One of my favorite things about Indy's Heartland International Film Festival is that every single year I discover a handful of quiet little masterpieces. These are films that often go undiscovered by the wider public, perhaps challenging films not easily consumed by a more casual moviegoing public or simply a film in a different language or presented in a different way than typically embraced by those who crowd America's multiplex cinemas.
Ukrainian filmmaker Maryna Er Gorbach's Klondike is such a film for Heartland 2022, a film so filled with tension and so absolutely of the moment that it is almost unfathomable yet also easily one of the year's most riveting motion pictures with a directorial effort by Maryna Er Gorbach that deserves attention come awards season yet most assuredly won't be recognized among the greats despite the fact that Klondike is Ukraine's official entry for best international feature film at the 95th Academy Awards®. Klondike is set in July 2014. Expectant parents Irka (Oksana Cherkashyna) and Tolik (Sergey Shadrin) live in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, an area near the Russian border and long disputed. We are in the early days of the Donbas war, though for Irka and Tolik it has been mostly distant as they prepare themselves for their child until one night when their nervous anticipation is interrupted by an international air crash that has occurred outside their home. The looming wreckage of the downed airliner, based upon the real-life shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17), adds a rich comical but not comical surrealism to an already surreal life as mourners begin to arrive and the crash itself draw the attention of a military conflict that had up to now not arrived at their doorstep. Amidst this universal conflict, family politics will arise as Tolik's separatist views will become increasingly obvious while enraging Irka's nationalist brother, Yaryk (Oleg Shcherbina).
Klondike is a difficult sell, not so much downbeat as it is firmly planted within a stark realism now evident around the world. Er Gorbach captured the Directing Award: World Cinema Dramatic at the film's world premiere during this year's Sundance and the film has been captivating discerning festival audiences ever since. Klondike won't be for everyone, but for those who embrace it they will become passionate devotees.
Every frame of Klondike is vividly choreographed and masterfully brought to life by Er Gorbach's small but mighty ensemble cast. Lensing by Sviatoslav Bulakovskyi is nothing short of astounding, mesmerizing in every moment and capturing both the intimacy and universality of war. Bulakovskyi is clearly aligned with Er Gorbach's narrative vision for the film and allows his camera to simultaneously tell her story. While it is likely that yet another familiar D.P. will be recognized come awards season, rest assured that you will find no greater cinematography this year than is contained within Klondike and no other cinematographer who is more fully able to realize the filmmaker's vision.
Er Gorbach, who dedicates the film in its closing moments to "woman," is unrelenting in delivering the film's obvious anti-war message even amidst the search for a deeper humanity and common ground that defines the story's narrative as Irka attempts to bridge the relationship between her husband and father by calling upon both to repair their home. Klondike avoids Hollywood-style twists and turns, likely because the film is not a Hollywood film but a Ukrainian film made by those who know and those who understand and even utilizing those amongst its crew who are now engaged in defending their home.
While the film's entire ensemble is strong, there's never any doubt that the film is centered around Oksana Cherkashyna's remarkable work as Irka, whose entire life becomes impacted by the wars within her family and the wars that threaten to envelope her even as she moves toward birthing the future and the possibility for different choices and a different destiny. I've said it multiple times, but it's true - while it's doubtful that we'll hear Cherkashyna's name announced come awards season, there's simply no question she gives one of the year's best performances.
Klondike is most certainly one of 2022 Heartland's quiet masterpieces, not because it's a quiet film but because it's one of those films that doesn't attract the wider audiences but is most assuredly one of the festival's very best films. Klondike is possessed by a well-earned, hard-lived melancholy infused with humanity and moments of uncomfortable humor founded not so much in actual humor but because as American moviegoers we simply can't imagine this life and won't likely ever until if or when it lands at our own doorsteps.
Klondike is, perhaps, also a reminder that if we allow our internal and external conflicts to perpetuate that such a far-fetched idea isn't so far-fetched.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic