The Knockturnal had the opportunity to sit down with actors Max Irons and Samantha Barks to discuss their upcoming film “Bitter Harvest,” opening in theaters February 24.
During the 1930s, Ukraine suffered one of the worst famines that history had seen. In under 2 years an estimated 2.5 to 7 million Ukrainians perished under a state-organized genocide. Stalin–in a bid to crush Ukrainian nationalism–devised a systematic starvation that would wipe out whole towns and villages, leaving a weakened and frayed Ukraine.
Telling a bitter tale of survival, “Bitter Harvest” explores the Holodomor famine through the eyes of Yuri (Max Irons) and Natalka (Samantha Barks), childhood sweethearts who must escape torture, imprisonment and starvation in Bolshevik Ukraine and fight to re-establish a free Ukraine.
Check out our interview below:
Riyad Mammadyarov: So this is particularly heart-wrenching story that you guys are dealing with here. It’s one of the lost, forgotten tragedies of Europe. What got you guys involved in the project?
Samantha Barks: When I read the script, I didn’t understand how I didn’t know more about this. Talking to my friends, people didn’t know about this. The script was so heartbreaking. Especially because it had been covered up for so many years. And also I loved the character because she goes through all the extreme highs and lows of a character. That was a really exciting challenge for me. So the script definitely drove me to it.
Max Irons: I met with George [Mendeluk]–the director–for lunch and I thought that I knew most major events of European history and then I spoke with him for a couple of hours and found out that Ukraine–which is basically the second largest country in Europe–had gone through this traumatic period. I felt ashamed that I knew nothing about it. I explored it a little more and I was just blown away.
Riyad Mammadyarov: You guys have a great chemistry that’s really intimate. There are a lot moments when that happens. How did you guys build that great chemistry on screen?
Samantha Barks: I think that because of the way the film is, we are split for most of the film. So I always found that at the end of a big shooting day, I would come meet Max back in the makeup trailer or something and we’d be like “what were you doing?!” and then I said what I did. It felt like we were really split apart so it was like I was always trying to find out what happened. So when I saw the movie for the first time, it was so exciting to see all of Max’s stuff because that’s all of the stuff I don’t see because I’m not in it. So it was a married couple at the end of the day.
Max Irons: Also, chemistry is such an intangible thing. It’s very hard to understand. Either you have it or you don’t. You just hope and communicate and hopefully it comes across on screen and I think it did.
Samantha Barks: I hope so [laughs].
Riyad Mammadyarov: So you guys talked about how the Ukrainian famine is a particularly brutal point in history. How did you guys make such a bleak background so emotionally palpable for audiences?
Max Irons: Blimey, we were filming in Ukraine, which is always a good start. We had a great Ukrainian crew, we had a Ukrainian director so there was a lot of good will to tell the story accurately and correctly and not to beautify it and tell it as it was, which I think–the way we did it–was quite nice. We not only told the story of the Holodomor but also showed the human condition and the enduring human spirit under those sorts of conditions. So hopefully, even though the backdrop of our film is incredibly bleak, there’s a little bit of hope mixed in there as well.
Riyad Mammadyarov: There seems to be quite a parallel in today’s occurrences around the world and what seems to be happening here with Russia’s boot on Ukraine. With the recent actions in Crimea, how was it working in Ukraine? Were the geopolitics something that you really felt while you were there?
Samantha Barks: I think it was a very upsetting time for everybody during the time we were there. We got close to the crew and they would talk about horrible it is for them. They would talk about the Holodomor famine and their family and people who knew their family who had been through it and you definitely pick up on that. It’s very sad. They’ve had a lot of horrible things that have happened to them so it’s really sad. That’s why it felt important to be a part of this film. To be able to share that story.
Max Irons: The revolution was kicking off as we were just leaving and you take a cursory glance at Ukrainian history and it is mind-numbingly complicated. But the one thing that you hear from the people on the ground and every news source and angle at which one could come at this story from, is how divided Ukraine is–politically, economically, linguistically, religiously. And it has been for hundreds and hundreds of years so it’s a very complicated and nuanced problem. The problems we’re seeing in Crimea, as you said, were the same problems that led to what happened in 1932 and 1933. And depending on which side of the fence you’re sitting on, you see the problem in a completely different light.