Berlinale harrowing picture of life during wartime

Klondike is speckled with vignettes on how the violence on the Russia–Ukraine border has reached the outside world and sucked people from other parts of the world, while costing lives

As the world watches on with trepidation of the Russian troop buildup on the Ukraine border, Ukrainian director Maryna Er Gorbach’s Klondike that screened at the Berlinale’s 2022’s Panorama section seeks to bring to screen how frequent and normalised the constant violent clashes on Russia – Ukraine border is, something part of everyday lived reality of the people. Introducing the film to the audience, festival director Mariette Rissenbeek, said: “It’s a story that happened in 2014 but it has its relevance to what’s happening in today’s Ukraine – Russia border.”

Klondike plays in the eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region in 2014, in the aftermath of the shooting down of the Malaysian airline flight MH17 in a village where Russian separatists have long terrorised the local population. A very pregnant Irka, played by Oxana Cherkashyna and her loving husband Tolik, Sergiy Shadrin (Ukranian actor who passed away last year) are preparing to get to the hospital while a mercenary grenade blows up part of their wall.

The explosion, when it happens on screen, is shocking, especially when the extremely fragile Irka, all of eight months pregnant lives in the house. But in the next scene, Irka ties a towel around her face and gets to work dusting her shelves to get rid of the grenade debris. Tolik’s car is taken over by the local Russian separatist Sanya for the use of soldiers to transport arms. The dubious propaganda is invasive as evidenced when Sanya tells him, “When the Russians come, we will live like the nobles.”

The already barren village is a picture of desolation as the war is a constant threat, but Irka who is under constant pressure from her brother Yaryk – Oleg Scherbina – to move to Kiev refuses to oblige, perhaps she sees it as a form of resistance. But how much longer can resistance from a pregnant woman sustain in front of armed mercenaries whose threat hangs above her head and who come for her livelihood including her cow, pigs and chicken and force her husband to wear the separatist army uniform?

When the Russian mercenaries come around demanding he kills his cow for their meat, Tolik does it without so much as a whimper of protest. Irka bristles with anger at this submissive act but Tolik tells her they would’ve taken it anyway.

This constant existential fear is also demonstrated in other ways. While at work fixing the house, Yaryk plays Ukrainian pop and triggers Tolik’s anger who worries it will bring unwanted attention from the separatists because it’s Ukrainian. While rattled by constant skirmishes, Klondike still has time for acerbic wit. “What are you naming the baby?” asks Yaryk. “We’re naming him Vladimir,” replies Tolik.

Despite all this, Irka hasn’t lost all hope, it persists in her pregnant heart, for she says, “when it’s all over, let’s put a window in the big hole.” Except as one separatist tells Tolik, “The war won’t end until all your enemies are dead.”

The film is also speckled with vignettes on how the violence on the border has reached the outside world and sucked people from other parts of the world, while costing lives. A forlorn looking Dutch couple visit the village to the plane crash site, seeking solace among the ruins of the plane as a way to remember their daughter killed in the crash. The mother with an empty look in her eyes, says, “I’m absolutely sure she’s alive. I can feel it. They will find her.”

There’s a haunting quality to the visuals of Irka sitting listless in the winter sun with her sun-bleached blonde hair caressing her face while the barrenness all around add to her despair. Cinematographer Sviatoslav Bulakovskyi’s camera captures absorbing visuals of the Ukranian countryside while Zviad Mgebry music is the perfect foil.

That the lives of Irka and people like her are dictated not by the cruelty of fate, rather by the politics of warmongering and exceptionalism of an authoritarian state is the message Klondike wants to convey. In Gorbach’s skillful hands, Klondike prevails in rendering a convincing portrayal – albeit fictional – of vulnerable people getting entangled and becoming casualties in the violent powerplay of regimes from one of the most contentious border regions in Europe and the rest of the world.

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