A woman’s strength in the face of war: “Klondike” at the Tbilisi International Film Festival5 min read

 In Eastern Europe, Review, Reviews, War in Ukraine

Klondike (2022) encapsulates all the harrowing emotions and diverse reactions that occur when war takes over your home. Directed by Maryna Er Gorbach, the film follows the heavily pregnant Irka (Oksana Cherkashyna), who refuses to leave her home in Donbas, even after it is bombed. In doing so, she disregards the advice and instructions of both her husband Tolik (the late Sergey Shadrin) and her brother Yaryk (Oleg Shcherbina). The film’s backdrop is the lead-up to and aftermath of 17 July 2014, when Malaysia Airlines passenger plane MH17 was shot down, killing almost 300 civilians. 

Klondike originally premiered in early November, and has since won over 20 awards on the international film circuit. It is also Ukraine’s official submission for “Best International Feature Film” to the 95th Academy Awards. The film was screened on 11 December as part of the Ukraine: Colors of Freedom series at the Tbilisi International Film Festival, and was followed by a Q&A with Gorbach, composer Zviad Mgebrishvili, and producer Mehmet Bahadir. 

One of the film’s main areas of focus is examining how different people react to traumatic situations, particularly that of war. Each of the three main characters — Irka, Tolik, and Yaryk — represent contrasting responses to the conflict that surrounds them. Irka, for example, freezes, afraid to enter the unknown by leaving the house she has always lived in. She views her home as the only thing that is stable, and so constantly works to rebuild it and protect it for her coming child. Conversely, Tolik reacts by trying to navigate the situation to the best advantage for both him and Irka, leading him to work with the mercenaries and local separatists in an effort to protect his family. Throughout the film, he struggles to take a clear side, preferring to focus on the safety of his family, which leads others to see him as a slave with no will of his own. Finally, Yaryk is combative, wanting to fight both those he sees as separatists but also anyone who gets in his way, his anger at the situation appearing as his foremost emotion. Repeatedly, he gets into arguments with his brother-in-law, supposedly about their differing political stances, but in actuality just reinvigorating their age-old conflict over family leadership. 

In the discussion afterwards, Gorbach spoke about how she saw this play out in-person following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February: her sister was frozen, unable to leave her home in Ukraine for months, while some continued their daily lives as usual, and still others fled abroad.

Besides Irka, Tolik, and Yaryk, there is a fourth main character — the soundtrack itself, composed by Mgebrishvili. He spent nine months creating a 30-minute symphony, which Gorbach then spliced and placed throughout the film, as a way to connect all the emotional themes. To emphasise the soundtrack’s importance, the screening opened with a solo performance by Mgebrishvili on the ghani, a lab-created musical instrument combining ethnic Georgian folk sounds with that of a cello to create a unique, moody tone. The haunting melody created by Mgebrishvili stands-in for the effects of war, which are generally left unseen on-screen. 

Throughout the film, Gorbach carefully navigates between showing the personal, at times brutal, moments that affect Irka’s life without focusing on the violent acts of war. For example, the actual crash of MH17 is never shown — musical cues instead operate to recreate the sound of the plane falling to the ground as Irka hides in the basement cellar. The first we see of the crash on-screen is a body hidden by Tolik followed by a plume of smoke in the background as Tolik works to fix the electricity connection to his house. As he goes about his work, we hear sirens and see cars and scores of small figures in the blurred background heading to the site of the crash. 

Gorbach takes great care in what is shown on-screen in order to make a truly anti-war film that avoids promoting war via the images it depicts. Consistently, Gorbach chooses to focus on the scenic vistas surrounding Irka rather than on the face of war itself. Using long panning shots, she leaves the main character behind to focus on their surroundings, whether that be Irka’s bombed house, now a window to the natural environment, or the surrounding countryside. Besides her wish to create a truly anti-war film, Gorbach also emphasises the strength of nature, represented via Irka herself. Gorbach does not shy away from portraying the violence inherent to certain natural events, such as childbirth. In this way, she shows the film’s main message: that nature is stronger than any rocket and that life will continue onwards no matter the outcome of war. This message also spotlights the strength of women, to which the film is dedicated. 

There are a lot of messages encapsulated in this film, which the title Klondike attempts to grasp. In the discussion after the film, Gorbach detailed why the name was chosen, first focusing on the black gold, or heavily fertile soil, Ukraine is known for. Gorbach also derived inspiration from the plane crash, which saw visuals of luggage and bodies lying all around the village, their valuables strewn across the ground, leading the crash to be called a gold rush by some. Finally, Gorbach discussed the lawlessness of the situation, with a specific reference to the lack of U.S. intervention in 2014, even though the U.S. claims to be the world’s protector. 

Though written and shot before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the film is an accurate representation of the reality Ukrainians are experiencing today. The majority of the male cast and crew are now fighting in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, while Gorbach takes on the international circuit to promote the film and remind the West what happens when a war is ignored for years.

Feature Image: Klondike
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