Orest Sushko has many credentials, among which is being a member of the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus. He is also an Emmy award-winning re-recording mixer who works in both film and television. Orest has most recently worked with film directors David Cronenberg and Guillermo Del Toro. He has also worked for television series “Orphan Black”; and documentaries – David Suzuki’s “The North Face”, and the “Great Big Sea” with Alan Doyle. This year, he is premiering his own documentary entitled “Music of Survival – The Story of the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus”. The New Pathway sat down with Orest to talk about the documentary, which is set to open in Toronto on September 25, 2014 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Orest began the interview by explaining that the idea for the project came about while he was sitting in a movie theatre: “… a decade ago I saw a documentary about the evolution of the Motown sound and a group of musicians known as the Funk Brothers. These men were the backbone of that musical movement, yet were overshadowed by the bigger stars and never received any from of real acclaim for their lifelong devotion to their art form. Their music was imbued with so much soul and emotion, and when I saw that movie, a light bulb went on. I immediately thought of our own Ukrainian band of brothers – the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus, and their lifelong devotion to the bandura. I didn’t know the entire story at the time, but I was so motivated by that Motown documentary, and thought it would be fitting to pay tribute to our own musical culture.”
“Music of Survival” weaves together a visually rich narrative with compelling interviews and an emotionally taut soundtrack that brings out the deepest roots of Ukrainian traditions and national character. It draws a very sympathetic portrait of the post-Second World War émigré community and celebrates the resiliency of a culture that has survived centuries of political repression.
The use of bandura music both as underscore and performance, serves as the central engine driving the film. Upon seeing some of the interview footage of the last survivors of the Chorus, a non-Ukrainian colleague told Orest “this is very powerful stuff … I didn’t realize a musical instrument could do that much for a nation.” The film shows how a small group of courageous and creative visionaries overcame tremendous obstacles to give voice to the innermost soul of the Ukrainian people, and delivered hope to thousands during the Second World War.
There were two motivating figures that inspired Orest. The first was his father, Makar Sushko, who was the first Canadian member of the Chorus in 1949. For Orest, this film is as much a family history as it is a documentary. He explained: “After my father moved to Toronto, Hryhory Kytasty, the musical director of the Chorus invited him to join the ensemble as a baritone soloist and bandura player. My father joked about how Hryhory convinced him to quit his job and go on tour with the Kapelia across Canada. They gave sold out shows at Massey Hall here in Toronto. So my father was a huge inspiration in me making this film. Learning more about the journey of the Chorus inspired me to bring their story to the screen – a story that very few Ukrainians are aware of.”
The other motivating figure was Orest’s grandfather, Paul C Stepowy, Canada’s first bandura craftsman. One of his banduras resides at the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa. His grandfather completed his last bandura for his grandson Orest, a week before his passing.
The process of creating Sushko’s film was never a straight line. It involved scouring the globe for archival footage and materials, which substantiate the group’s journey through the war years and beyond. Upon initial funding from Jim Temerty and the Taras Shevchenko Foundation, he embarked on interviewing the last two surviving members, Petro Kytasty and Mykola Liskiwsky of the early Chorus – both of whom reside in Detroit. Petro is presently 86 years of age and Mykola 104 years of age. The plan is for both gentlemen to attend the world premiere in Toronto.
Orest notes that “we filmed about five hours each with both Petro and Mykola. In fact, it was less a formal interview and more of simply allowing them to recount their story. Their personal experiences with the Chorus provide the underpinnings of the narrative. Filling in the visual aspect of their stories took years to complete. The first step in the discovery process was looking through the Chorus archives in Detroit. Although the archives are rich with detail, they largely hold information about the group’s North American development. This led to a deeper search for material illustrating the Kapelia’s formation, development and progression from 1918 to 1949.” It was a matter of finding the best and most appropriate material.
Orest approached the Ukrainian Diaspora for help. In one instance there was a woman in New York State who saw the ad for archives. She replied she had a collection of Kapelia photos. Orest recalls how she sent them all in the collection there was one photo of the Chorus taken in November 1942 in a German labour camp – “so I scanned it and sent it Petro who determined its veracity. That photo alone made the entire community search worthwhile.” This particular project required a multi-year effort to complete. Some of the archives in the film took well over six years to procure – from the research phase, to acquiring the original masters, to gaining the usage rights.
After working in the film business for so many years, Orest envisioned this effort as a heartfelt way to give back to the community. He thanks the numerous donors, noting that the end credits include everyone who contributed “because it’s important to list all the donors.” The National Arts Council, a sub-committee of UCC National whose mandate is to represent the interests of Ukrainian arts throughout Canada, is also helping to promote the film nationally throughout the Ukrainian-Canadian community.
The film will have its world premiere in Toronto on September 25. Tickets are available at musicofsurvival.com.