Klondike – BFI London Film Festival 2022

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer and Director: Maryna Er Gorbach

As Russia illegally annexes parts of Ukraine, this drama based on true events from 2014 could not be timelier. Although Maryna Er Gorbach’s film focuses on a single couple coping after their house is bombed by Russian separatists, Klondike is far-reaching in its view. Featuring extraordinarily long and daring takes, this film is both harrowing and essential.

Irka and Tolik live in the Donetsk Oblast countryside; their modest house nestled into the hillside gives them wide panoramas over valleys and farmland. However, a recent shell attack has ripped out one side of their house, and their living room now is open to the elements. Despite the rubble and the dust, Irka, seven months pregnant, carries on as normal, pickling fruit for the winter months. Tolik suggests that they escape, but it’s difficult to get past the militia who now governs the area and who is fighting to leave Ukraine and join Russia. These separatists, carrying arms, were once Irka and Tolik’s neighbours and friends.

Missile launchers are transported along rural roads, their shiny futuristic structures juxtaposed against the cows and goats being shepherded along ancient tracks. The signs that war is coming are everywhere but Tolik and Irka are unprepared for it. Although they curse at the separatists they are not ardent defenders of Ukraine either. But they are powerless against the men with guns and their only weapon seems to be the Ukrainian language that they stick to while the separatists now speak Russian.

One day when Irka is in the house alone, her brother Yaryk comes to take her way, but suddenly explosions hit the building once again. However, it becomes clear that it is not bombs that fall but wreckage from a Malaysian Boeing 777, full of civilians, which has been shot down. It takes a while for us to realise what is happening. Information in Gorbach’s film is as sparse as the landscape.

But still, the couple decides to stay put and one incredible scene sees them, and Yaryk, try to clear up the mess outside their living room. Gorbach’s camera is stationary and, for what must be 10 minutes or more, the actors play their scene with utmost precision. Tolik and Yaryk constantly argue, while Irka berates them, finally moving off to find drinking water that doesn’t taste contaminated. There are many of these scenes where the camera is static and this methodology perfectly complements the expansive vistas. In land as rural as this nothing bad should happen, but war has changed this and there is only a bloody, feeble slither of hope at the film’s end.

As Irka, Oksana Cherkashyna is very good, and although she refuses to flee, her sense of claustrophobia is clear. Despite the views that her house affords, one wall of the living room is papered with a huge image of a tropical island at sunset. When she starts to clean the dust off this picture, her hope for a better life is hinted at in her frustrated tears. With a face as weather-beaten as his attitude Tolik is played by Sergey Shadrin. He’s no easy hero, and his irritation with his wife, who seems intent in ignoring all the dramas around her, is palpable. He resorts to drink and to sexual assault, but in all this, Tolik seems intensely human: a man caught up in a battle that is not his.

Some scenes are almost too painful to watch. When a Dutch couple comes to the region to look for their daughter who was on the flight, their silent and searching faces are also dispassionate as they are oblivious to the tension that carves the atmosphere and to the threat of outright war. The last scene, which again takes place in the blasted window, is haunting and indelible.

The word Klondike, meaning a rich source of something, comes from an area in Canada that was once mined extensively for its gold. Quite what Gorbach means by such a title for her film is unclear but her film digs deep into the skin.

Klondike is screening at the BFI London Film Festival 2022.

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The Reviews Hub - Film

The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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