“Grey Bees is an impressive testament to humanity under the direst of circumstances.”
While watching Dmytro Moiseiev’s third feature Grey Bees the mind inadvertently wanders off to Jonathan Glazer’s masterful The Zone of Interest. Here too is a film about the horrors of war that mostly kept them out of frame as it showed two people living life at the heart of it. Though Glazer’s subjects, an Auschwitz camp commandant and his family, live an unperturbed idyllic life while unspeakable atrocities are committed on the other side of the wall of their bucolic garden, the two protagonists of Moiseiev’s film, stuck in an otherwise deserted village on a Donbass frontline, are affected by the war around them, as they are condemned to connect in order to make it through. A powerful psychological drama about the will to survive, Grey Bees is an impressive testament to humanity under the direst of circumstances.
Sergiich (Viktor Zhdanov) and Pashka (Vladimir Yamnenko) are former miners, but the mine has long stopped working. Life in a small village in Ukraine’s Donbass, on the fault line of an enduring and ravaging conflict, is one of hardship. They are the last two remaining inhabitants, for better or worse dependent on each other. Sergiich is Ukrainian, his neighbour Russian; both try to stay neutral, out of necessity and simply because they are human, living in a zone where ideological differences are a luxury. At times they are like a bickering old couple, but they know they can count on each other when in need. Food connects the two men; it is often the topic of their conversations. War barely touches them, apart from the scarcity of food and basically everything else. Every once in a while a soldier from this or that army checks in on them, but for the most part they are left alone in the grey zone between two armies, a veritable no man’s land where survival means depending on others no matter their colours.
Grey Bees mainly focuses on the Ukrainian half of this odd couple. Sergiich is a beekeeper (hence the title) who has fallen victim to a despondent melancholy. Beautifully played by Zhdanov, Sergiich shows that there is still a shred of a soul lurking underneath the cynicism when he insists on burying a dead soldier he spies from his kitchen window. It is one of several small acts of humanity that are like flowers in the desolate landscape, pockets of human beauty in a bleak world. Cinematographer Vadym Ilkov renders that bleakness in faded colours, though he cleverly makes the blues and yellows stand out (Sergiich’s final, and single, act of defiance a brilliant but obvious example of this). Interiors are often shot in scarce light provided by oil lamps and candles, which brings out deeply toned browns and reds that reflect the moodiness and sombreness of the film’s focal character.
Ilkov’s colour schemes and the use of light and shadows aren’t the only aspects that bring up comparisons to the cinema of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, in particular Winter Sleep and Ceylan’s most recent effort, About Dry Grasses. Grey Bees also is filled with long conversations filmed in single takes, perhaps not as literary and philosophical as the Turkish director’s works, but of a similar mood. This makes for an oddly comforting, engrossing watch, in particular when Sergiich is visited by a young Ukrainian soldier, Petro. They discuss mundane things while having a barbed conversation that feels like a sparring match between two people who share equal parts of respect and mistrust.
Petro is more or less the only physical sign of war, and the only person to fire his weapon during the film in a scene that almost seems to be there to remind us that this is a war zone. Otherwise the fighting is in the periphery, with the sounds of artillery faintly in the distance from time to time. As such it indeed mirrors The Zone of Interest, rendering this small Ukrainian village a rundown version of Hedwig’s garden in that film, a place that is pockmarked by the scars of war but is the quiet eye of the storm raging outside the frame. Moiseiev, who shows a keen eye for composition throughout the film that meshes well with Ilkov’s gorgeous lensing, has crafted with Grey Bees a strong testament to the human connection trumping our differences in moments of need, and a beautiful humanistic film that is a beacon of hope in a time filled with suffering.