If nothing else, Ukrainian director Maryna Er Gorbach’s first solo-helmed feature Klondike can be credited with uncanny timing. A vivid look at an ordinary farming family in the occupied Donbas region of Ukraine, who just happen to have a full wall of their home destroyed by an errant missile, its European premiere at the 2022 Berlinale was followed only days later by Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country, which of course continues unabated. It would be one of the last Ukrainian features to conclude production before the war broke out (and indeed, many of its key artists and filmmakers have gone to fight on the front lines), a prophetic missive from a country that has stunned the world with its resilience in the face of crisis.
Er Gorbach, who’s based in Istanbul and previously co-directed several features with her spouse Mehmet Bahadir Er, reveals herself as a filmmaker able to conjure an imposing sense of scale, and creditably evoke with massive props (and some post-production trickery) the wreckage of the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which is interweaved through the predicament of the fictional characters, Irka (Oksana Cherkashyna) and Tolik (the late Sergey Shadrin), who are weighing up departing their small farm as the separatist conflict rages. Irka’s late stage pregnancy provides another ticking-clock element for their safety, and various familial and social connections, and their attendant loyalties to the war’s two sides, precipitate a spiral towards tragedy.
With a U.S. release this week following its well-received Sundance 2022 world premiere, I caught up with Er Gorbach via a video call, where our chat spanned the film and the pressing geopolitical issues it’s intimately caught up with.
The Film Stage: Where did the initial inspiration to tell this particular story, set amidst the Donbas conflict, come from?
Maryna Er Gorbach: Regarding the war––which started in 2014, in Ukraine––it’s a movie which is basically asking a question: what’s happening there? What’s happening in this house? What’s happening with these people? What’s happening on the border? Who are those mercenaries? It proceeds from one question to another. On 17th July 2014, when the Malaysian airline actually crashed over Donbas, it provoked these same questions. Like all of us in Ukraine––or at least my friends and I––we were just shocked. There are rockets in the middle of Donbas which can shoot down a civil aeroplane. So that was the very beginning––my shock, let’s say, because I believe that, somehow, Klondike is a mirror of my emotions of those days.
I feel a link with the main protagonist, Irka, though she’s a somewhat passive figure, despite containing agency. She’s on the slight periphery of this conflict that’s unfurling on both a micro and macro scale.
For me, it was natural to use a woman in the middle of the story. Because I am a woman director and I know, you know, women “muscles” and women instincts. From my soul, from my body. They were super-important because finally, when you watch Klondike, it’s not really about any military or family conflict. It’s about a conflict between creation and destroying. And Irka, she represents creation.
The actress, Oksana Cherkashyna, comes from Ukrainian theatre––I also saw her in Bad Roads at the 2020 Venice Film Festival.
She was in the opening segment, where a woman with white hair and red lipstick is driving a car towards the checkpoint. But I know that for some countries, the sales agency decided to cut this scene.
Maryna Er Gorbach
Could you say a few words about Sergey Shadrin, who plays Tolik? Did he have a similar acting background?
You know, we have a very interesting story with Tolik, because our casting director, Tetyana Symon, showed me his pictures and said, “Look at this man.” And the pictures were, you know, fantastic because he has this very, very interesting face and so on. But his profession was a stuntman, so basically he’s fighting, jumping. He was doing all those kinds of action movies. And he never had any professional acting education. And I didn’t want to have a typical “macho man” in my movie. You know, I really wanted to have somebody who doesn’t understand what he has to do and totally doesn’t understand what’s happening. He belongs to Irka, she’s his goddess, and he wants to save her and he doesn’t know how he will manage all this, all this stuff.
When I saw his pictures I was thinking, “He has too much menace, he’s much too macho.” But we decided to try. Let’s cast him. And when he came to us, I have this particular way of casting actors: I never ask them to play the scene from the film. I want to understand, you know, how they are. They are in their mission. I want to know, as an actor, what they can do, where they are, how far they can go. I asked him to act as a small boy, a six-year-old.
So you asked him, as this well-built 40-year-old man, to be a six-year-old. Wow.
Yeah, I really imagined Tolik as boy who just woke up in the middle of Donbas and doesn’t understand what’s happening. So he was acting as a small boy who came to school, and he is an outsider. No one wants to be friends with him. And just made a perfect scene, you know. For the actor Sergey Shadrin, this was his first leading role and, unfortunately, his last leading role. [He died soon after the film’s principal photography, on June 3rd, 2021.]
Your mise-en-scène is very striking. You can almost estimate the number of shots in the film, yet you use them to convey as much as you can. It’s the combination of wide lenses and those enormous horizons, and occasional, surprising camera movements.
It was a directorial “statement” because I knew that for my final scene, my final message, it’s only possible to accomplish it in one shot because we are talking about the miracle of life. And you cannot cut it. It’s always about the “period,” and there is always kind of stress or shock before I cut, you know. Yeah. So now in Ukraine, we also say “before” war and “after,” and this sense of a “period” or full stop is repeated.
One of your key inspirations is Larisa Shepitko, most famous for The Ascent, a key Eastern Front World War II film. Can you talk about your connection to her, and what you’ve learned from her work?
You know, she’s from Donbas; she was born there. I’m inspired by her but also by Maya Deren.
Now that you say that, I can see a connection to At Land––the mobility of the lead female character, crawling on the arid plains…
With Shepitko’s cinema, she speaks about war. But at the same time, she’s so much about people and she’s standing with the human. And Maya, for me, is just a master of cinema language in communication with viewers’ feelings. My conditions were that I cannot say, “Who are the soldiers?” Because, you know, they didn’t have any flag on their uniforms. In 2014, the world wasn’t as aware of the war in Ukraine. My conditions were to ask questions but in a cinematographic way. Like these female film directors, who are just masters.
You premiered the film at an uncanny moment: immediately afterwards, we had the full outbreak of the war. I’m wondering what it’s been like, you know, to tour with the film and show it, around the world, to many different audiences and to hear about the reactions you’ve had.
It’s a very good question, actually. It was the initial day after the full-scale war started, in Switzerland. There was this audience question about the final scene, whether we have any hope as human beings? I said that right now, there is no bomb which can destroy the sun. So we still have sunrise and sunset. And this means that we have a hope. And to travel with this movie, it was not only to speak about my own fears––because it’s not only about my fears anymore. I think that we are potentially living at the end of “ages,” which we name “civilization”, but we don’t really know. We face ages of creation. I hope creation will win. Yes, but I don’t know the future.
What’s your impression of the conflict at this current time? And do you have any hopes for its potential cessation?
Excuse me, it’s war. It’s very important to understand that this is war because, yeah, one can say they have conflict. But Russia and Ukraine, they’re at war, okay. And this is a very important distinction to make.
Indeed, let me correct my previous comment!
I am not ready to be Cassandra anymore. I just really want to say that this war––this full-scale war––it’s going on too long already. And it’s not only war between Russia and Ukraine; it is also war in the imagination of both, on the question of, “Who is the hero?” Who is the contemporary hero? When it started last year, the contemporary hero from the very beginning, it was any Ukrainian man or woman who just took any gun which they could find, and they join the Territorial Defence Forces. Then we had professional soldiers. Then we had President Zelensky.
And many, many other people who were making, you know, miracles. As a Ukrainian. I want to continue this. I want to tell about other heroes who are fighting for their houses, lands, and protecting Ukraine. But as a director I want to say that––regarding history, life, drama, and screenwriting––it’s never too simple to describe the future.
You’re not Cassandra, as you say.
I mean, as long as Ukraine doesn’t have the weapons to make a counter-attack, Russia has more time to prepare new guns. It is still a very big country. And our bravery, Ukrainian bravery, needs more military stuff to win. It’s not possible only with human heroism.
Klondike opens in theaters on August 4.