Skip to main content
Bitter Harvest is a romantic drama about the Holodomor, which killed an estimated seven million Ukrainians by starvation in the early 1930s.

Despite having never worked in film, Canadian businessman and philanthropist Ian Ihnatowycz felt compelled to bring the little-known story of the Holomodor to Western screens

Would it sound cruel to suggest that the world is better off because Ian Ihnatowycz had his dream of being a concert pianist crushed when he was 17 years old?

At the time – this was the late 1960s – Ihnatowycz was studying at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto under the revered Boris Berlin. "I was told by him that I have the artistic interpretation, I play beautifully, with soul. But I don't have the technique," Ihnatowycz explains, sitting in the office of First Generation Capital, his private investment holding company, on the 35th floor of the Scotiabank Plaza in downtown Toronto. "And you have to develop the technique by the time you're 10 or 12; by 17, it's too late.

"He said, 'You'll make a good teacher. But you'll never make it on the concert stage.'" Ihnatowycz chuckles sheepishly. "I don't have the patience to be a teacher, so I said, 'Thanks but no thanks,' and headed in a different direction. I went into science. And the science eventually turned into business."

And the combination of science and business has served me extremely well."

It has also served the Canadian cultural community rather well: Ihnatowycz is a noted art collector and philanthropist who has given significant sums to organizations such as – no hard feelings – the Royal Conservatory. He and his wife, Marta Witer, who also studied there, gave $5-million to the school in 2005 for the sparkling renovation of its Ihnatowycz Hall, and also endowed its Ihnatowycz Prize in Piano.

And now, he has gotten into the mucky business of film production, helping to shepherd Bitter Harvest – a new romantic drama about a moment in history that continues to reverberate across newspaper front pages even today – into existence.

Oscar nominated editor Stuart Baird, left, worked on Bitter Harvest with financier Ian Ihnatowycz, right.

After leaving music behind, Ihnatowycz worked for a time in pharmacology, earned an MBA at what is now Western University's Ivey Business School, and went into money management, starting his own firm, Acuity Investment Management, in 1991. (Some of the fruits of his success are on vivid display at his office: a number of alternately serene and striking canvasses by William Kurelek, Jack Bush, and Oscar Cahén.)

In 2011, Ihnatowycz and his partners sold Acuity for $339-million. So when the actor and first-time screenwriter Richard Bachynsky Hoover came knocking on his door with a script about the Holodomor – Joseph Stalin's campaign of oppression, forced starvation and purges that killed millions of Ukrainians and decimated the country's political and cultural leadership in the early 1930s – Ihnatowycz found himself drawn in: His parents had survived the genocide, fleeing Ukraine for Canada after the Second World War.

He had never worked in film, but he realized that, while there were "numerous very well-made documentaries about the Holodomor," no English-language feature had been made on the subject. "Outside of Ukraine, almost no one knows about it," he said. "And I thought, well, you know, this is too important a topic not to have a film made, Western-style, with Western actors, and cinematographers and editors, and people that can make a film – for lack of a better term – 'Hollywood quality,' that would appeal to a Western audience." Ihnatowycz put up the entire budget – a reported $20-million (U.S.) – himself.

"I felt connected to it emotionally, and I thought that it didn't really matter to me whether we made a lot of money. What was more important to me was that the film be made and it be seen by as many people in the West as possible, and let the chips fall where they may, in terms of finances."

Bitter Harvest, which opened in select Canadian cinemas on Friday, stars the British actor Max Irons (Woman in Gold) as Yuri, a budding artist from the Ukrainian countryside. As a young boy under czarist and then Leninist rule, Yuri is counselled by his father (played by Canadian actor Barry Pepper) on the benighted history of their occupied homeland. "They can never break your spirit," the father tells the son.

Max Irons and Samantha Barks in Bitter Harvest.

But when Lenin dies, Stalin institutes a brutal campaign to crush Ukraine's aspirations of independence that catches Yuri, his true love Natalka (Samantha Barks), his warrior grandfather Ivan (Terence Stamp) and their village in its pincers. As the people revolt against his orders to collectivize their farms and other property, Stalin orders all crops to be confiscated and the borders shut, dooming millions to death.

The film was shot largely in Ukraine, with a local crew who, Ihnatowycz says, were often overcome with emotion. "They'd say, 'We're filming a scene that reminds me of the stories that my grandfather or great-grandfather used to tell us about what happened during the Holodomor.'"

But if the story was well known to them, the filmmakers struggled with how to tell it to a Western audience.

"To give you an example, there have been hundreds of films made with the Holocaust as the backdrop," Ihnatowycz notes. "So when you have a film with that as the backdrop, all you really need is 10 seconds of a Holocaust scene, everybody immediately knows what the context is, and the director can focus on the story. We couldn't do that, because it's not completely understandable to the viewer. We need to lay the historic backdrop. That made it twice as difficult, and we didn't want it to come across like a documentary."

When they test-screened the first cut, Ihnatowycz says, "the feedback we got from people who didn't know about the Holodomor was, they were confused."

Once he helped clarify the narrative, he says, he stepped aside and let the filmmakers make the necessary changes, including re-shoots, "in an artistic way." Though he had initially signed on as an executive producer – "it's just the fancy term for the guy who provides the money," he laughs – "everyone insisted I become an official producer. I moved from just being a financier to one who had an important impact on the story."

From left to right: Max Irons, George Mendeluk, Samantha Barks and Ian Ihnatowycz attended the gala screening of Bitter Harvest in London, England on Feb. 20.

The film isn't Ihnatowycz's only effort to spread the word about the Holodomor, the full truth of which was suppressed until the fall of the Soviet Union. He walks over to a credenza and picks up a keepsake that is distributed to Canadian schoolchildren as part of a new touring exhibit on the Holodomor he helped fund. Five small stalks of wheat are attached to an illustrated card that outlines the law Stalin passed against so-called "misappropriation of collective farm property, even five stalks of grain."

"If you were caught stealing as little as that, you were shot on sight," he says ruefully, handing over the keepsake. "Many children were executed, actually, when they were trying to take that to make bread."

That detail wasn't included in the film, in part because even Ihnatowycz wasn't aware of it until recently. "You learn more and more as you go along," he explains.

At one point in the film, a stranger takes note of Yuri's talent as an artist, and tells him that, as someone who can depict truth, he has a duty to tell the world about the horrors unfolding in the country. With Ukraine continuing to be a political football today, does Ihnatowycz feel Yuri's responsibility? "I suppose it is a duty," he says slowly, looking down at his feet.

"Let me put it this way. One cannot really understand a country – any country, not just Ukraine, any country – unless you know its history, and you know the trials and the tribulations that its people have lived through.

"In today's world, especially, there is a lot of misinformation," he adds. "I just think that we've created something that I think will provide the foundation for better understanding. And hopefully will allow the leadership of the West to make the right decisions, going forward."