By Thomas Puhr.

This film about the Donbas region of Ukraine that borders Russia, set in 2014, features images that are hauntingly beautiful as often as they are simply haunting.”

Maryna Er Gorbach’s searing Klondike (2022) takes place in 2014 Ukraine, in the Donbas area that borders Russia. Although the region would make global headlines when it became the site of the attack on Malaysia Flight 17, the writer-director doesn’t paint on a large narrative canvas; instead, she focuses on a husband and wife caught in the crossfire of this violent prelude to today’s full-scale Russia-Ukraine War. It’s precisely through this tight focus that Gorbach suggests the unthinkable toll these events could have on a nation’s psyche.

The film begins with Tolik (Serhi Shadrin) urging his pregnant wife Irka (Oksana Cherkashyna) to go to the hospital. She doesn’t want to leave her family home (she’s also not due for another two months), but he senses imminent danger (plus, that hospital bed he’s secured for her could be snatched up at any moment). This scene of hushed domesticity is blown apart when an explosion destroys their living room wall, exposing their lives both literally and figuratively to the escalating violence among Russia-aligned mercenaries, the separatists accommodating them, and local rebels. Gorbach and cinematographer Svyatoslav Bulakovskiy’s formal rigor is on full display here; this incredible opening sequence is captured via an uninterrupted, 360-degree pan around the household.

Klondike' is a woman's perspective of war,” says director Maryna Er Gorbach  | Features | Screen

Irka is the more outspoken spouse. Immediately after the attack on their home, she rails against their friend Sanya (Oleh Shevchuk), who has “borrowed” their car to help transport food and alcohol for the mercenaries. “I’ll rip the dick off his separatist body,” she shouts, “and leave him separated.” Tolik is also upset with Sanya – “Idiot,” he calls him, when Sanya claims that “When the Russians come, we will live like the nobles” – but still commiserates with his childhood friend, who keeps assuring him that his car will be returned any day now. The muddied, white van is their one means of escape. Through much of the film, it lingers – specter-like – in the far background of Gorbach’s wide-angle shots: always nearby, but seemingly forever out of reach.

If Sanya welcomes (or at least pretends to welcome, for fear of his life) this paramilitary presence, then Irka’s brother Yaryk (Oleh Shcherbyna) brazenly resists it, going as far as pulling a gun on Tolik when he discovers a (still wrapped) mercenary uniform in Tolik’s bedroom. Righteous anger is one thing, but Yaryk’s hotheadedness verges on the self-destructive; it’s probably not wise, for example, to blast Ukrainian resistance music from a stereo in his pregnant sister’s backyard, all while mercenaries wander the fields just beyond the property. But is someone like Tolik a coward – or, as Yaryk puts it, a slave – for not clearly taking a stand? Or is his “playing both sides” the only logical response when his first priority remains his and Irka’s unborn child? To her credit, Gorbach doesn’t judge any of these four central characters as much as she unblinkingly observes them.

A testament to the very necessity of art during times of national upheaval.”

All the while, Irka stoically suffers through this sticky entangling of national and familial strife. She – not Sanya, Yaryk, or even Tolik – is the one who completes the necessary work of daily life. There’s a tragic absurdity to watching her canning food for the coming winter shortly after finding a dead body near their cellar; or watching a football game on TV, right next to the gaping hole that’s been blasted into their living room; or milking a cow that will soon have to be slaughtered and given to forces that want her and Tolik dead. But there’s also an undeniable bravery to it. What else, after all, can she do? The film’s final, devastating sequence – which brings Irka back to that hole in the wall, but under horrifically different circumstances – suggests that the suffering and courage of women in particular have been underemphasized in coverage of the war. A title card that appears before the end credits – “Dedicated to women…” – suggests as much.

Films like Klondike are obviously tough to watch (as they ought to be, lest they edge into the exploitative), but Gorbach’s images are hauntingly beautiful as often as they are simply haunting. Take, for instance, her night footage of the barren landscape, illuminated by flashlights’ pinpricks of light. Or a meticulously timed composition in which Irka and Tolik’s plight is punctuated by the borderline-surreal image of a crane lifting a wing from Flight 17 onto a truck bed. Like Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s Pamfir (2022), here is another example of some of the remarkable work – both thematically and aesthetically speaking – coming out of Ukraine right now, and a testament to the very necessity of art during times of national upheaval.

Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy BeastBirth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International. His book Fate in Film: A Deterministic Approach to Cinema is available from Wallflower Press.

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