Klondike seems like a curious title for a film that takes place in the Donbas region of Ukraine and documents life at the outset of the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The historical gold rush it references unfolded over a century earlier and on the other side of the world. But that feverish focus on a quick-fix resolution to problems, and the futility and failure that more often reared its ugly head, resonates in writer-director Maryna Er Gorbach’s film.
In other words, Klondike is the reliably annual, relentlessly depressing story of a foreign war’s hellish, absurd and inexorable incursion into the lives of everyday people who have no stake in it and would rather stay out of it altogether. The isolated setting is akin to 1945. The incessant insistence from men with guns that the protagonists appropriately stand for something is similar to A Hidden Life. It’s better than Beanpole, not quite Quo Vadis, Aida? If you’ve seen any of those feel-terrible movies, you’ll understand the anxiety that awaits in Klondike (which is Ukraine’s official 2022 submission for Academy Awards consideration in the Best International Feature Film category).
Tolik (Serhiy Shadrin) and Irka (Oksana Cherkashina) are a husband and wife living on an isolated, rural tract of land near the Ukraine-Russia border. They’re getting up in years, but they’re finally having a baby to build their family. It’s exciting because it feels like a fresh start. It’s terrifying because there is a fresh start of war that quite literally erupts outside their home.
One night, Tolik is about to drive Irka to a hospital in town where she can hopefully ride out the remaining days of her pregnancy in relative safety. Just as they try to leave, a bomb blast blows a hole in the side of the house. Gorbach and cinematographer Sviatoslav Bulkaovskyi create one of the year’s most visually striking and emotionally deflating prosceniums — Tolik and Irka’s already tentative barrier from the war broken, a scene of paradise on wallpaper that bleeds seamlessly into the barren wasteland beyond, mobilized military machines as backdrop to a soccer game they watch one night to let their minds numb to the TV. Bulkaovskyi’s camera often moves across what remains of Tolik and Irka’s home in long, slow pans — offering purposefully composed and steady counterpoint to the chaos that unfolds around them and poignant looks at the ways in which they have tried to cultivate beauty there as they can.
Why do Tolik and Irka stay after that? First off, pro-Russian separatists (to whom Tolik and Irka’s allegiance could simply be a sly survival adaptation) have commandeered their car in the name of their cause. They also have a cow to milk. Food to prepare for an influx of mercenaries making their way to the region that will otherwise menace them. (“Kill your cow and sell your chickens,” one separatist advises Tolik. “The mercenaries will eat it all for free.”) And, well, a wall to rebuild, which Tolik attempts begrudgingly with help from Irka’s brother, Yurik (Oleg Shcherbina), a Ukrainian nationalist from Kyiv who unexpectedly shows up at their home.
Separatists have also shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 miles from the home, an international incident that dotted the land with destruction and detritus while essentially closing nearby roads to non-military travel. But as Irka sees the ease with which Tolik would slaughter their livestock at the slightest suggestion, she wonders how quickly she, too, could be cut down. Her exasperation becomes desperation that may find them both risking it all to run as they can.
Any comedy behind the errors that unfolds in Klondike is purely oblique and obsidian. It is first and foremost a vivid depiction of war-zone subsistence and squalor, and then a sadly valid reminder that wartime causes can simply become badges behind which to scavenge and steal.
Despite the stunning scenic design Gorbach has meticulously crafted, the screenplay could stand to include either more incident or less of the purely incidental. However persuasively, Klondike makes its points early and often, and it’s not until the final 20 minutes that Gorbach finds tragic shape in the tragic toll demanded from the life Irka and Tolic already have in exchange for the last tattered shred of the life they wanted. And like those other ontological observations of the oppressed, it’s clearly headed for a bleak finish.
Klondike’s entreaty to empathy for the larger world may not be a novel reminder. But it’s still a necessary one.
Klondike screened at the 2022 Heartland International Film Festival. It will continue to play festivals ahead of a limited U.S. theatrical release on a date to be determined.