Klondike offers an intimate look at the war on Donbas through the lens of a struggling Ukrainian couple.
The first image of Maryna Er Gorbach’s Klondike is a tropical seascape, complete with luscious waves and a blazing sunset. This is protagonist Irka’s (Oksana Cherkashyna) false utopia, one that she helplessly clings onto, despite the Ukrainian-Russo war raging on around her. Within seconds of the film’s opening, a mortar misfire blows a hole in the front of Irka and Tolik’s (Sergey Shadrin) house. Heavily pregnant and resolute, Irka takes a damp cloth to the ruined wallpaper of the sunset scene in a bid to fix what will never be the same again.
Klondike takes place in 2014, during the war in the Donbas region of Ukraine. It focuses on couple Irka and Tolik, who are expecting their first child imminently. The conflicts around them create conflicts between them, Gorbach blending elements of a domestic drama and war film together. What comes as a result is an unforgiving account of warfare and the effects it has on innocent civilians, although a few missteps reduce the overall impact of the film.
The film won the Directing Award for World Cinema at Sundance Film Festival, and there are clearly aspects of Klondike that shine. The most notable is Oksana Cherkashyna’s performance as Irka. Her role is one of adamance and strength, Irka a soon-to-be mother desperately clinging onto a sense of normality to ease her anxieties about bringing a child into a world of destruction. Irka is far from a likeable character, but she is human. Her steadfastness separates her from her husband Tolik, who although may look intimidating, would roll over and let his tummy be scratched if Irka demanded it.
Klondike’s cinematography (Svyatoslav Bulakovskiy) is also one of the most striking elements of the film. The stillness of the camera allows for the chaos of the moment to be felt in full force. The preference of wide shots, that frequently include the sprawling country fields of Donbas, makes the viewer privy to action before the characters are aware of what’s happening. This adds to the feeling of impending doom that lingers throughout the film. The colour pallet is muted, accentuating how barren their surroundings are, and creating a stark contrast to the saturated seascape at the beginning of the film. All these elements coalesce to create an oppressive atmosphere and should be credited for making the end shot of Klondike so devastating.
The decision to not show any of Irka and Tolik’s life before the war is clearly intentional from director Gorbach. Although other characters pass through Irka and Tolik’s sphere, such as Irka’s brother Yaryk (Oleg Schcherbina), neighbours and other members of the surrounding community are long gone. Audiences aren’t aware of what the couple’s relationship was like before, which I think is ultimately detrimental to the way in which we perceive them. For a film that’s intent is to humanise victims, there is a sense of disconnect from reality. Although it may be Irka’s desire to live in a fantasy, there were times I was all-too aware of Klondike’s landscape being a film set.
I would have perhaps preferred Gorbach to focus more of the runtime on establishing the relationship between Irka and Tolik, in lieu of such inclusions like the Malaysia Airlines crash of July 2014. Although this was a tragic event that should be acknowledged, the war on Dunbas seemed like context enough to focus on. The shooting of Flight 17 (which resulted in the deaths of 283 passengers and 15 crew) seemed like too big of an event to be haphazardly put within the other incidents of Klondike’s timeline.
Despite Klondike’s flaws, it is a still an important film about the devastating impact the ongoing Ukrainian-Russo war has on innocent civilians. It showcases female strength in times of unprecedented adversity and shines a light on all the Ukrainian mothers who must do what they can to protect their children.
Klondike premiered at the 2022 BFI London Film Festival on October 5, 2022, and will be released in select US theaters on August 4, 2023.