Review: Veselka


“Jason Birchard has a hunger to feed people …” So intones narrator David Duchovny (“The X Files”), who himself has some Ukrainian ancestry, at the beginning of this documentary about a unique Ukrainian restaurant in New York City.

The restaurant began as a candy, tobacco and newspaper store in 1954. It was founded by Wolodymyr Darmochwal, a Ukrainian immigrant to what was then the “Little Ukraine” neighborhood in the City. He named his shop “Veselka,” which means Rainbow in Ukrainian.

Darmochwal had a daughter who married outside the ethnic Ukrainian circle. Her husband, Tom Birchard, had no interest in the family business, but was eventually drawn in and ran it for 54 years. During that time, it evolved from the corner sundry shop it had been into a full-blown restaurant featuring beloved Ukrainian dishes like borscht. It was also a center for the Ukrainian diaspora to gather and discuss events occurring in the motherland.

Eventually, Tom gave way to a third generation – his own son, Jason. Jason now runs Veselka. As you might expect, the management styles of Tom and Jason are different, and the documentary explores the ensuing conflict from various points of view. Despite these differences, Veselka weathered the pandemic that struck it and all restaurants just as Jason began his management.

Then, on Feb. 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. Many of the 30 employees of the growing restaurant are Ukrainian immigrants, so this was a tragic development for the whole enterprise. Since then, due to Jason’s tireless efforts, Veselka has become a beacon of support for Ukrainians in New York, as well as a reminder to Ukraine itself that the people of America are behind them in their fight for freedom.

Writer/director Michael Fiore (“Floyd Norman: An Animated Life”) has taken this small corner cafe in in an ethnic neighborhood of New York City, and highlighted not only an immigrant experience over the span of 70 years, but also, as it is with so many immigrants to this country, a strong connection to the land and culture from which they rose. The men and women who make up Veleska are altogether American, but they are also, either by birth or by marriage, staunch supporters of the struggle of the Ukrainian people.

Fiore has put together an intimate portrait of these people, including their interface with New York political figures like NYC Mayor Eric Adams and NY Governor Kathy Hochul.

An important aspect of any documentary is the editing, what with material coming form many different historical and contemporary sources, and of immensely different quality. Fiore does triple duty here, having also edited the material.

A lot of the footage is shot on the go within the functioning restaurant itself, and this is also top notch, having been accomplished by cinematographer Bill Winters (“Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich”).

Regardless of your feeling about the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, and there is room for varying opinions, you will find this a heartwarming exploration into human relationships and “the need to do something constructive” when a crisis arises.

Runtime: One hour, 46 minutes
Availability: In theaters, streaming on Apple TV+ / Soon in theaters in Ukraine

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