Restored ‘We the Living’ Film Based on Ayn Rand’s Life Screened in Ukraine

The drama chronicles life in post-revolutionary Russia and was a statement against communism.
Restored ‘We the Living’ Film Based on Ayn Rand’s Life Screened in Ukraine
A crowd of young people waiting in line to see "We the Living" at Kyiv’s historic Zhovten Theater. (Courtesy of Barbara Scott)
Carly Mayberry

As Americans marked the end of summer gathering at picnics and barbecues during the Labor Day weekend, a much different scene occurred in a theater in Kyiv, Ukraine. That’s where almost 200 viewers gathered a week ago to watch a restored version of the 1942 classic Italian film “We the Living.”

Directed by Goffredo Alessandrini and starring Italian film legends Alida Valli, Rossano Brazzi, and Fosco Giachetti, the drama tells the story of how people’s lives are suffocated under totalitarianism. Originally released during World War II, it became the number-one box office movie in Italy that year.

On Saturday, inside Kyiv’s historic Zhovten Theater, which ironically was built by the Soviets in the 1930s, was American restoration producer Duncan Scott introducing the film to a crowd he described as “mostly young people.” Mr. Scott, 76, along with his associate producer and wife Barbara Scott, spent over two years meticulously restoring the 80-year-old classic Italian film frame by frame.

The result is the “We the Living—the 80th Anniversary Restoration” which was completed in time to commemorate the movie’s 1942 premiere at the Venice Film Festival.

‘We the Living’ Based on Ayn Rand’s Life

Based on the debut novel by Russian American author Ayn Rand, the drama chronicles life in post-revolutionary Russia and was the writer’s first statement against communism. It’s also considered as near to an autobiography of Rand’s life that she ever wrote.
Mr. Scott said the film is especially relevant to the Ukraine conflict because it illustrates for young Ukrainians what life would be like under Russian domination.

“They have soldiers fighting at the front lines that weren’t even born and have no idea what it’s like living under communism and that’s what the movie depicts so powerfully,” Mr. Scott told The Epoch Times, noting how relevant the film is to current day. “So basically it’s to show them ‘This is what you’re fighting for.’”

Saturday’s screening was co-hosted by two separate Ukrainian organizations, the Bendukidze Free Market Center and the Ayn Rand Center Ukraine, both of which say funds will go toward their fellow countrymen fighting Russian forces.

Mr. Scott said the event was the largest screening to date with a lengthy question-and-answer period. Previously, the restored motion picture was seen in 2022 at II Cinema Ritrovato (Cinema Rediscovered) in Bologna, Italy, and in New York City and at the Nitrate Film Festival in Belgrade, Serbia earlier this year.

“I’ve never seen an audience so personally moved by the film, its relevance to their future, and the stakes they face in the war,” said Mr. Scott. “There’s lots of interest in seeing the film shown in other parts of Ukraine.”

Film Restoration Began Decades Ago

For Mr. Scott, the road to restoring the film began 54 years ago and involved multiple ironies along the way.

Because the movie’s anti-authoritarian message proved to be an embarrassment to fascist dictator Benito Mussolini once those in the fascist regime realized the film was depicting comparisons of the harsh goings on in Italy, he not only had it banned but ordered all film materials be confiscated. Still, it was the country’s number-one box office film in 1942.

“It came to be called ‘The film of nudging in the dark,’“ Mr. Scott explained. ”Viewers would nudge their friend as if to say ‘That’s what we’re going through.’”

While the film’s producers sent in the negatives of another film hoping that the fascists at the time wouldn’t know the difference, the real negatives were hidden in the basement of a home for the duration of the war.

It wasn’t until decades later after the war that the long-lost hidden negatives were rediscovered and the film was re-released.

That happened after Rand’s close associates Erika and Henry Holzer, while doing legal work for the writer in the late 1960s, took it upon themselves to find them. Their search and ultimate discovery required multiple trips to Italy and meetings with film industry people over a two-year period. Once the Holzers realized they had the real “We the Living” in their clutches, they approached Rand back in America for her permission to the film rights.

Producer Duncan Scott on the train to screen "We the Living" in Kyiv. (Courtesy of Barbara Scott)
Producer Duncan Scott on the train to screen "We the Living" in Kyiv. (Courtesy of Barbara Scott)

‘We the Living’ Film Version Made Without Rand’s Blessing

“The movie was made without any authorization from Rand. She had no say in making the movie, wasn’t involved in the casting or anything,” explained Mr. Scott about how the movie was initially made. “It’s ironic when you consider how personal the story was to her. This was her personal experience and the message of her novel and film about a collective system denying people the right to live their own lives was very important to her.”

Mr. Scott got involved decades ago simply by having the courage to write the Holzers a letter to offer his editing services. He had no contacts nor a big editing resume.

“A few months later they responded and one thing led to another and I started working on it,” said Mr. Scott. “I found myself sitting next to Ayn Rand and talking about the changes she wanted.”

Because fascist authorities had inserted lines of propaganda, those had to come out while the film was shortened from four to three hours to emphasize the three main characters in the original storyline.

With new digital software and technology to get rid of flaws, Mr. Scott then restored it to its current state.

Sneak Preview’s Michael Medved said in a press release when “We the Living” finally reached theaters in America: “An amazing piece of cinema ... I loved every minute of it! I think you will also fall under the spell of this film.”

“The Casablanca of wartime Italy … It’s a superior epic romance, a masterpiece,” Donald Lyons of Details added.

Saturday’s screening, which took place inside the historic theater built under the Soviet Union and re-built just a few years ago, showed the oppressiveness under communism. That’s while other recently release movies were shown in adjacent theaters.

“For all I know, they could be showing ‘Barbie’ next door,” quipped Mr. Scott.

Film to Be Distributed in Multiple Languages

Now the filmmaker/restorer is working to get support for as many foreign-language versions of the film as possible.

“We even had the movie translated into the Georgian language and offered it in the country of Georgia,” said Mr. Scott, noting a version with Ukrainian subtitles is also being made.

“It’s really been an honor to oversee the film and protect it all these years,” said Mr. Scott. “It’s an all-new release that’s going around world, doing a lot of self-distribution. There’s wonderful interest through liberty-oriented groups around the world and it’s especially relevant to the Ukraine conflict.”

“This powerful story illustrates for young Ukrainians what life would be like under Russian domination,” said Mr. Scott. “And what’s amazing to me is that the movie depicts the impact of Russian oppression in the early 1920s and here we are 100 years later and it’s still going on!”

As a seasoned journalist and writer, Carly has covered the entertainment and digital media worlds as well as local and national political news and travel and human-interest stories. She has written for Forbes and The Hollywood Reporter. Most recently, she served as a staff writer for Newsweek covering cancel culture stories along with religion and education.
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