Sundance 2022 review: Klondike (Maryna Er Gorbach)

“Another reason why Klondike triumphs is that despite what the plot about people with different opinions working together might suggest, it never shies away from its politics and how barbaric war is.”

Maryna Er Gorbach’s Klondike – a film dedicated to women, as the end credits show – follows a Ukrainian family living on the border of Russia and Ukraine during the start of the Donbas war; a situation that gets worse when on July 17, 2014, the flight MH17 going from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur is shot down and crashes in the area. It is in this dire scenario that Irka (a wonderful Oksana Cherkashyna) is about to give birth to her baby while trying to keep the walls that hold the roof above her head literally standing, as Separatists and the Ukrainian forces leave a trail of destruction behind.

It is necessary to highlight the cartography of Klondike’s narrative as one of the reasons why this anti-war film manages to succeed, not only as a critique of the aforementioned conflicts, but also as a testament to all the women who have been violated and left behind to bury their dead. More than simply setting the film’s events in the border between the two countries, almost the entire plot happens inside or around Irka’s home, and when she finally leaves the area it is only to drive for a couple of Dutch parents who wanted to visit the plane crash site where their daughter died.

There’s almost no mobility because that is where both the conflict and Irka’s life are. No resolution in sight. What is destroyed is rebuilt in order to be destroyed once again. Irka herself acts as some sort of border between the two men in her life: her husband who despite not engaging directly in the conflict is closer to the Separatists, and her brother who is on the other side. The men, husband and brother, try to talk her into leaving her home for different reasons, and she ignores them, keeps cleaning the house and rebuilding what was destroyed in a bombing. Men at two different ideological extremes constantly fight each other over who gets the final say over a woman’s life and thus, Irka’s house is the setting of a larger conversation about belonging or not to a (home) land. Not to mention her kid and how the place where it will be born might change its entire life.

Another reason why Klondike triumphs is that despite what the plot about people with different opinions working together might suggest, it never shies away from its politics and how barbaric war is. Irka’s brother and husband will never find common ground because there is none when your house gets destroyed, when your animals are killed and things you own are stolen. What makes it possible for them to work together in order to help her is something that these men do not seem to be aware of: they are nothing but pawns. Regardless of these characters’ beliefs, regardless of the political statement made by Maryna Er Gorbach through her film, the ones dying on both sides are the poor, the sick, the old, the children, the innocent, the civilians, the young; never the politicians and businessmen who profit from war.

As things keep getting harder and harder, it becomes impossible for Irka to defend her home. Her water breaks and no description would do justice to how harrowing, violent, and tense the final act is. Irka is in pain, there’s no road, no car, no hospital, her neighbours are all dead or have run away a long time ago. At this moment soldiers finally occupy her place for its strategic position. Her husband asks for help, to which a soldier replies that he could take her to a hospital after she cooks them a meal. Men argue and kill each other as a new life comes into this chaotic world. Irka wants to have a girl, which echoes the Dutch mother from moments before, looking at the plane wreckage and saying: “She is alive, I absolutely feel it.” A baby is born, more shots are fired, a house is destroyed, the men leave. As Irka and her baby remain alone the film ends on a dedication to all the women appearing on screen.