Crime story of the 90s and elegy for youth: three films that will immerse you in the Ukrainian moment

The hit parade of Ukrainian movies continues.

Together with Ukrainian film critic Ihor Kromf, we selected seven Ukrainian festival films that are worth watching.

In this part of the list, you will see an elegy of youth, a documentary about war, and an ultra-violent drama about the 1990s.

‘Stop-Zemlia,’ 2021

Poster for the film

‘Stop-Zemlia’ is a feature-length live-action film directed by Kateryna Hornostai, which won the Crystal Bear for Best Film, awarded by the Youth Jury at Generation 14plus at the Berlinale at 2021. 

It’s a story about the life of children in their last year of school, particularly the company of the main characters, Masha, Yana, and Senia. Scenes of their school days are interspersed with interviews where the characters answer questions about life.

The film ‘Stop-Zemlia’ has little in common with teenage series like ‘Skins’ or ‘Euphoria’ because it is more realistic and shows a Ukrainian high school without excessive romanticisation.

Almost all the characters are non-professional actors. The film crew created a unique creative laboratory to make the acting natural.

The filmmakers selected ordinary schoolchildren from Kyiv, who then went to the studio to get basic knowledge of acting. And yet, they played as if they were themselves. Even in the interview scenes, it seems like the actors were often sharing their thoughts.

A scene from the movie

‘‘Stop-Zemlia’ was very popular among viewers, although it is a rather art-house film — it is not very dynamic, unfolds slowly, and there’s no plot as such. This is a festival film with a nostalgic story, a cosy atmosphere,’ says Ihor Kromf.

The filmmakers work well with editing, often relying on the work of cameramen who make wide shots in certain shots that may have symbolism.

For example, when they show the main character chatting on Instagram with her secret admirer, and at the same time a biology teacher is telling how the heart and blood vessels work, and the camera focuses on a plastic model of the heart,’ adds the film critic.

A scene from the movie

In his opinion, this story is, in many ways, about nostalgia because everyone’s had a first crush, teenage parties, dance parties at school, conflicts with parents, and separation. This film speaks a universal language because even though all schools are different, the problems of first love and searching for one’s identity are universal. 

Of course, ‘Stop-Zemlia’ touches on acute social issues. For example, the protagonist Senia is in the process of realising his sexuality. He also experiences some symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder — ed.), manifesting themselves during the lessons of the ‘Defence of Ukraine’ when they disassemble an assault rifle. Here we find out that the character moved from now-occupied Donetsk and experienced the pain of the war started by Russia at an early age. 

But all of this is a sideline.

A scene from the movie

That is the uniqueness of this film. We have had many series related to teenage stories. They were acutely social, but they raised the topics of LGBT identity or class difference too directly, right in the forehead,’ says Kromf.

The teenagers in ‘Stop-Zemlia’ are people of their time: drugs, self-harm, and the traumas of war. But the plot is not centred on trends but on youth itself so that this story will be understood not only by zoomers. For older audiences, this seemingly teenage film will allow them to understand their zoomer children and remember themselves, and for modern teenagers — to recognise themselves on the screen.

‘The universal story of self-discovery in ‘Stop-Zemlia’ is understandable in any European country. And this, by the way, is another reason why the film won at the Berlin Film Festival. We have all been in high school, experienced the awkwardness of first love, and doubted who we want to be when we graduate. A universal language and a story that Europeans understand,’ says Ihor Kromf.

Finally, ‘Stop-Zemlia’ has its own aesthetic, and some shots only catch the viewers’ attention: an unusual pet axolotl, a child playing on the playground, and a school disco.

‘Stop-Zemlia’ has a flavour of doubt and vulnerability, but at the same time, it conveys the typical teenage feeling that we are eternal. The film may seem a bit overlong and uncertain, but it is life-affirming — just like adolescence.

Where to watch: Just Watch, Takflix (English and German subtitles).

‘The Earth Is Blue as an Orange,’ 2020

Poster for the film

‘The Earth Is Blue as an Orange’ is a feature-length documentary by Iryna Tsilyk about a family from the frontline Donetsk region. The absurd title speaks for itself: the film depicts an ordinary life in abnormal circumstances, a paradox of happiness despite the war.

The film premiered at the American Sundance Film Festival in Utah, where the director received the award of Best Director in the World Cinema Documentary category.

The film has received dozens of awards and nominations around the world. In particular, Iryna Tsilyk won some prizes from the Reykjavík International Film Festival, the Zurich Film Festival, the Italian Biografilm Festival, the Polish Millennium Docs Against Gravity, and others. 

A scene from the movie

‘Our story hit the American audience quite well because both at Sundance and in New York, the audience reacted very strongly: they laughed at the smallest jokes and cried…

Then I read reviews where our film was compared to ‘Little Women,’ who, during the war, carry everything on their shoulders without waiting for their fathers; that our heroines are a kind of Scarlett O’Hara multiplied by four. I thought there was a certain closeness, that these characters were understandable,’ the director told ‘The Village.’

Tsilyk said she focused on the children but then partially added the scenes with the mother because she realised her importance in the story. 

The story centres on a real family living in the frontline town of Krasnohorivka in Donetsk region. Despite the constant shelling, the family not only creates art but also takes care of their well-being, replacing everything the war takes away with love. The 36-year-old mother is raising four children independently, and her eldest daughter is making a documentary.

The filmmakers lived with the protagonists for a long time. They grew up together, only the director and cameraman in the professional sense and the children-heroes in the physiological mind. One of the filming periods took place during the year of the eldest daughter’s entry into Kyiv university, which is also shown in the film.

The ‘Earth Is Blue as an Orange’ was released in 2020, and the filming began in 2017.

A scene from the movie

At that time, the war was in a trench state with no active offensives or counterattacks, but the village near the front line lived and still lives in constant danger from Russian artillery shelling.

‘Even though these people live under fire like a powder keg, and at any moment their house can be demolished, and they can be dead, they find themselves in some art forms, play musical instruments, and have a family theatre. This is important because this film shows that art can have a therapeutic function,’ says Ihor Kromf.

The characters in the film try to relive the experience of war through art. They find salvation in it and grow in the process of creation. 

‘The story is fascinating because people in the frontline areas not only did not lose heart but also found themselves and started creating and doing something. Even in times of war and ruins, there is still a place for creativity and self-development,’ adds the film critic.

It is hard to say who the central character in this film is — whether it is the daughter-cameraman who is shooting the movie while being in the camera lens or the mother who supports her children and organizes a complicated life, or the film production itself.

A scene from the movie

However, this documentary is also a movie about making a movie about Ukrainian everyday life. It is life-affirming and touching but not tragic because it shows the thirst for energy and creativity despite all the hardships.

‘The Earth is Blue as an Orange’ is understandable and worth watching.‘Utah is a state that seems very far from Ukraine, but the story of a person finding themselves in the midst of war is quite understandable to the Sundance audience. There is a universal story of a person who realises their creative potential and a local story of the fact that we have a war going on. It is apparent to the Western audience. This is the strength of this film,’ says Ihor Kromf.

Where to watch: MUBI, Just Watch, Takflix (English subtitles).

‘Rhino,’ 2021

Poster for the film

‘Rhino’ is a crime drama by Oleh Sientsov in co-production with Ukraine, Poland, and Germany. The plot centres on the story of a bandit Vovan, nicknamed ‘Nose’ (which later turns into ‘Rhino’), who takes the path of crime, but it takes an unexpected turn.

In 2021, the film premiered in the Orizzonti section at the 78th Venice International Film Festival. 

‘Rhino’ won the main feature film competition at the 51st Lubuskie Film Summer in Poland and received the Bronze Horse as the best film at the Stockholm International Film Festival in 2021.

A scene from the movie

The release of the ‘Rhino’ was long-awaited in Ukraine due to the personality of its director, former Russian political prisoner Oleh Sientsov. The director’s name has become known worldwide not only because of his art but also because of his strong patriotic attitude and his time in Russian captivity. 

Sientsov began working on the film in 2013, but in 2014 he was illegally detained by Russian special services in Crimea and imprisoned. His release was sought by prominent filmmakers, including Pedro Almodóvar, Aki Kaurismäki, Daniel Olbrychski, Volker Schlöndorff, and others. The director was released in 2019, adjusted the script, and completed work on Rhino in two years.

The film was shot in Kryvyi Rih, but the city’s name is not mentioned anywhere. The ultra-popular 90s song ‘And Now Everything Is Different’ by the band ‘Aqua Vita’ and the Ukrainian language of the bandits indicate authenticity, so Ihor Kromf does not consider this film to be very valuable for representing Ukrainian culture. However, if you want to immerse yourself in the atmosphere of 90s gangster action movies, ‘Rhino’ is a good option. Ihor Kromf compares the style of the film to the gangster films of early Scorsese or Takeshi Kitano. 

A scene from the movie

As for the plot, one of the fascinating elements of the film is its beginning, when Rhino’s growing up and life takes place in several rooms of the house.

‘The stylistics in many ways refer to Tarkovskyi. Sientsov does not hide the fact that he is a fan. All this work with the camera, the pace, the plot, when the whole life of Rhino passes through one room. His brother goes to war — his brother is brought back from Afghanistan in a zinc box. 

I had no complaints about the cinematography, editing, or acting,’ says Ihor Kromf.

A scene from the movie

‘Rhino’ shows the ‘pain’ of growing up between the 1980s and 90s. It includes domestic violence and the forced participation of Ukrainians in the war in Afghanistan. In this atmosphere, the protagonist grows up. And he learns to be cruel. We hear from Rhino a story about a beautiful ‘flower’ of the soul whose petals were cut off by the world’s cruelty. 

The history depicted in the film was relevant for post-Soviet countries several decades ago. For modern Ukraine, it is a reflected theme, on the ruins of which we have already managed to build a new life, but ‘Rhino’ can help us understand what demons of past Eastern Europe had to overcome. Similar dramas have been widely filmed in Russia, but Ukrainian ‘Rhino’ does not contain the romanticisation of crime typical in Russian films. The acting is good, and the lead actor, Serhii Filimonov, is a very organic and charismatic character, both in real life and on screen. Filimonov is a Ukrainian athlete, activist, and veteran of the Russian-Ukrainian war.

He is not a professional actor, but his specific physical type and facial features, gangster appearance, strong physique, and natural Ukrainian speech with a slight ‘surzhyk’ (mixed sociolects of Ukrainian and Russian languages — ed.) allowed him to get into character as authentically as possible.

The viewer is also captivated by the attention to the details: the inscription ‘Tsoi is alive’ (Tsoi is an iconic Soviet rock singer of the 1980s — ed.) on the glass of the phone booth, the song of ‘Aqua Vita’ at the disco, someone’s turtle crawling among the scraps and money, a poster with Sylvester Stallone on the walls, and other attributes of the time.

A scene from the movie

We should also note the aesthetic value of the film. The shot when Rhino ‘bloodthirstily’ eats a watermelon flooded with red light makes it possible to feel the pain of the loss under his skin. And when he tries to tear his nailed feet off the boards, one question arises in both the Rhino’s and the viewer’s minds: how did you get here, man?

The film uses the traditional technique of ups and downs: at first, the young Rhino and his group of friends seem so powerful that they can conquer the world, but in the end, the hero reaps the worst fruits of his crimes and falls very low. It’s a film about crime and redemption, but, interestingly, without being overly romanticised. 

The film shows ultra-violence and decay, through which light sometimes breaks, but one should not expect a happy ending. The mythical ‘brotherhood’ shown in gangster movies is shattered by the reality of numerous betrayals among former friends with whom you took someone’s life together yesterday. Now it’s every man for himself, and you have to save your lives from each other. The film breaks the veil of romance around the ‘Eastern European aesthetics of the 90s’: each character gets their comeuppance, and, in the end, the question arises — was it worth it?

Where to watch: Netflix, MUBI.

Ukrainian cinema includes dozens of high-quality films. Watch, admire, criticise. Feel the Ukrainian moment.

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