With the ongoing war in Ukraine, many have asked me to recommend good movies to watch in English about the country. I’ve put together a list of factual movies that are informative. Unfortunately, there are several pro-Putin propaganda movies about Ukraine out there. I will mention one briefly but encourage you not to believe everything you see and hear if you watch it.
If you want to donate to one of many worthy organizations, check out my article listing reputable organizations accepting donations to help Ukraine and Ukrainians. For country-specific organizations helping refugees, check out this article written by Mark Baker.
1. Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (2015) – Watch on Netflix
Winter on Fire is the first movie I recommend because it explains the beginning of this war. The documentary is about the Revolution of Dignity, also known as the Maidan Revolution. Especially after reporting on the situation in 2014 in person, I enjoyed this movie and thought it provided an accurate retelling of events. Plus, it uses a lot of actual footage from the revolution.
The director, Ekaterina Averchenko, is Russian-born and Israeli-raised. She now lives in LA. Averchenko said, “I can’t accept after all the wars we’ve had in the world, we are still resolving our problems by killing each other.” You can read more about Winter on Fire and the director on IMDB.
Winter on Fire is a documentary about the unrest in Ukraine during 2013 and 2014, as student demonstrations supporting European integration grew into a violent revolution, calling for the resignation of President Viktor F. Yanukovich. The documentary won two awards and was nominated for five others and one Oscar.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Please do not confuse Winter on Fire with the cleverly named Ukraine on Fire, which tells the Russian propaganda version of these events. This movie was recently banned on YouTube for spreading false information. It stars Oliver Stone, who is known for his conspiracy theories and his love for Putin. Stone even created a pro-Putin TV series called The Putin Interviews. I’d also like to point out the differences in cover art for these movies. Ukraine on Fire shows Stone front and center next to Putin and the ousted Ukrainian president. Enough said.
2. Bitter Harvest (2017) – Watch on Hulu
Bitter Harvest tells the true horrific story of Holodomor, the death-by-starvation program that ultimately killed millions of Ukrainians. Holodomor was an artificial famine and a genocide recognized worldwide. There are memorials for it around the world, including in Washington DC.
Russia still denies the genocide and its role in it. Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence when it comes to the nations that commit genocides. For example, Turkey still denies the Armenian genocide despite it being recognized around the globe. But this is a story for another topic!
Although the history is true, many people don’t love Bitter Harvest as a movie. It is set in 1930s Ukraine, as Stalin advances the ambitions of communists in the Kremlin. Young artist Yuri battles to save his lover Natalka from the Holodomor, the death-by-starvation program that ultimately killed millions of Ukrainians.
I do not enjoy documentaries as much, so I like drama and romance because it makes the story come alive. Although I have to admit that this isn’t one of my favorite movies, it is informative. I do like that the romance aspect makes this seem like a relatable story rather than a retelling of horrible events. I will list a few more formal documentaries about Holodomor later in this list.
3. Chernobyl (2019) – Watch on HBO Go, Hulu & Amazon Prime Video
Chernobyl is actually a TV mini-series, but I think it belongs on this list. I visited Chernobyl in 2018, and on the drive up from Kyiv, we were shown old documentaries about it. The mini-series stated all the facts I was told while visiting in person, with the added personal stories that sometimes made it hard to watch.
The mini-series recalls the April 1986 events, when an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics becomes one of the world’s worst man-made catastrophes. At the time of writing, Chernobyl is occupied by Russian soldiers. Many Ukrainians fear that another accident or targeted attack can replay what happened in 1986.
What I really liked about the documentary is that it doesn’t put the blame on anyone. It shows what happened, including the many mistakes made in handling it. The movie makes it clear that the leading cause was that no one understood the extent of the situation.
I read that Putin had banned the documentary in Russia and wanted to film his own version of events where he blames the USA. I assume his biggest concern is that the documentary shows the government trying to cover up what happens once they realize the severity to save face, which I don’t see as an attack on the Russian government, but I guess Putin does.
Chernobyl won #1 of the 20 most popular shows in 2019, and I highly recommend it. As I mentioned earlier, some parts are hard to watch. Animals and humans are harmed and suffer in this show. It is still worth watching; I fast-forwarded the parts where I knew dogs would be killed. It also helped to understand that a quick death was a blessing compared to radiation poisoning.
4. Mr. Jones (2019) – Watch on Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, & Apple TV
While I have not seen Mr. Jones yet, it is next on my watchlist. Mr. Jones stars James Norton, Vanessa Kirby, Peter Sarsgaard, and other famous actors in this movie about a Welsh journalist breaking the news of the famine in Ukraine in the early 1930s in the western media. It is directed by Agnieszka Holland, a Polish director who graduated from FAMU in Prague in 1971.
Mr. Jones won four awards and had 13 nominations. It is based on real events, following journalist Gareth Jones as he travels deep into the Soviet Union to uncover an international conspiracy. His life-or-death journey inspires George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”. George Orwell is a character in this movie played by Joseph Mawle.
Even though I’ve already seen a lot of movies about Holodomor, I am excited to watch it from a different perspective. I find it hard to watch movies about terrible events that focus on the people experiencing them, especially when it comes to Holodomor. Since I am Ukrainian, I heard about this from many relatives. I like this angle and how it makes this topic more digestible for a western audience. You can read more about it on IMDB here.
5. Everything Is Illuminated (2005) – Watch on Amazon Prime Video
I was wary of this movie because it is a comedy, and I don’t see how the topic of WWII can be portrayed in a comedy. However, this movie blew my mind, even though I find it hard to look at Elijah Wood and not see Frodo. This movie doesn’t focus on any specific tragedy or event but shows what Ukraine has gone through in history.
“Jewish-American writer Jonathan Safran Foer is a collector of his family’s memorabilia, although most of the items, some which he takes without asking, would not be considered keepsakes by the average person. He places most of those items in individual Ziploc bags and hangs them on his keepsake wall under the photograph of the person with who it is most associated.
Jonathan has this compulsion in an effort to remember. He is able to tie a photograph that he receives from his grandmother, Sabine Foer, on her deathbed – it of his grandfather, Safran Foer, during the war in Ukraine, and a young woman he will learn is named Augustine – back to a pendant, he stole from his grandfather on his deathbed in 1989, the pendant of a glass-encased grasshopper.
Learning that Augustine somehow saved his grandfather’s life leads to Jonathan going on a quest to find out the story at its source where the photograph was taken, in a now non-existent and probably largely forgotten town called Trachimbrod that the Nazis razed during the war, he armed only with his limited knowledge, the pendant, his grandfather’s Star of David necklace, the photograph, tip “money”, and an old and largely outdated map.
Prior to arriving in Ukraine, Jonathan prearranges the guide services of Odesa-based Heritage Tours, which specializes in helping Jewish expats discover their past. The company is owned and operated by three generations of the Alexander Perchov family. They generally think Jewish people are stupid for wanting to revisit their past and spend large sums of money for their services in doing so.
The three from Heritage assigned to Jonathan’s file are: the company founder Alexander I (“Grandpa”), the retired, non-blind blind man who will be the driver; his “seeing eye” dog, Sammy Davis Jr. Jr., a deranged bitch of a dog; and Alexander III (“Alex”), a western pop cultural loving young man, whose broken English will need to suffice for translation. Jonathan will learn that his guides are a loving but dysfunctional lot who have little interest in helping him beyond taking his money. But during their time together, this quest will affect Jonathan, Grandpa, and Alex in different ways, all tied to the value of remembering.”IMDB
6. Generation Maidan: A Year of Revolution & War (2015) – Watch on Vimeo & YouTube
Like the title suggests, Generation Maidan is another movie about the 2013-2014 revolution directed by eight-time Emmy winner Andrew Tkach. Tkach interviewed medics, musicians, self-defense volunteers, civic activists, and torture victims to create this movie. The movie includes frontline footage and interviews with young members of Generation Maidan.
I like this movie because although it is centered around the events of the Maidan revolution, many other historical events are mentioned. After all, all these events are connected, and talking about one without knowing the history doesn’t show a complete picture.
You can find the links to watch this on Vimeo and YouTube here. The synopsis:
“Part 1 REVOLUTION: How did a peaceful protest supporting a European Union treaty turn into Ukraine’s second revolution? That’s the question the first part of this film answers by following the people who made history on the Maidan – Kyiv’s main square. From the first days of the Euromaidan protests in December 2013, a team of Ukrainian filmmakers called Babylon13, voluntarily captured the action on their DSLRs. They were on the frontline as unarmed protestors took on Ukraine’s dreaded riot police – the Berkut.
Just after the final massacre, while the smoke and emotions were still smoldering, Director Andrew Tkach combed through their footage and selected seven characters to profile: frontline medics – Dr. Ilkiv, & Ruslan, investigative journalist – Yuri Butusov, self-defense volunteers – Andriy & Ivan, civic activist Tina Peresunko and pianist – Alexandra Morozova. Their recollections and scenes in action tell an unforgettable story of how a peaceful protest gradually turned more militant and how unarmed volunteers defeated a regime willing to turn snipers on its own people.
Part 2 WAR – When the Ukrainian army took back Slovyansk and other towns held by pro-Russian separatists, they freed dozens of detainees who survived a harrowing nightmare. According to a Human Rights Report, Pro-Russian insurgents are regularly committing horrendous crimes, including forced labor on the frontlines, torture, summary executions.
34-year-old Pavlo Yurov is a living witness to those horrors. The young hip theatre director endured two months as a prisoner in the separatist’s makeshift basement prison in Slovyansk after he spoke too carelessly in an outdoor café. The filmmakers return to Slovyansk with Pavel to visit the very prison cells where he was held hostage. Pavel was freed when the separatists were pushed out by the advancing Ukrainian army. His nose was broken, but his irreverent spirit survived. Others were not as fortunate. Hastily scribbled execution orders sealed the fate of dozens of prisoners, and now their bodies are being dug out from recently discovered mass graves.
Sergey Zakharov was lined up three times for mock executions. His crime was simply his art. For weeks he secretly painted street murals in Donetsk mocking the separatists. After he was discovered, Zakharov was arrested and tortured in the separatist dungeons for six weeks. He is now safely in Kyiv, drawing an illustrated history of his ordeal. It provides a vivid testament to human rights violations seldom seen on film.
Ukraine’s conflict is also a shooting war, with a million refugees fleeing artillery duels between regular armies and volunteer militias. The film documents the horrible destruction inflicted on their homes. It also focuses on the war’s most vulnerable victims, handicapped children who couldn’t be moved to underground shelters during the worst of the shelling.
Many who stood on the Maidan have chosen to defend their revolution by joining one of the volunteer battalions. Ivan is an unlikely combatant in this often dirty war. He’s a Ukrainian-American and New York City native who graduated from Columbia College in the same class as President Obama. Ivan also finished law school but later chose a very different path.
In 1997 he became a Ukrainian citizen, married a local woman in Kyiv, and was quietly raising a family, when pro-Russian separatists began taking over towns in eastern Ukraine. Ivan’s business often took him to Luhansk, which is one of the first cities to fall to pro-Russian separatists. Unable to passively see his country dismembered from afar, Ivan joined one of the volunteer militias that stood up to the pro-Russian onslaught. He’s now a weekend warrior, ferrying bulletproof vests and helmets and capturing dramatic frontline footage on his iPhone.
In the end, Generation Maidan was about making change, not war. No one epitomizes that better than Hanna Hopko. She’s a civic activist who stood on the Maidan and is now a rising star in the new Parliament, committed to complete transparency and radical reform. Now it’s Hopkos, and her generations turn to try and escape the past.”IMDB
7. Folk! (2010) – Watch on Vimeo
Although war and genocide are in an important part of Ukrainian history, there is so much more to Ukraine that’s worth learning about. This is why I was so excited to discover Folk! This movie was directed by Roxy T. Lorino (formerly Roxy Toporowych), an award-winning filmmaker based in NYC. Roxy’s work is heavily influenced by her Ukrainian-American diaspora upbringing, consisting of cold war stories and lots of pierogies. You’ll see another movie by her coming up next!
“Folk! features the legendary ballerina and choreographer Roma Pryma Bohachevsky and the Syzokryli Dance Ensemble of New York, the Virsky National Dance Company of Ukraine, the Kashtan School of Ukrainian Dance in Cleveland and The Voloshky Dance Ensemble of Philadelphia, “Folk!”, dubbed the greatest film about Ukrainian folk dancing ever.
It explores the unique underground and acrobatic world of Ukrainian folk dancing through the eyes of narrator/filmmaker Roxy Toporowych. This documentary is the first film to be a joyful embracement of Ukrainian culture and dance in North America today as well as a musical feature that is also extremely relevant to anyone trying to balance ties to one’s heritage and culture.”IMDB
You can watch it for free here on Vimeo.
8. Julia Blue (2018) – Watch on Amazon Prime Video
Julia Blue is also directed by Roxy Toporowych, who I mentioned above. This movie is about Julia, a student activist and photojournalism living in war-torn Ukraine. Julia finds her path towards independence and a brighter future challenged after meeting and falling for English, a young soldier fresh from the war zone.
This is yet another movie about Maidan, but I like that it has an entirely different angle. It can be hard to watch because it features injured soldiers, which I struggle watching. However, I really like the approach this movie takes in telling the story of the 2014 revolution.
“Inspired to study photography by the protest scenes she witnessed in Kyiv during the 2014 revolution, JULIA has now set her sights on a future outside her beloved Ukraine. A year after the revolution began, she awaits news from a prestigious photography school in Germany; Julia volunteers for injured soldiers coming directly from the front at the military hospital. Julia brings carefree happiness to their ward until the day she meets English, who has arrived with easily mended surface wounds and deeply set emotional scaring.
A gentle relationship emerges that draws the two of them closer together, but each has withheld something vital from the other. When Julia decides to bring English home for a family wedding, the cost of their secrets threatens more than their relationship. A beautiful allegory for the freedoms of our modern world that seem all too fleeting, Julia Blue reminds us not just of the costs of love and war, but of the sometimes painful choices freedom demands.”IMDB
9. UKE: The Untold Story of Hockey Legends (2020) – Watch on Amazon Prime Video & YouTube
UKE is yet another video that doesn’t focus on wars but rather the history of hokey in Ukraine. I have not watched this yet, and I am not interested in hockey personally, but I know many people who would find this fascinating movie.
“The authors showcase unique information that disproves previously held stereotypes. It turns out that the roots of Ukrainian hockey go back over a century. Ukrainian hockey players from immigrant families gained world fame while playing for teams in their new homeland. Meanwhile, they continued to maintain their language and culture.
Statistics presented by the authors are absolutely astounding: throughout the 100-year existence of the NHL, more than fifty Ukrainians became champions of the League. This is the largest number of champions representing a non-North American nationality. Even the best hockey player of all time, Wayne Gretzky, is of Ukrainian descent. His grandparents lived in Ternopil and Beresteysk regions with the surname Gretskyy.”IMDB
10. Holodomor: Voices of Survivors – Ukrainian Famine/Genocide
This is another movie about Holodomor, but this time from the perspective of 25 Ukrainian Canadians who recount the horrors of living through the genocide. This is a documentary-style movie, and I like that it is told by the people who were there.
That also makes this movie hard to watch, but if the current war in Ukraine teaches us anything, it’s that we need to know the history to prevent it from repeating itself. Holodomor is a tough topic now more than ever because there are people in Ukraine starving because they are trapped. You can read about the dire situation in Mariopul here.
“Ukrainian Canadians recount the horrors of living through the Ukrainian famine-genocide – the Holodomor – which was engineered by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1932-33. Millions of people died, a third of them children, as brigades forcibly confiscated all livestock, grain, and food.
The world was deceived by Soviet propaganda, and the borders were closed. Anyone opposing collectivization or seeking to escape was imprisoned or shot. Fearing for their lives, Ukrainians couldn’t speak about this atrocity until 1991, when Ukraine gained independence.
The consequences of this genocide continue to reverberate today as Ukraine struggles to become a true democracy. Rare archival footage, a historical overview, and original illustrations complement the interviews.”IMDB
Bonus: Orange Winter (2007) – Couldn’t Find A Place to Watch
I wasn’t able to find a place to watch this, but I liked the trailer, so I thought I’d include it as a bonus. This talks about the 2004 election that sparked the Orange Revolution. A large part of the movie is taken from the speeches given by ousted Victor Yanukovich, poisoned Viktor Yushchenko, and former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma.
“They poisoned the opposition candidate. But he survived. They exerted full control over the media. But one rebelled. They stole the election. And streets erupted. This is Orange Revolution. Kyiv, Ukraine.”IMDB
Writing this article made me discover many great Ukrainian, Russian, and other foreign-language films with English subtitles covering various Ukrainian topics. I will be working on an article about those and will link it here as soon as it is published.
As a reminder, if you wish to donate to Ukraine, check out this article with a list of reputable organizations. I’m actively working on more Ukraine content, so bookmark my blog and check in regularly for more articles like this one! I’ll cover the topics of travel, history, and more.