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Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World

Documentaries about cultural hotspots are as common as the film festivals that play them. Seems if an establishment sticks around long enough, especially in a city like New York, a filmmaker will want to make a movie about its longevity. In a sense, it’s easy storytelling: If a restaurant has been around for decades, some worthwhile stories are almost certainly embedded in its history. However, every once in a while, a film like this shifts into something else. This clearly happened when it came time to chronicle the staying power of Veselka, a NYC-based Ukrainian restaurant that has seen Big Apple leaders come and go (Erik Adams and Kathy Hochul are both featured in this one) but is now facing a new crisis. 

Over the course of filming the deeply compassionate “Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World,” the War in Ukraine broke out, giving the piece a different kind of scope and emotional power. Like the title that goes on a bit longer than it needs to, the filmmakers here have a habit of underlining and emphasizing elements of their story that would have been more powerful without a more subtle approach. But this is still a remarkably moving piece of work, a documentary that understands that a diner can’t save your life, but that doesn’t make it any less essential to it.

“Veselka” feels like a pretty straightforward historical doc at first, detailing the lineage behind the East Village staple. Like a lot of films like this, Michael Fiore’s direction could almost serve as a tourism bureau piece to get people to come to NYC. Let’s just say if I was less than a hundred miles away from Veselka, I would be eating dinner there tonight. It just seems like a lovely, warm, inviting place. It will make you want a pierogi. (Borscht might be a tougher sell.)

Fiore starts with Jason Birchard, the founder's grandson, and unpacks the history of the establishment’s deep Ukrainian roots. Then, the war starts. Fiore smartly captures the notion that people often have to work through trauma, even if it's happening on the other side of the world. We hear from one cook who talks about people he’s lost in the early days of the war. Still, he has to get up and go to work. War impacts people around the world who can’t stop to manage their trauma or even consider what they may be losing.

This is exemplified most in the film's back half, which focuses on the story of Vitalii. A manager at Veselka, he’s trying to get his mother out of Ukraine to Poland and participating in outreach/charity programs while he does so. The filmmakers capture how these efforts, while valuable, can be a bit transitory. They feel good at the moment, and they certainly raise important awareness, but they don’t get Vitalii’s mom across the border. A charity baseball game serves as a nice distraction, but it doesn’t replace the fear and the displacement. 

The wisest line in the film comes late: “There are more questions than answers in this story.” The film works because it allows for these questions, never over-playing Veselka as a solution or a cure. I was impressed at how rarely the film succumbs to the melodrama that would have plagued lesser works. It never feels like the filmmakers are trying to wring tears from their subjects or audience, even though both will come.

Having said that, David Duchovny's narration is a tragic mistake. As much as this “X-Files” fan loves hearing Fox Mulder’s voice, and can sense the compassion in his delivery, none of it feels necessary. He has a habit of repeating the emotion we’re already feeling. We don’t need to hear it. We can see it in Vitalii’s eyes.

“Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World” has played across the country the last few weeks and opens at Hot Docs this week. Watch it for inevitably on VOD.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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Film Credits

Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World movie poster

Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World (2024)

106 minutes

Cast

David Duchovny as Narrator (voice)

Jason Birchard as Self

Tom Birchard as Self

Kathy Hochul as Self

Eric Adams as Self

Director

Writer

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