On February 24, 2023, the world contemplated the first anniversary of the war in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a “special military operation” as thousands of troops crossed the borders to unleash destructive force against military and civilian objectives marked the beginning of the conflict. Dates help us to make sense of history, but this conflict has been simmering for a long time, messier than it seems. You can gather that much insight from Maryna Er Gorbach’s Klondike, a sobering account of one family in the crossfire of incipient war. The movie won the Best Director Award at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and the Ecumenical Jury Prize at the Panorama competition at the 2022 Berlin Film Festival. It reached the Miami Film Festival just in time to add empathy to the images of war flashing on our screens.
Irka (Oksana Cherkashyna) and Tolik (Sergey Shadrin) live and work on a farm in the Donetsk region, on the eastern border of Russia and Ukraine. She is seven months pregnant, and as they prepare to receive their first child, Russian forces take over their town. One early morning, as they lay talking about renovations to their home and the baby to come, an explosion rocks them out of bed and tears away their house’s front. It is a bit of friendly Russian fire, a harbinger of forthcoming destruction.
The farmhouse stands for the whole country, not just Ukraine, but anyone who holds our hopes for the future. Our desires form against reality, no matter how impossible or absurd they might be. Check out the panoramic photograph of the sun setting on a tropical island, which papers the walls of the couple’s bedroom. The effects of war make the contrast with its surroundings even more absurd. “We’ll cover the hole in the living room with one of those big windows they put up in Europe,” says Tolik. There is a sense of heartbreaking yearning for the stability of other countries, where the ability to set up plans for the future and bring them to fruition is not a pipe dream.
Klondike distills the historical complexities of the conflict through their characters. Irka detests the pro-Russian occupation forces and the locals who help them set up camp in the Ukrainian land. In contrast, Tolik seems to be more accommodating. He is close to Sanja (Oleg Shervchuk), a sycophant for the Russians going around town wearing Bermuda shorts and an AK47. We can not be sure if he abides by the Russians because he shares their views or for fear of their capability for ruthlessness. At least, he seems to be trying to game the system: he lends his car to Sanja to move troops around in exchange for access to a hospital bed for Irka. In turn, she seems frustrated by her husband's spinelessness.
Er Gorbach favors long takes. The camera remains fixed on wide shots or pans at a stately pace as people and vehicles move in and out of the frame, close or far away from the camera. Far from an exercise of slow cinema, this stylistic approach gives Klondike an almost unbearable sense of urgency and suspense. We see threats coming before the characters do. In a striking shot that would make Terrence Malick proud, a furious Irka runs away into the horizon, only to stop halfway and return back. As she moves, clouds rolling in the sky project shadows over the meadows she crosses.
A new shade in the family conflict springs with the sudden appearance of Yarik (Oleg Schcherbyna), Irka’s kid brother. He rolls around with the Ukrainian resistance and goes to the farm to convince her to leave with them. It is clear that he despises Tolik and considers him a collaborationist. The strife manifests in physical form when Yarik discovers the ongoing home renovations include converting his old room into an incongruously large bathroom.
A class element reveals itself as the basis of the conflict between Tolik and Yarik. On top of their political differences, control of the homestead is a sensitive issue. Tolik offers to push Irka to evacuate if Yarik leaves for good. That would mean losing control of the land, which has been in their family for generations. The push-and-pull mirrors the conflict at large, with the men reenacting in personal terms the Russian-Ukraine confrontation.
Irka does not have the time or opportunity to consider the offer. A new explosion rocks the town. Such is the dynamic of war. Catastrophe delays personal catharsis and resolution, letting resentment fester as another type of time bomb. This explosion brings complications you cannot fix with bricks and mortar. A Russian missile just hit a plane full of civilians. Debris, pieces of luggage, and a lifeless body land on the property. Soon enough, soldiers come through in a sinister clean-up operation. They want to get rid of evidence and unfriendly witnesses.
It is, of course, a real-life tragedy. On July 17, 2014, a Boeing 777 from Malaysia Airlines flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur got hit by Russian artillery. There were no survivors among the 298 persons aboard. Eight years later, it seems safe to look at the event through the prism of film. Iron Butterflies(Roman Liubyi, 2023) premiered at this year's Sundance World Cinema Documentary competition. This ambitious contemplation of the tragedy uses archival material and whimsical dramatizations. I think Klondike works best at conveying the horror of the event and the monstrous political manipulation Russia played in its aftermath to evade responsibility.
A tangential plot strand finds Tolik driving a Dutch couple around. They are looking for their daughter, a passenger in the doomed airplane. They hold on to the hope of finding her alive. For Tolik, this is a chance to try to cross the border with Irka in tow. Alas, escape is impossible. The grieving couple gets permission to leave, leaving the desperate Ukrainians behind. Irka and Tolik are doomed to return home, even if in ruins. Foreigners can only do so much for locals trapped in a war.
Enemies and allies, everybody is expendable. A brutal standoff shows how little individuals matter when the powers that be move around the game board. Klondike ends with a whimper, as it should, marrying its aesthetic with a despairing look at life under fire. There is a degree of hope in the final image, but the brutality of the events around it is so cruel it is hard to concentrate on any silver lining. Soon after Happening (Audrey Diwan, 2022), we have another dose of horror firmly entrenched in the bloody realities of bringing another human being into the world.
Klondike may be, at times, hard to watch, but it is an eloquent portrait of war. The movie was Ukraine's candidate for the 2023 Academy Awards but failed to secure an Oscar nomination. Perhaps it is too honest to drum up false hopes or the nominating committee missed the period piece craftsmanship embedding All Quiet on the Western Front in a securely distant past. Klondike is too raw, too close for comfort. Expand your understanding of the conflict with the eye-opening documentary 20 Days in Mariupol, one of the highlights of this year's Sundance Film Festival.
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