Although women are not as recognized or celebrated in Hollywood as they should be, there are also directors around the world whose work is rarely shown and nearly forgotten. Larisa Sheptiko, a Ukrainian born filmmaker, is one of the many international directors who received critical acclaim during her lifetime but is not a name known to many today, even consummate film buffs.
Sheptiko was born in 1938 in Ukrainian territory controlled by the USSR. She attended the All-Union State of Cinematography in Moscow where her mentor was Alexander Dovzhenko, a figure of early Soviet cinema and a contemporary of Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin). She studied directing at the State Institute for Cinematography at the VGIK and graduated in 1963. Her prize-winning thesis film, Heat, which she made at 22, tells the story of a new farming community in Central Asia during the 1950s. Called a fusion of political drama and Western styles, it was shot in such barren landscapes and climes that Sheptiko actually fell severely ill during production. She called in another young filmmaker to help finish her vision, fellow VGIK student Elem Klimov. Sheptiko and Klimov would later marry.
Apparently Sheptiko had rejected his original marriage proposal and would only accept his continue proposals after he agreed not to try and influence her work. Sheptiko and Klimov were part of the Russian “New Wave” under Khrushchev before the cultural censorship of 1967 and 68.
Sheptiko’s next film, Wings (1966), focused on a much decorated World War II female fighter pilot. The pilot, now a principal at a vocational college, is out of touch with her daughter and the new generation. The film aroused controversy in the Soviet press because film in the USSR was not meant to depict conflict between children and parents.
Wings was followed by You and I in 1971. It is Sheptiko’s only film in Technicolor. It received favorable reviews at the Venice Film Festival but lacked proper distribution and exposure in the Soviet Union.
At 35, Sheptiko faced an extreme risk of death when she gave birth to her son while she suffered from a serious spinal injury. “At that time I was facing death for the first time and like anyone in such a situation, I was looking for my own formula of immortality,” Sheptiko said of her pregnancy. Her response to this dark time is perhaps her most famous film, The Ascent.
The Ascent is adapted from a novella by Vasili Bykov and follows two partisan soldiers in Belarus who attempt to evade the Nazis in the frozen landscape during 1942. Described as a war narrative, it is also a Christian allegory. Once Rybak and Sotnikov are captured by the Nazis, they are questioned by an investigator, but Sotnikov refuses to give away any information about his fellow soldiers’ plans or movements. Christ-like Sotnikov is sentenced to death because of his own convictions, while Rybak shows his weakness and begs the investigator to let him join the German police so he won’t face execution. He watches his comrade Sotnikov be hanged and is then haunted by his friend’s death.
Sheptiko was often categorized as a political filmmaker, but she considered herself a humanist. She said she was more interested in the exploration of the individual in society, struggling with the eternal question: “Why do we live?”
The Ascent won Sheptiko the Golden Bear at the 1977 Berlin Film Festival and with her newly bankable artistic cachet, she could have had a long and illustrious career. Her next film was going to be about a Siberian village, titled The Farewell.
Superstitious, Sheptiko had her fortune told in Bulgaria in 1978, afterwards she took her friend to a nearby church and made her swear that if anything happened to her or her husband, her friend must look after their son Anton. A few months later, in June of 1979, she was killed. She and five other crew members were killed in a car accident while they were on location for her film, The Farewell.
A week after her death, her husband Klimov was on set to complete the film. However, most critics said The Farewell lacked Sheptiko’s personal vision.
In 2005, the Leeds International Film Festival organized a retrospective of Sheptiko’s work, but for the most part, her films are not studied or well-known.