Of Wars, Memories, and Fiction: The 9th Odessa International Film Festival
From Odessa’s side of the Black Sea, Crimea is about 300 km away. If you squint your eyes hard enough and the night weather allows it, attendees of the Odessa International Film Festival (OIFF) told me you could see the peninsula’s lights flickering above the water far East. I tried hard all throughout my four-day trip to the Ukrainian port city, but never managed. As Odessa’s extravaganza celebrated its 9th birthday this year, Crimea felt beguilingly faraway, and the festival served as a place to reckon with the unresolved conflict that’s been plaguing the region since the violent annexation by the hands of Russian troops in 2014.
Photos of Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov, whom the Russians arrested in Crimea during the 2014 conflict and locked in a Siberian prison on trumped-up terrorism charges, accompanied the festival’s screenings, a reminder of the filmmaker’s ongoing hunger strike to protest the fate of several other Ukrainian political prisoners. In turn, a perceptive lineup put the war at the festival’s cornerstone. For someone who had spent the past few years away from Europe (and had not attended either Cannes or Karlovy Vary this year, from where OIFF imported some outstanding gems), Odessa offered a chance to see the conflict through the eyes of directors who’ve worked to dissect the multiple narratives around it. Two of the three best features I saw in Odessa (Roman Bondarchuk’s Volcano  and Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass ) directly engaged with the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The third (Darya Zhuk’s Crystal Swan ), though set in a time and space so far away from Ukraine today, shared with the other two a similar concern for the way narratives around a country’s past can be manipulated to legitimize present-day discourses, wars, and collective inertia.
“You won’t fit here” – Roman Bondarchuk’s Volcano
After picking up buzz at its Karlovy Vary world premiere in early July, Roman Bondarchuk’s Volcano landed in Odessa as a festival charmer to look out for. Bondarchuk, whose documentary Ukrainian Sheriffs had been selected as Ukraine’s entry in the 2015 Oscar race, teamed up with producer Michel Merkt (Toni Erdmann, Elle) to craft a Kafkaesque, coming-of-age tale of belonging that dances between fiction and truth. At the center of it is Lukas (Serhiy Stepansky), a 35-year-old Kiev-native and OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) officer, whose career — and life — take a nightmarish turn once he loses contact with the international colleagues that were meant to accompany him during a drive through a conflict zone, and finds himself stranded in the Ukraine’s southern steppe.
Thus begins a rollicking carnivalesque odyssey that echoes Federico Fellini’s early masterpieces (think La Strada) and Emir Kusturica’s black comedies. Lukas is picked up by an eccentric 50-something, Vova (Viktor Zhdanov), and his gorgeous daughter Marushka (Khrystyna Deilyk), who drive the guest back to their house, a derelict building standing by a massive dam, from where the man repeatedly tries — and fails — to call for backup. Vova’s enclave is a triumph of kitsch and nonsense: a replica of the Statue of Liberty stands by the porch; a boat towers next to the house (“it’s our Noah’s Ark,” explains Vova, “if they bomb the dam the water will rise by 16 meters”); and old bathtubs sprout in the unkempt garden like gravestones. A desperate sense of survival and resilience lingers above the place: local TV stations broadcast war reports, Putin hails the pro-Russian Novorossiya Confederation, but the locals inhabit a wasteland nobody seems to care enough to govern. Screenwriters Alla Tyutyunnik, Dar’ya Averchenko, and Bondarchuk do a remarkable job at portraying Lukas as a perpetual outsider — a foreigner in his own country — and Stepansky embodies his character with a chronic clumsiness and wide-eyed wonder. And no, Lukas’ stay in Vova’s land is everything but temporary. Obstacles abound in his quest to make it back to Kiev: thieves, corrupt policemen, and local femme fatales make the return a hard feat in a crescendo of hysteria and dark humor.
Speaking to Cineuropa from Karlovy Vary, Bondarchuk had claimed the whole project was first conceived as a documentary, and it eventually turned into his fiction debut. I suspect this is the reason why there are moments in which Volcano feels like an ethnography of sorts. Bondarchuk seems as interested in following Lukas’ quest to break free from Vova’s grip as he is in documenting the community that repudiates the smartly dressed intruder, with Vadim Ilkov’s cinematography striking a delicate balance between a naturalistic and oneiric eye.
There’s a scene that encapsulates the above feeling with striking bravado. We’re well into Lukas’ frustrated escape, and the man is slowly coming to realize that he may be stuck with Vova longer than he expected. The two men are sitting by an abandoned, run-down building, contemplating the dry steppe that extends endlessly before them. Suddenly, a women’s choir shows up and starts singing in the distance; a bus stops by, the singers go quiet, pack their things, and leave. Lukas’ eyes widen. “It’s the steppe,” Vova observes, nonchalantly, “all that sun, you get mirages.” Volcano may well mark Bondarchuk’s first experiment outside his more familiar documentary milieu, but the boundaries between fiction and truth are here purposely blurred, and the feature works best when it zeroes in on its lead character’s Sisyphean battle to “make sense” of the disorienting and claustrophobically absurd land that he finds himself mired in, with Vova acting as a memorable, cantankerous mediator between mirages and reality.
“Tell the truth!” – Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass
I caught up with Volcano at the iconic 1,200-plus-seat Festival Palace theater, a venue that almost always managed to attract enough moviegoers to reach its full capacity, never mind how experimental the features and challenging the screening times would be (an astonishing accomplishment for an arthouse film festival, considering how insulated and industry-only similar extravaganzas tend to be). My next rendezvous was a screening of Donbass at the smaller Rodina theater.
To those who’ve managed to keep abreast with Sergei Loznitsa’s ever-growing canon, the Belarusian-born, Kiev-raised 53-year-old’s penchant for collective canvas should come as nothing new (recall his most recent crowd portrait documentaries from Austerlitz , a portrait of tourists inside Nazi concentration camps, to Victory Day , a study of a public gathering at the Soviet War Memorial in Berlin’s Treptower Park). Nor should his interest in the tumultuous history of post-2014 Ukraine, a subject Loznitsa captured in the 2014 Maidan, his uber-timely exploration of civil unrest in Kiev — again, another non-fiction collective portrait. While Maidan focused on conflict in and around the capital’s Independence Square, Donbass zeroes in on the eponymous eastern region squeezed between the Crimean peninsula and Russia — home to a now four-year-long armed conflict between Ukrainian forces, pro-Russian separatists, and Russian troops.
Inasmuch as it zigzags between documentary and fiction terrain, Donbass shares with Bondarchuk’s Volcano a certain hybrid nature — but that’s as far as the similarities go. Donbass is a visceral, visually captivating multi-character study of a war stricken region. More an episodic tale than a standard three-act feature, it unfolds as a series of vignettes featuring people fighting for either Ukrainian or pro-Russian camps, as well as victims suffering from a never-ending, cancerous war. Loznitsa’s camera moves in and around the frontline with a near Slacker-like freedom: we follow a character only to then seamlessly shift to another storyline, and continue to do so ad infinitum. The carnivalesque tone of Lucas’ struggle in Volcano is here almost entirely lost. True, Loznitsa does interpolate his portmanteau with moments of irony and grotesque comedy — a wonderfully loud, alcohol-infused wedding in the pro-Russian camp is a great case in point — but the overall tone is far grittier and darker.
There are corrupt troops stealing from people “in the name of the struggle,” local thugs covering up the pilfering of hospital supplies, a Ukrainian death-squad “volunteer” chained to a lamppost by pro-Russian separatists and beaten up by an angry mob, snowy checkpoints patrolled by starving men, foreign war reporters shunned as fascists and told — or threatened? — to “tell the truth” by the soldiers that they run after. There’s hardly ever a moment to catch your breath and hardly ever a chance to anchor the narration to a clear spatial reference courtesy of Loznitsa’s sinuous filmmaking — the camera jumping on cars, following soldiers, entering bunkers, witnessing interrogations and assaults, one long take after another.
But the disorienting feeling owes as much to Loznitsa’s camerawork as it does to the constant questioning of what exactly is happening before the lens. That intimidating command to a German journalist issued by soldiers of the Donetsk People’s Republic (“tell the truth!”) begs a fundamental question, which Loznitsa deliberately — and ironically — leaves unanswered: what and whose truth are we talking about? Donbass opens with a group of actors hired to perform in a fake news report of Ukrainian nationalist terrorism. It is a scene that effectively bookends the whole film, returning as we do to it in a shockingly violent finale, and underlines a cornerstone of Loznitsa’s work: wars do not simply claim lives — they also fabricate new ones that are necessary for them to continue. Minutes after stopping the German journalist at checkpoint, a DPR soldier shouts at him: “even if you’re not a fascist, your grandfather was a fascist for sure.” Here’s a conflict plaguing a poverty-stricken, starving region in 2018 still feeding upon 70-year-old tropes. With its handheld camerawork, reporter-like aesthetic, Donbass harkens back to the old roots of documentary filmmaking. In that, it is respectfully traditional. But in its efforts to highlight the importance of manipulating collective memory to legitimize senseless, virulent bloodshed, it is ever timely and refreshingly combative.
On Motherlands, Memories, and Escapes: Darya Zhuk’s Crystal Swan
A similar emphasis on collective memory was at the heart of another Karlovy Vary entry I saw toward the end of my time in Odessa. Donbass and Volcano left the festival empty-handed; Darya Zhuk’s Crystal Swan did not. The debut feature by the Minsk-born, US-trained Belarusian — her country’s first Oscar entry in 22 years — nabbed the OIFF’s Grand Prix: the Golden Duke statuette. An American Dream told from the perspective of someone stranded a whole world away from the States, Crystal Swan chronicles a few days in the life of Velya (Alina Nasibullina), a 20-something pixie-like DJ in 1996 Minsk, whose dream to travel to the US (Chicago, as she likes to clarify, “the birthplace of house music”) is threatened by a ruthless visa application and lack of job prospects at home.
Raised by her spiteful single mother (Svetlana Anikey), to whom Velya’s urge to flee makes no sense whatsoever (“one should stay in the motherland,” she reminds her), Velya’s desperate efforts to pass the US embassy’s screening take her as far as to lie about her employment status. Having drafted a fake contract letter, she claims to be working for a crystal glass factory located in a remote Belarusian village (“Crystal City”), but when the time comes to send the US embassy a phone number to check with her alleged boss, she gives a wrong one — the landline of a random family living in the tiny village. Aware that her chances of obtaining a visa depend on the family helping to cover up her story, Velya manages to locate their address and storms to Crystal City in hopes of convincing the strangers to let her pick up the phone — whenever the embassy would call, that is.
What follows is an endearing tale of frustrated escapism that sees Velya facing all sorts of obstacles – from poor reception to unpaid phone bills, and dangerous (not to mention very much unwanted) affairs with the locals. Echoing Bondarchuk’s Volcano, Crystal Swan teases out the dichotomy of big city vs. small village to hilarious lengths. But as Velya’s sojourn in Crystal City extends far beyond what she predicted, the comedic tone makes room for bleaker reflections on memory and belonging. Not unlike Lukas, Velya is a stranger in her own land, an intruder looked at suspiciously by a community never truly willing to welcome her as one of their own. A deep-seated lethargy reeks from the village, a sense of surrender to a collective inertia that affects both youngsters and adults. “You don’t like us because we’re not Americans and draw our own dollars?” the family’s eldest son Stepan (Ivan Mulin) asks her, one in a series of endless and progressively more uncomfortable attempts at flirting.
Velya chooses not to answer, but Zhuk excels at dissecting the insurmountable gap between her lead character and the world she clumsily infiltrates. Yes, the strident contrast between Velya and the Crystal City denizens (and Velya’s own mother, for that matter) may well come down to diametrically opposing outlooks on life: Velya’s is projected outwards, the locals’ inward. But it also underlines a different conception and approach to collective memory. One of screenwriter Helga Landauer’s brilliant intuitions is to have Velya’s mother — a 50-something who likes to nag about how everything was better under Soviet rule — manage a history museum in downtown Minsk. “We used to have rules in this country,” she whines, “now everything’s changed, and the rules are worth shit.” It is a revoltingly narrow-minded “better then, worse now” attitude for which Velya has no time for, but it also belies a problematically superficial approach to the past as an undisputable, unchallengeable receptacle of one’s failed aspirations. “Belarus is our karma,” repeats Velya’s mother like a mantra, “and loving your motherland is a spiritual practice.”
Watching Velya’s nostalgic mother and the Crystal City people long for their custom-made, falsely idyllic past, my mind jolted back to the DPR soldier in Loznitsa’s Donbass who claimed the German journalist’s fascist roots ran through the whole family tree, and the cauldron of state propaganda and conspiracy theories Lukas succumbs to in his quest to flee Vova’s land. At a moment in history when toxic populist narratives have spread like epidemics, Donbass, Volcano, and Crystal Swan are a much-needed breath of fresh air. Different in tone and subject as they may be, they share the same allergy to nationalist discourses and the same resolute commitment to debunking them.
The 9th Odessa International Film Festival ran from July 13 to July 21.