Director: Iryna Tsilyk
Section: World Cinema Documentary Competition
There’s enough evidence to suggest that the world today is a broken place. Yet, it’s these pieces – little shards of shattered identity and wounded homes – that have inspired storytellers to turn trauma into a complex puzzle of empathy and art. I wonder what it says that some of the most striking instances of filmmaking in the last decade have come from “war-zone” documentaries. While fiction films (1917, Dunkirk, Fury) continue to experiment with the sensory immersions of war by reshuffling the darkest pages of history, non-fiction cinema is making its own history by living – and at times, dying – in the now. The cameras are penetrating spaces solely reserved for sufferers, chipping away at the bullet-ridden walls that separate stories from life.
Perhaps it was only a matter of time before our gaze was directed to the bloodiest corner of East Europe. The Earth Is Blue as an Orange, the first feature documentary from Ukraine to screen at the Sundance Film Festival, is a worthy addition to an elite league headlined by Restrepo, The White Helmets, For Sama and Midnight Traveller.
But there’s something remarkably distinct about Iryna Tsilyk’s 72-minute film. In For Sama (Syria) and Midnight Traveller (Afghanistan), the protagonists themselves – journalists, in both cases – evoke the public through the personal: They reveal the tales of tortured lands through the lens of their own desperate circumstances. But Tsilyk’s beautifully inquisitive film isn’t so much about war as it is about the art born out of war. Imagine a camera capturing those who pick up the camera, a voice that narrates the story of the brave narrators. In The Earth Is Blue As An Orange, cinema is the ultimate coping mechanism. For the Trofymchuk-Gladky family in the war-torn Ukranian town of Krasnohorivka, filmmaking is both a free medium of escape and a priceless means of expression. Tsilyk trains her camera on the cameras of a single mother and her four kids, in what seems to be a town of absconding fathers.
It begins with Anna, a short-haired woman of long-lasting courage, neck-deep in the production of their own short film. Her daughter is the cinematographer, and the living room is covered in black cloth to stage their own piece-to-camera interviews. Given the circumstances, it’s hard not to associate such bytes with hostage videos or, worse, live execution footage. The sound of shelling can be heard in the background. (“I can tell if a bomb is incoming or outgoing from the way it sounds,” one of them informs us). Suddenly, the setup is interrupted by a deafening explosion; the impact sends the camera hurling to the floor. The neighbour’s house is mutilated. Just another night in Krasnohorivka – or what’s left of it at least. The next morning, the two little boys at the breakfast table are giggling. But the senior family members – Anna and her oldest daughter – look pensive. You can’t tell if they’re thinking of movie shots or gunshots.
Some of the documentary’s most memorable moments occur between these two. A woman and a girl on the cusp of womanhood collaborate to create a snapshot of their tragic in-betweenness. At one point, as they huddle into the basement to shoot a candlelit scene, the girl jokingly remarks “I feel like we’re hiding Jews.” One can only imagine that she might have watched enough World War II movies, ranging from The Great Dictator to Schindler’s List, to spell out the irony of own drastic environment. The distant and not-so-distant shelling, meanwhile, provides the relentless background score.
The rest of the film is more or less a montage of the family’s red-zoned existence: The shooting of their short, nightly movie sessions, the swiss-cheese-holed remains of the town, the debris of their past, Christmas and birthday celebrations. There are no voice-overs or interviews, just the passing of time – and reels – in a city torn apart by the vagaries of time. Most of the images on their own are haunting. The teenagers of the town click artful photographs of a land under siege. They hang out at the riverbank, perhaps because water is the only thing that cannot be deformed by bombs and violence. Students celebrate their graduation by dolling up and posing with their degrees in front of damaged streets, even as military trucks steam past them. When Anna and her daughter learn of the girl’s film-school scholarship, I couldn’t help but think of all the famous artists who accept awards with speeches that begin with “I first picked up the camera in my war-torn hometown.”
When Anna helps her settle into the university hostel, it’s worth reflecting upon how art – often the last resort for people of peace – can be a saviour for people of strife. One culture’s castaway is another culture’s lifeboat. In another scene of alarming irony, the women argue about amplifying the “look” of war in their film. A panoramic and exploitative shot of the ravaged town is proposed by Anna, who believes that their life is too ‘normal’ to authentically denote the reality of their region. This is promptly followed by the women convincing Ukranian soldiers on an ominous-looking tank to help them enact a crucial scene. The sight of these men – one of the rare times this film reveals the physical form of masculinity – participating, using the clap and observing the playback is both amusing and strangely heartbreaking. Ditto for the sight of the family later cutting a cake: a mud-cake that inadvertently resembles a land being cut into messy portions.
The final moments are deeply affecting: The family’s short film is screened in one of the town’s many dilapidated buildings. Wet eyes in a dark room watch their life presented as a story. In other words, cinema marries the reason people need cinema. They react to the screen through the retrospective pain of nostalgia and loss. The greatest conceit of Tsilyk’s film is that the short made in it isn’t quite revealed…because perhaps it doesn’t need to be. The sheer existence of the short far outweighs its content. Anna’s question rings true on each of the viewer’s faces: If everyone leaves, who will rebuild the city? In that sense, The Earth is Blue as an Orange is merely a humane making-of documentary – except it goes behind the scenes of a film chronicling the breaking-of a region.