Documentary Download: Ukrainian Stories of Sustenance and Strife

Veselka, the Ukrainian diner on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, is one of the few restaurants in the city that truly deserves to be called venerable, even iconic. Mention it to most anyone — especially those of us who were here around the turn of the 21st century — and it provokes pierogi- and borscht-inflected rhapsodies, happy memories of a late-night tuck into a steaming plate of Ukrainian comfort food.

Veselka has also become a center for New York’s support for embattled Ukrainians, as shown in Michael Fiore’s new documentary, “Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World.” (David Duchovny narrates.) Veselka’s third-generation proprietor, Jason Birchard, is of Ukrainian ancestry, and many of the staff are from the country as well. When war broke out, the restaurant started collecting money and clothing to send to the front; what’s more, Birchard began helping staff sponsor family members in their efforts to move to safety in America.

The film (in theaters now) starts as a fun story about a New York institution, and its tone is resolutely hopeful and convivial. But it rapidly becomes a demonstration of a community’s efforts to support loved ones under siege, and that makes it much richer and fuller than it might otherwise have been. If you know Veselka, you might choke up a bit.

I happened to be watching “Veselka” the day news broke of dissident Aleksei A. Navalny’s death in a Russian prison, which is not the same story but certainly related. I wrote about “Navalny,” Daniel Roher’s Oscar-winning documentary that covers his opposition to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, and thought of other films that help illuminate the war in Ukraine years into the struggle.

“Donbass” (streaming on the Criterion Channel and Kanopy) is Sergei Loznitsa’s darkly absurd comedy that elliptically pokes miserable fun at the way ordinary people become caught up in propaganda, violence and systems of repression, specifically in eastern Ukraine. “Donbass” isn’t technically a documentary (there are actors and a script), but Loznitsa often makes nonfiction, and elements threaded throughout this film blur lines between fiction and nonfiction, making you wonder what you’re actually looking at.

“A House Made of Splinters” (rent on most major platforms), directed by Simon Lereng Wilmont, was nominated alongside “Navalny” at last year’s Oscars. It’s an observational film, set in an eastern Ukraine home for children who are separated from their parents. Through their eyes, we gain a new view of the bleak human factors that spring up in wartime — violence, drugs, poverty — and that suggest, with an almost unbearable gentleness, the generational repercussions to come.

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