Oksana Bairak: Aurora (Avrora, Ukraine, 2006)

reviewed by Vitaly Chernetsky © 2007

The first full-length feature by the ambitious young director Oksana Bairak, a native of Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, Aurora emerged as part of an entire wave of new privately produced Ukrainian films released in 2005-2006—in the aftermath of the Orange Revolution. However, it differed from the rest of this post-revolutionary wave of new Ukrainian cinema in the filmmaker's choice to forgo the focus on the contemporary social situation; instead, she chose to go back to a momentous event that took place twenty years earlier: the Chornobyl (a.k.a. Chernobyl) nuclear accident, the event that in the opinion of most Ukrainian cultural critics served as the key trauma that shocked the nation's consciousness and accelerated the disintegration of Soviet ideology in Ukraine.

The horrifying mishandling of the Chornobyl accident by Soviet authorities, the stories of individual human courage, stoicism, and also panic and cowardice, as well as the disaster's aftermath in its impact on ecological, medical, cultural, and other aspects have attracted considerable attention both from academics hailing from a wide range of disciplines and from cultural producers working in a broad range of media. Primarily, however, the disaster and its aftermath, apart from lyric poetry, have resulted in documentary works, both on paper and on film. Indeed, one such documentary film, Chernobyl Heart (dir. Maryann DeLeo, 2003), produced in Ireland, won an Academy Award in 2004. Thus, a fictional account of the accident told through the fate of one person by a promising young Ukrainian filmmaker could have generated considerable interest and cultural impact. Sadly, Aurora failed to deliver on this promise: save for a few notable exceptions, it is a mostly competent but strikingly unoriginal melodrama chock full of clichés blatantly lifted from Western films of varying quality.

Two aspects of this film can be viewed as definite achievements: the performance by young Anastasiia Ziurkalova, who played the title character, the 11-year-old Avrora Nedelina, and the fifteen or so minutes early into the film that depict the belated and traumatic evacuation of the town of Pryp'iat' (Pripiat') on 1 May 1986. Ziurkalova's large eyes, expressive face, and slender frame make her immediately noticeable; several powerful close-up scenes testify to her considerable acting power. Likewise, the evacuation scene (save for the schmaltzy music that dogs the entire film) is presented to the viewer in a restrained and, therefore, all the more moving fashion. Unfortunately these impressive achievements nearly drown in the slow train wreck that is the rest of this film. By far the worst aspect of the whole product is the script: we are fed stilted, unnatural dialogue, improbable plot twists, and blatant tear jerking.

At the beginning of the film, after an epigraph from Nostradamus and a brief panorama of the exclusion zone, the film backtracks to present us the innocently happy life of children in a Soviet orphanage (sic!) the day before the Chornobyl accident. One of them, the title character, is a cheerful girl with the unusual name Aurora, who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer (see, for example Stephen Daldry's Billy Eliot [2000]). Her idols are Maia Plisetskaia, Rudolf Nureyev, and the fictional Nikolai Astakhov (who, like Nureyev, is an émigré now living in the US), appallingly played by the aging matinee idol Dmitrii Kharat'ian (a completely implausible setup, as no Soviet 11-year-old provincial orphan would know in 1986 about émigré ballet dancers). She also has a surrogate father figure, a fireman whom she visits at the fire house on the day of the accident (and therefore gets exposed to a large dose of radiation). The film cuts to show the same Mr Astakhov snorting coke in a bathroom during a house party (a hilariously tasteless post-Soviet vision of “Western decadence”) and indulging in other self-destructive behavior. He is an embittered person who hates both himself and the world, but is still an eagerly sought choreographer (his producer is played, in a similarly kitschy fashion, by the American actor Eric Roberts).

In an improbable plot twist, Aurora is taken to a hospital in the US. The USSR, however, refuses to fund her bone marrow transplant and no other funding seems to be available. Conveniently, Mr Astakhov is recuperating in the same hospital after badly injuring his leg. The rest is depressingly predictable: Aurora sees Astakhov; he at first is curt towards her, but then warms up; she teaches him to be human again and restores his creative inspiration; Astakhov decides to fund Aurora's (sadly, but predictably, unsuccessful) surgery and dedicates to her his next production, a new staging of Chaikovskii's Sleeping Beauty at the Met. I omit the several secondary plot lines that in no way improve on the overall result.

Aurora may have ended as just another cinematic vessel that sank badly; however, in the context of Ukraine it also generated considerable controversy due to the fact that, in violation of all procedures and selection criteria (which was proved by independent journalistic investigations), the film was “appointed” Ukraine's entry into the US Academy Awards (only the second such film for independent Ukraine). In all probability, the Oscar ploy was but a clever PR move for the Russian-language market, as after the announcement of the Oscar entry the film had a moderately respectable theatrical run both in Ukraine and in several other post-Soviet countries, Russia included. In addition to the Oscar story, another, less controversial aspect of the film's promotional campaign is an extremely impressive informational website, a welcome sign in the context of the contemporary Ukrainian film industry. All in all, however, Bairak's creation is an example of roads to avoid in attempting to bring traumatic historical events in the history of a country to a (presumably international) film audience.

Another objectionable aspect of Aurora is its language policy: in the portion of the film that takes place in Ukraine, Russian is spoken throughout, except for one remark in Ukrainian uttered by an overweight and vulgar-looking middle-aged woman early on, contributing to the unfortunate colonial stereotyping that contrasts with the sophisticated multicultural sensitivity of such recent Ukrainian films as Ukraine's first official entry into the Oscars, Oles' Sanin's Mamai (2003). I hope that the appearance in this second-rate product does not kill the career of the young Anastasiia Ziurkalova, as she is truly someone who could blossom into a major acting talent.

Vitaly Chernetsky, Miami University (Oxford, OH)

Aurora, Ukraine, 2006
Color, 112 minutes
Director: Oksana Bairak
Scriptwriter: Petr Gladilin, based on an idea by Oksana Bairak
Cinematography: Vitalii Konevtsov
Art Director: Borys Firtsak
Music: Valerii Tishler
Cast: Anastasiia Ziurkalova, Dmitrii Kharat'ian, Eric Roberts, Alla Maslennikova, Oleg Maslennikov, Anastasiia Mes'kova, Viktor Stepanov
Producer: Oksana Bairak, Vlad Riashin, Oleg Stepanenko
Production: “Studio Bayrak” and IntVestDistribution

Oksana Bairak: Aurora (Avrora, Ukraine, 2006)

reviewed by Vitaly Chernetsky © 2007