Veselka: This Doc About a Ukrainian Eatery in NYC Offers a Feast for the Soul

Through the compassionate lens of filmmaker Michael Fiore

Michael Fiore has been eating at Veselka, a Ukrainian soul food restaurant in New York City's East Village, for more than 20 years. He first discovered the diner-style eatery famous for pierogi and borscht while studying film at New York University in the 1990s. Now an established director and screenwriter, Fiore made Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World. The acclaimed documentary tells the history of the iconic establishment and speaks to the Ukrainian experience in America.

Beyond food, compassion is also on the menu at this 70-year-old family-run restaurant. Third-generation owner Jason Birchard, who took over after his father Tom retired, continues Veselka's tradition of nourishing and nurturing the Ukrainian community.

In the film, we see how these efforts shift into high gear when Russia invades Ukraine in Feb. 2022. Jason sponsors employees' family members so they can escape the war and find safety in the United States.

Here, Fiore talks about the origins of his uplifting film, how he built trust with his subjects and why filmmakers must be open to stories all around us.

What made you want to do a film about Veselka?

Michael Fiore: I was introduced to Tom and Jason by a mutual colleague in Nov. 2021. My dad had some major health issues, and when I met Tom and Jason, I saw this story where I could do a deep dive on a father/son relationship. It felt like the medicine I needed.

The war, at that point, was not something that anyone was imagining, and Tom and Jason sat on the idea. [As rumblings about war emerged], I emailed them in early February or late January of 2022, and I said, "Given that your grandfather and father-in-law respectively started Veselka to give refuge to Ukrainians displaced by World War II, if this war does happen, there's a lot of parallels here that we might want to explore."

They agreed. The first day of filming was on the 11th day of the war.

In the beginning of the film, you allow us to see that Veselka's Ukrainian employees, who are obviously worried about their families back home, don't want to talk to you about the war. How did you build trust so that they felt comfortable opening up?

There was a lot of media [approaching the staff] in those first two weeks, and they didn't know the difference between CNN and Mike Fiore, independent filmmaker. Jason would tell people, "Oh, he's with us," but that didn't matter to anybody.

So, for act one, I like to say it's more ENG—electronic news-gathering style—than it is a cinematic documentary, because we were figuring out the logistics and how we could connect with the people that work there.

By the time we start getting into act two, the camera gets closer. It's less long lens. We're kind of being welcomed in, and the movie starts to feel more cinematic. That was an evolution that took place. Life evolved and the relationships evolved.

Why did you bring in David Duchovny to narrate the film?

I sat down with Tom and Jason ... I tried some recordings with them, and as warm and wonderful as they are in a cinema verité, they're not narrators. And so I said to them, "I'd like to go to somebody who knows the restaurant, a neighborhood voice speaking from the heart. Who do you recommend?" They put a few names down on paper, and David made perfect sense. He grew up in the neighborhood. I cold called his agent, and they responded within a couple of days, and they said he would love to do it, and he's been amazingly supportive.

You found such a complex, emotional story at a small business that you just happen to love. There is a lesson here about how great stories are all around us.

You could probably find an amazing story in every restaurant in New York City. Go into the restaurant, talk to the owners. If they've got a countertop, sit there and talk to the staff. Do a little deep dive. Probably in the span of a few hours, you can figure the intrigue to a certain place. That's what came out of that first sit down with Tom and Jason.

I think people would be surprised to learn that the film has been shown in Ukraine.

We opened on Feb, 22, and Feb. 28 was closing night. We were in six cinemas across four cities—Kyiv, Lviv, Kharkiv and Odesa, and we were averaging about 60 to 70 people per screening. The fact that that many people were coming out to see a movie is just amazing to me. You want your story to reach as many people around the world as possible. And for it to ope [in Ukraine] a day before it did anywhere else was incredible to me.

What do you hope people get out of this film?

Veselka always had lines to get in, especially on brunch days. But when the war started, it was incredible. It literally went around the corner down the avenue. [Pro-Ukraine] rallies were being staged, and an outpouring of compassion permeated New York City.

Unfortunately, you cut to two years later, and the war is as bad as it's ever been. Putin has threatened nuclear war. Obviously, the core Ukrainian population in New York and across the country is still really supportive. But there's a huge drop-off, especially when you look on social media. I don't know why they're hesitant, but people should be as loud as they were on day one. And that's where I hope the movie hits. I couldn't have asked for better timing on the release.

I hope it resonates with people. We need to continue to be compassionate, not just towards the Ukrainians, but to our neighbors, wherever we live.

And pay it forward. A lot of good comes out of simple gestures. Jason starts with selling borscht and giving the proceeds to Ukraine, but it then started to grow into bigger things as you see throughout the movie. And the community caught that dream, too. And that's amazing.

Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World is currently playing through March 14 in New York City, Los Angeles and Bernardsville, N.J. Click here for theaters.

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