This year marks the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Ukrainian film company VUFKU,
which was the longest lived and most productive Soviet film studio of the silent film era.
VUFKU (Vse-Ukrains'ke Foto Kino Upravlinnia, or All-Ukrainian Photo Cinema Administration)
produced a number of silent film masterpieces during the 1920s, including Alexander Dovzhenko's Arsenal and Earth,
and Dziga Vertov's The Man with a Movie Camera.
VUFKU was established on March 13, 1922 under the National Commissar of Education of the Ukrainian SSR, and was responsible for overseeing all movie theatres, photo companies and film institutions in Ukraine. At the time of its creation, there were some 20 companies in post-revolution Ukraine producing films, most of them located in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa. Although they were small studios, they were able to release some 150 films (mostly shorts) in 1918 alone. In November 1922, shortly after the creation of VUFKU, Ukrainian authorities established the state's monopoly over production, distribution, and exhibition of films in Ukraine, elevating VUFKU's importance. The company became the sole proprietor and owner of the film industry in Ukraine, as well as the only distributor of foreign films in the territory of the Ukrainian republic.
VUFKU acquired a large studio in Odesa, and two small studios (called ateliers) in Kyiv and Kharkiv. It also leased a studio from the Crimean Commissar of Education in Yalta, as Crimea's 250 days of sunlight were a necessity for an industry that relied on natural light. VUFKU had ambitious long-term plans and invested accordingly in its infrastructure. The Odesa studio, which was VUFKU's main production facility, underwent extensive renovations, purchasing modern equipment in the West, allowing it to shoot and process film stock using state-of-the-art technology. In 1927, VUFKU began building a new studio in Kyiv, with the intent of producing nearly 40 feature films per year. The Kyiv studio released its first films in the 1928-29 budget year, and was at the time one of the most modern film studios in Europe. During its existence, VUFKU's Odesa studio released 88 feature films, and its Kyiv studio released 18 features in its first year; in addition, VUFKU released a large number of documentaries, educational, and agit-prop films.
Film was considered a commodity and VUFKU was run as an industrial enterprise. Its management put much emphasis on the efficiency of the production process: budgets were tightly controlled and new methods were introduced to reduce the production time and cost of each film. VUFKU tried to emulate the production-line methods of film-making already in place in the Hollywood studio system. And like major Hollywood studios of the 1920-30s, VUFKU controlled production, distribution, and exhibition of films. The company enjoyed exclusive rights for distribution of films on Ukrainian territory, after it squeezed out independent pre-revolutionary distributors, and did not allow Russian distributors to enter the market. During the 1920s, any company, including all Soviet ones, had to enter into an agreement with VUFKU in order to be able to show their films in Ukraine.
The presence of national film studios, such as VUFKU, spurred cultural and business competition among Soviet studios and contributed to the establishment of a thriving film culture. It can be argued that Soviet cinema of the 1920s was much more diversified than is reflected in film histories of that period, and the development of early Soviet cinema was not propelled so much by post-revolutionary enthusiasm of artistic elites but by the economic strength of its film industry. The diversity of that industry encompassed its economic, cultural and organizational aspects and formed along national lines.
The independent business and cultural practices of VUFKU were at the very root of the company's financial and artistic success. They were also the major points of disagreement between VUFKU and the Soviet government in Moscow, which began to institute policies that ensured economic decisions regarding the Ukrainian film industry were no longer to be made in Ukraine. In February 1929, during a meeting with a delegation of Ukrainian writers in Moscow, Joseph Stalin outlined his internationalist policy, which had as its goal the elimination of the multi-national and multi-lingual character of the USSR and the creation of a new Soviet culture represented by a single language.
This policy change quickly affected VUFKU and films the company released at the time. The independent Ukrainian film industry began to lose its autonomy and was eventually abolished altogether. In 1930, VUFKU was reorganized into Ukrainfilm, a mere branch of the Soviet Union's centrally managed Soyuzkino film studio.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 has brought about new challenges and prospects for filmmaking in the former Ukrainian SSR, and the legacy of VUFKU in independent Ukraine is continued by the Dovzhenko Film Studio in Kyiv, and the Odesa Film Studio.