Klondike: an uncompromising, gut-wrenching Ukrainian war drama

A hard-to-watch depiction of the traumatic realities of war, Maryna Er Gorbach’s latest film, set in 2014, suggests the omens of today’s conflict have long been in the air.

5 October 2022

By Patrick Gamble

Sergey Shadrin as Tolik in Klondike (2022)
Sight and Sound

Maryna Er Gorbach’s Klondike, about the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, begins on 17 July 2014, the same day a passenger airliner was shot down over the occupied Donbas region. The loud explosion we hear at the start of the film, however, has nothing to do with the horrific deaths of the 298 people onboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, but a misdirected mortar hitting the home of Irka (Oksana Cherkashyna), a heavily pregnant woman living near the Russian border.

It soon transpires that the mortar was accidentally fired by a group of local pro-Russia separatists who regularly ransack Irka’s rural farmhouse for supplies. The gaping hole it leaves in the side of her home frames a desiccated landscape, one brimming with menace and the constant threat of violence. Er Gorbach encourages us to gaze into this abyss, and to witness how the daily lives of her characters play out against the backdrop of the war.

Principal photography for the film began in 2020, with Er Gorbach wanting to put the situation in the Donbas back on the international agenda, just like the real-life crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 did back in 2014. The full-scale invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army in February 2022 escalated the conflict to an entirely new level, but Klondike’s purpose has remained the same since filming began in 2020, especially amid growing concerns that active public support for Ukraine is dwindling now that the war has become normalised in people’s minds.

From Evgeny Afineevsky’s Oscar-nominated 2015 documentary Winter on Fire to Sergei Loznitsa’s kaleidoscopic 2018 hybrid film Donbass, there are already plenty of films that contextualise the unfolding situation in Ukraine, but what differentiates Klondike from these depictions of the conflict is its focus on the experience of the women to whom the film is dedicated. Evincing the contingency and danger of being a woman living in the middle of a war zone, Cherkashyna’s gruelling performance is an exercise in endurance. Irka is an indomitable force, exuding an air of quiet resilience that compels the camera to follow her every move. The same can’t be said of her husband Tolik, who despite his muscular frame and intimidating appearance is a gentle giant whose indecisiveness seems to irritate Irka more than the war raging on their doorstep.

Perhaps years of living near the Russian border has left her unable to distinguish this grave incident from all the other acts of violence she’s observed; perhaps she believes things can’t get any worse. In any case, Irka refuses to abandon her home and continues to go about her daily rituals, sweeping up the rubble from the mortar strike and pickling vegetables for the winter. There’s an unspoken weariness to these actions and a volume to what is not being said, but that all changes the moment flight MH17 is hit by a surface-to-air missile.

Films made during wartime can often feel raw and lopsidedly patriotic but Er Gorbach is keen to move away from reductive representations of the conflict as a battle between pro-Russian and pro-Kiev forces, and instead convey the complex social and ethnic makeup of Eastern Ukraine. When Irka’s staunchly pro-Ukraine brother Yaryk (Oleg Shcherbyna) discovers a Russian army uniform hidden under the sofa, he is quick to accuse his brother-in-law of being a separatist. But the truth is that Tolik, like many people living near the Russian border, has no political affiliations, and cares more about the safety and security of his family than the flag flying over his head.

This argument between Yaryk and Tolik quickly escalates and Irka finally snaps. She grabs a bucket and storms off to fetch some fresh water, but as she reaches the edge of their land, something stops her in her tracks. The screen vibrates with a belligerent energy and as she turns back to look at the house, a cloud blots out the sun and shrouds her in darkness. Skilfully shot by cinematographer Svyatoslav Bulakovskiy, who, like many of the cast and crew, is currently fighting in the war in Ukraine, it’s an eerie yet beautiful scene, symbolising the malignant shadow covering eastern Ukraine, and an ominous portent of what is to come.

When Irka’s waters break at the worst possible moment the following day, the film plummets in an inexorable, near-unwatchable spiral towards its gut-wrenching conclusion. An uncompromising depiction of the traumatic reality of war, Klondike offers little hope for the future – just a powerful reminder that even in the darkest of times, life goes on.

► Klondike is playing in the Debate strand at the 2022 London Film Festival; it is screening on 5 and 6 October.

Other things to explore

reviews

All You Need is Death: hallucinatory horror captures the alchemical power of Irish folk ballads

By Roger Luckhurst

All You Need is Death: hallucinatory horror captures the alchemical power of Irish folk ballads
reviews

The Book of Clarence: a messy, genre-blending Biblical epic

By Arjun Sajip

The Book of Clarence: a messy, genre-blending Biblical epic
reviews

If Only I Could Hibernate: a beautifully crafted Mongolian drama

By Tom Charity

If Only I Could Hibernate: a beautifully crafted Mongolian drama