Movie Review: Acts of Imagination

The Canadian feature film Acts of Imagination, by first-time feature film director Carolyn Combs, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this fall.   Andrij Makuch, who took in its second screening on September 15, sends this report.

Katya and Jaroslaw (Slawko) are relatively recent Ukrainian immigrants living in Vancouver’s east end. The area is gritty, but slowly gentrifying. When the warehouse in which Slawko works is sold for a condo development, he loses his job. The timing is bad because the rent is due and Slawko’s relationship with his girlfriend, Seuchong, a Korean-Canadian single-mom, has begun to move into a more serious phase.

Katya, meanwhile, is plagued by the memories of the loss of her “nationalist” parents. Her father simply disappeared, and then her mother seems to have died violently or accidentally not long thereafter. The lack of resolution has crippled Katya emotionally and she plays out the drama of their disappearance in imagined conversations in which she takes on her mother’s persona. In these conversations, a mysterious family friend, Petro, keeps telling her to “kill the traitor.”

Vancouver’s Fraser River reminds Katya of the “Dnieper” in her native Kyiv and she spends time by the river. There, she meets and takes up with an older Pakistani-British immigrant, Aashir, in a manner that ensures the film will not be shown at any ridna shkola in the near future (raciness, not race, being the issue). She later gives Aashir a treasured family icon, which Slawko had hoped to sell to make ends meet. Aashir’s desire to pay for it leads to a misunderstanding that introduces the film’s dramatic climax.

Acts of Imagination is a respectably well-done production. Though, like most Canadian films, it is not likely to be noticed by most of the world. One thing that does set it apart is that it is the first Canadian feature film in a very long time to have Ukrainian protagonists, rendering it of some interest to a Ukrainian-Canadian audience.  This is all the more true since the “Ukrainian” aspect of the leads’ lives is significant: these are not incidental Ukrainians.

The Ukrainian angle very much seems to be rooted with the scriptwriter, Michael Springate. In 1992, he travelled to Ukraine to arrange a performance by an Odesa-based troupe to the Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg. That trip, along with his close friendship with an immigrant from Ukraine, seems to have sowed the seeds of this project.

Springate weaves Ukrainian politics and history into the script.  A mention of the Famine of 1932 to 1933 is woven in seamlessly when Katya explains that her grandmother, facing starvation and knowing that she is going to die, purchased the treasured icon by exchanging her last bits of food so that she could at least have some solace in her remaining days.

Notwithstanding its generally sympathetic treatment of the Ukrainian immigrant experience, the film has some difficulties in dealing with this subject. The most obvious is the matter of accents. Katya’s is quite credible: smooth, not forced.  The role is played by Stephanie Hayes, a native of Sweden who studied at Simon Fraser University. She also does gamely well when uttering a few lines in Ukrainian. On the other hand, Vancouver-based Billy Marchewski, as Jaroslaw, speaks jarringly, with no discernable accent. Marchewski is a second-generation Ukrainian–his biological mother is Ukrainian and his adoptive father is Ukrainian too, but his father spoke no Ukrainian at home.  In a scene with Seuchong in which Jaroslaw discusses a road trip to Las Vegas, he lapses into language no immigrant is likely to speak (using expression such as “Sweet baby Jesus,” with a strong inflection).

Oddly, the film portrays the protagonists as decidedly working-class folk. Katya has a part-time job in a copy shop, while Slawko is a common labourer. When he asks Seuchong whether she can get him a civil-service job, like the one she has, he says nothing of advanced education qualifications to plead his case. This is out of the reality of most immigrants coming to Canada from Ukraine today. While they may end up working in low-end jobs for a certain period, they tend to be highly qualified and well educated.  The film hits a wrong note by not bringing this up at least nominally.

All the same, the “old-country” aspect is a real factor in Acts of Imagination. The film incorporates Ukrainian music and themes, and is an interesting and legitimate effort that is worth checking out.

Acts of Imagination, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this fall, still awaits a Canadian distribution arrangement. It was shown at the film festival in Calgary (September 27) and is scheduled to be screened at the film festival in Vancouver (October 2 and 12) and Edmonton (October 5). More information is available at