Social Issues through a Personal Story (Fragile Memory)

Fragile Memory (2022) is a Ukrainian documentary by Igor Ivanko about his grandfather Leonid Burlaka, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Leonid is a former cinematographer, who used to work for some of the most prestigious movies made by Odessa Film Studio during its glory days.

The contrast between Leonid’s profession, which requires capturing images and turning them into memories, with the disease, which slowly erases Leonid’s ability to remember, has a powerful, yet saddening effect on the viewer. Igor stresses attention to this contrast by adding a myriad of photographs taken by Leonid during the Soviet times. The images, similar to Leonid’s memory, have been disrupted and turned into fractures of their former self. Such a poetic combination of elements allows Igor to create a truly captivating debut film.

The viewers of Fragile Memory witness how Alzheimer’s disease progresses. The filming started when Leonid’s illness was still manageable, but slowly throughout the movie, the audience sees how difficult it has become for Leonid to remember things and recognize familiar faces. Thus, throwing out the trash turned into a real challenge for Leonid, while going to a nearby city became an impossible task. Because of the familial relationship between the director and the subject, Igor manages to not only observe the disease, but also ask Leonid some intimate and, at times, uneasy questions. However, in many instances, Leonid can’t reply properly or even understand what Igor is asking about. Counterintuitively, this lack of response makes a movie more captivating as it provides the audience with a better understanding of how it feels to experience Alzheimer’s disease.

Fragile Memory is a very intimate movie. In every interaction scene between Igor and Leonid, the viewer sees how much love they have for each other. When Igor discovers the photographs of the past, he happily recognizes his grandfather, grandmother, mother, and aunt. He wants to explore Leonid’s youth and see the world from the same perspective his grandfather saw it. Meanwhile, Leonid often says how proud he is of Igor’s work and enthusiasm for cinematography. In some scenes, two generations of filmmakers discuss different lenses. Such moments show how similar both the character and the director are.

Fragile Memory is a highly poetic documentary, however, it has turned into such during the editing process. In various interviews, Igor and other crewmembers stated that the movie got its shape very late in the filming process. For example, many photos from the discovered 450 negatives haven’t reached the final version. Similarly, scenes of the creator viewing the photos for the first time haven’t appeared in the movie. Thus, sound editor Karyna Rezhevska recalls: “We were sitting in front of the lamp, looking at the negatives, discussing the pictures and wondering about their beauty. Unfortunately, those photos do not appear in the film, but I have pleasant memories of this moment. It became a part of our common memory.”

Fragile Memory also discusses the current state of Ukrainian cinema and, particularly, the problems of the Odessa Film Studio. Igor points out in the movie that some of the most important works of world cinema, such as Battleship Potemkin (1925) and The Man with a Movie Camera (1929), were filmed in Odessa. Besides that, many auteurs, such as Kira Muratova and Pyotr Todorovsky, have directed their best movies in Odessa. Yet, the studio and the culture of cinema have been slowly dying out. Igor demonstrates this by including the scene of Leonid’s wife complaining about the studio forgetting about Leonid’s anniversary, despite all the years he’s worked there.

Igor dedicates part of the movie to showing the diminishing conditions of the studio. Thus, he includes scenes of himself discovering how the film reels have been improperly stored in the studio and, as a result, started decaying. Closer to the end of the movie, Igor gets permission to bring all the footage stored in the studio to a professional archive company that digitized the films. By including this story in the movie, Igor manages to draw one more parallel between Leonid’s disease and the problems the Odessa Film Studio faced at the moment. Such a comparison allows the viewer to apply the title of the movie not only to the personal struggles of those fighting Alzheimer’s disease but also to the fragility of the cinema itself.

This idea of a fragile memory is highlighted one more time in the movie. In the end of the movie, Igor discovers that water or any other liquid didn’t damage the old photographs he found. Instead, it was the very material used to make the negatives that started decaying over the years. Although one can say it’s just a coincidence, someone else can point to the beauty of this allegory of being destroyed from within.

Everyone who decides to watch Fragile Memory, can form their own opinion about the meaning of this scene, and learn about a great Ukrainian cinematographer, Leonid Burlaka and his talented grandson, Igor Ivanko.


Oraz Kereibayev
ELTE BTK Film Studies MA