victims and preserve their dignity,” he says. “My ultimate goal was to tell the stories of these people who suffered so immensely, using a musical approach that would resonate with a wide audience.”
A Defiant Legacy Lives On
By dramatizing the Stalinist genocide that took place in Ukraine nearly eight decades ago, Bitter Harvest revisits a little-known and horrific chapter of history that is at once unique and universal. “We made this movie because Ian and I want people to understand that this holocaust, the Holodomor, was the greatest-kept secret of the 20th century,” Mendeluk explains. “But it’s equally important to address more universal themes. I don’t want people to walk away from this film depressed. I want people to see that there are ways to triumph over this kind of horror. Art is one way to do it. And also love.”
Producer Ihnatowycz believes his passion project will enlighten audiences about the hardships faced by people of his heritage. “Non-Ukrainians who’ve seen Bitter Harvest tell me, ‘Wow, I had no idea this happened. It’s not in the history books; we didn’t study it in school,’” he observes. “But ultimately, this is not a political film. We let viewers draw their own conclusions. At the same time, I believe this story enriches the context for a lot of what you see happening in the world today.”
For all its bleak undertones, Bitter Harvest imparts a message of hope. “George and I both wanted to portray the idea that no matter how bad things get, you can never crush the human spirit,” Ihnatowycz says. “You can’t eradicate love. That spirit lives on in the Ukrainian people today despite the horrors they lived through.”
Stalin’s merciless Holodomor (extermination by famine) claimed the lives of millions of Ukrainians. Famine was used as a weapon to suppress Ukraine’s resistance against the Soviet regime, a truth Stalin denied to the end. Obscured for decades by Soviet propaganda, the genocide only came to light after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. In 2003, the United Nations issued a declaration stating that the Holodomor was a Ukrainian national tragedy caused by the totalitarian regime of the former Soviet Union. The following official UN Declaration was signed by 23 countries, including Russia and the US.
UN Joint Statement on Holodomor
In the former Soviet Union, millions of men, women, and children fell victims to the cruel actions and policies of the totalitarian regime. The Great Famine of 1932–1933 in Ukraine (Holodomor), which took from 7 million to 10 million innocent lives and became a national tragedy for the Ukrainian people. In this regard, we note activities in observance of the seventieth anniversary of this Famine, in particular, organized by the Government of Ukraine.
Honoring the seventieth anniversary of the Ukrainian tragedy, we also commemorate the memory of millions of Russians, Kazakhs and representatives of other nationalities who died of starvation in the Volga River region, Northern Caucasus, Kazakhstan and in other parts of the former Soviet Union, as a result of civil war and forced collectivization, leaving deep scars in the consciousness of future generations.
Expressing sympathy to the victims of the Great Famine, we call upon all Member States, the United Nations, and its specialized agencies, international and regional organizations, as well as non-governmental organizations, foundations, and associations to pay tribute to the memory of those who perished during that tragic period of history.
Recognizing the importance of raising public awareness on the tragic events in the history of mankind for their prevention in future, we deplore the acts and policies that brought about mass starvation and death of millions of people.
We do not want to settle scores with the past, it could not be changed, but we are convinced that exposing violations of human rights, preserving historical records and restoring the dignity of victims through acknowledgment of their suffering, will guide future societies and help to avoid similar catastrophes in the future. We need that as many people as possible learn about this tragedy and consider that this knowledge will strengthen the effectiveness of the rule of law and enhance respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
UN Joint Statement on Holodomor
More Information about the Holodomor:
Ukrainian Famine, 1932–1933, Rutgers University
Brochure of an exhibit at New York’s Ukrainian Museum in 2003, focusing on Holodomor
US Congressional Commission Findings on Holodomor
US Senate Resolution on Holodomor
Ukraine Genocide Timeline
The Ukraine Crisis
Stories of Holodomor Survivors:
Holodomor Survivors Documentation Project
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Holodomor Survivor Interviews