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On Friday, May 3, Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World opens at IPH. This moving documentary tells the story of an iconic Ukrainian restaurant in New York City’s East Village that has served up borscht and pierogi for three generations and now must confront the brutal reality of Ukraine under siege. Director Michael Fiore will be at IPH May 4 and 5 for Q&As after screenings. Here he gives us a preview.

How did you discover Veselka?

I went to NYU film school back in the late 1990s, and I learned very quickly that Veselka was everyone’s second kitchen at NYU. Over the last 20-plus years, I started to learn the longer, 70-year history of the restaurant, which was started as a simple newspaper/candy stand in 1954 by the current owner’s grandfather, Volodymyr Darmochwal. He had escaped Russian oppression during World War II and brought his family to the United States and created Veselka as a refuge for displaced Ukrainians.

What was your impression? What did you like to eat there? 

The clientele are a mix of every flavor of New York City: a lot of NYU students, a lot of older neighborhood people who have been going there forever. My first encounter was with a good friend of mine from film school. He was like, you’ve got to go to this place, you’re going to love it. I think I got a chicken cutlet, and it was amazing. Then I dipped my toe deeper into borscht and pierogi — they call them varenyky in Ukraine — and experimented more with the real cuisine, and I absolutely loved it. 

It used to be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. My buddy and I would often go there at midnight or one in the morning and play cards at the table in the corner. At a lot of places, they’d be like, guys, you’ve been sitting here having toast and coffee for two hours, you’ve got to have more than that or leave. But they were so wonderful at Veselka. They never asked us to go. It was like, hey, you’re here, you’re family.

How did the documentary come about?

I was introduced in November 2021 to Tom Birchard, who is the son-in-law of Volodymyr and the second-generation owner, and to Jason Birchard, Tom’s son and the current owner. Veselka was coming up on its 70th anniversary. I wanted to do a father-and-son, multigenerational story and talk about the reluctant retirement of the father, who now has his son taking over during a pandemic and a renovation. Can the son fill the shoes of not only his father but his grandfather, who started the place? They loved that.

Then, in January 2022, the news started talking about a potential war in Ukraine. I emailed them and said, I know it would be very sensitive, but if you’re ok with it, I think we should explore your history by way of the dynamic of this potential war, if it happens. They agreed, but we traveled through it very gently. We didn’t start filming on Day One of the war. We waited until Day 11. That’s the first act of the movie. The first 30 minutes is essentially just that one day, Day 11 of the war.

What was a particularly powerful moment of filming for you?

There were so many incredible moments. But the mayor of New York showing up on the second day of the shoot, that by far was the most incredible moment. He comes in to be supportive of the restaurant, to support Ukraine. But what ends up transpiring is someone’s attention is so pulled away from what should have been the focus, Ukraine, that he centers his attention purely on the press. I don’t want to give away too much, but it’s a jaw-dropping scene where viewers are going to question how much weight we should give our local leaders.

I’ve been in audiences all around the country. In New York, because they know Mayor Adams, there are audible gasps in the theater and head turns of like, did he just say that? I’m thinking, ok, that’s New York. But I’ve gone to other places. I was just in Chicago with it; the audience had the same exact reaction. So we’ll see if North Carolina’s is the same.

What do you hope audiences take away from the film?

The movie, at its core, is about fathers and sons, family and community and how we all work together and make decisions in good times and bad. Veselka represents this bright light of humanity. Its owners not only support the local Ukrainian community, but the international Ukrainian community. And if two men can do this from their corner storefront, we all can take that as a reminder that we can pay it forward. We can all do simple gestures for each other and move the needle and make a difference. And I hope that after people see the movie, they’re inspired to pay it forward in some small way to their neighbor, to their family, to anyone who needs help.


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