Issue 74 (2021)

Maksim Dashkin: Far Frontiers (Na dalnikh rubezhakh, 2020)

reviewed by Volha Isakava © 2021

far frontiersFar Frontiers is a debut feature film by Maksim Dashkin, previously known for his work on the TV show Witnesses (Svideteli). A clear precursor to Far Frontiers is Dashkin’s 2016 short film Circle Motion (Krugovoe dvizhenie), in which a woman living on an unnamed provincial military base contemplates escaping to Moscow from her miserable marriage and life. Far Frontiers echoes the signature minimalist dialogue and gritty visuals of the short that expose the daily indignities of life on the base.

Born to a military family himself, Dashkin seems to have a particular interest in capturing the military milieu of the far-flung provinces, centering a narrative of service and family bonds on women trapped in the daily grind of itinerant military life. This topic was central to the popular mini-series The Border: Taiga Romance (Granitsa: Taezhnyi roman, 2000) by Aleksandr Mitta and the award-winning film Encore, Once More, Encore (Ankor, eshche ankor, 1992) by Petr Todorovskii. Far Frontiers also offers us a love triangle story set against the breathtaking backdrop of Kyrgyzstan’s mountains where the Russian base is located: Maria (played by Victoria Tolstoganova), wife of Deputy Commander Nikolai (played by Sergei Shnyrev), has an affair with Captain Krainov (played by Aleksandr Kudin). Krainov is Maria’s son’s martial arts teacher. The two bond over caring for the teenagers in Krainov’s martial arts team. Krainov is the local womanizer, who recounts his romantic pursuits in god-awful amateur poetry in the local base newspaper. The affair, naturally, does not go unnoticed, even though it is never spoken about. Both military men go hunting in the mountains. Maria’s husband kills the lover, hoping to blame the death on an accident or on a local young man whose rivalry with Krainov over the affections of a local café waitress is well known. Both the Kyrgyz police and a Russian military investigator arrive on the scene. Maria finds her husband’s bloodied shirt in the laundry and throws it out in panic. This shirt becomes a key piece of evidence against Nikolai who takes his own life at the end of the film, while Maria and their son leave the base for an unknown future.

far frontiersThe film boasts exceptional cinematography by Andrei Naidenov. Reminiscent of work Naidenov has done with Ivan Vyrypaev, the film showcases panoramic landscapes and lingering static close ups. Far Frontiers is the second recent collaboration that brings screenwriter, Boris Frumin, known for an acclaimed high school Soviet drama, Diary of the Principal (Dnevnik direktora shkoly, 1975), and Naidenov together (the first being The Pencil [Prostoi karandash], a 2019 feature by Natalia Nazarova produced by Dashkin). The film operates through a well-articulated contrast between a beautiful yet alien nature that privileges sweeping panoramic shots and the claustrophobic interior settings of a decrepit military base with its lonely khrushchovka-style housing barracks, a sore thumb on the Kyrgyz steppe.

far frontiersThe film’s location in Kyrgyzstan and its inclusion of local people in the narrative does well to emphasize this contrast: the Russian military base is presented as an isolated island in a foreign land, amidst an alien landscape. Beautiful as that landscape is, it elicits little appreciation from the Russians on the base. In fact, the only dream they appear to share is a desire to get transferred elsewhere. Maria and her husband are about to get transferred to his hometown of Ryazan, which becomes the subject of much congratulation around the base. Maria, however, is apprehensive about living with her mother-in-law, as she confides to her friend who works at the hair salon with her, hinting at potential trouble at home. The other potential trouble is Maria’s desire to support her son Fedor’s martial arts aspirations, which her husband rejects, not in the least because of the clear fondness Fedor and Maria have for the coach Krainov.

far frontiersThe film takes a clear jab against the romanticized notions of tightly knit military brotherhood, the honor of military service and patriotic duty. The title of the film is a well-known Soviet-era cliché. It is particularly chilling to hear Nikolai give a vapid meaningless eulogy at Krainov’s funeral, waxing poetic about heroism and service. The tightly-knit community is omnipresent in policing Maria’s behavior, yet unavailable for any emotional support. After their affair becomes public knowledge, Maria is punished and shunned. The priest she confesses to forbids her from taking the eucharist since she has “sinned,” making her husband understand what she did wrong; after killing her lover in cold blood, her husband rapes her; and after the tragedy, her female friends turn away from her.

The intimate bonds of family do not fare much better in the film. Half-uttered sentences, unspoken truths and glances dominate conversation about everything for Maria and Nikolai, child-rearing included. Nikolai’s chief parenting strategy consists of doing push-ups with his son on the living room floor. Maria, on the other hand, wants her son to have a new team jacket and go to Bishkek to compete. The small minutia of their daily life, the small choices they make, unfold unhurriedly but also inevitably towards a ruinous end. It gives the film the slow burn that implies an intense emotional life, of which no overt signs can be observed. We catch just glimpses of Maria’s feelings and desires: her sly smile when Krainov kisses her for the first time, the flash of horror we see when she processes the news of death.

far frontiersThe only two things we know factually about Maria as a person is that she used to love the piroshki sold at the Yekaterinburg market and that her furniture, taken from place to place along with family, never seems to fit anywhere. The furniture metaphor accentuates the loneliness of her itinerant life, but also Maria’s matter-of-fact acknowledgment of her lack of home, her sense of not belonging anywhere. The film dwells on Maria’s beautiful, yet inscrutable face through multiple long static shots, ending with her staring enigmatically into the distance. Apart from a couple of brief moments, we do not know what she is thinking or feeling. This deliberate choice highlights one of the film’s most important messages—the absence of freedom and agency that defines Maria’s life. This absence of agency is clearly gendered and becomes an examination of what it means to be a woman in the world of the film and, possibly, in the larger context of Russian society today. As clichés go, the story is an age-old tale about a woman trapped by circumstances. But we also must remember that in all these stories women are trapped not by invisible anonymous forces but by the people they trust—their partners, men. Men entrap women in social and familial structures that invite violence and death. To me, this is the most important message of the film.

far frontiersMaria’s inscrutable face works in tandem with the lack of explicit understanding of what impulses and desires inform her affair. Effectively, we witness her affair almost from the same vantage point as everyone else—a sordid little thing hastily done in the bushes under the cover of night that everyone knows about. We also know that these stories usually end with the woman dead. In Far Frontiers the deadly drama conjured by men is shouldered by a woman, who is made a passive observer to their deadly cockfighting. In the end Maria declares herself responsible for the death of her lover and the suicide of her husband because this is the only meaning-making strategy she has to process what has happened to her. These are the only choices her community leaves her, the only articulations of relationships and agency that she has. As the narrative churns towards its deadly conclusion the impassiveness of Maria’s demeanor and the beauty of her expressionless face provide no relief and no resolution to her longings, desires, or regrets. Not that we know exactly what those are. Maria abides as a blank spot. Perhaps this is the only way to preserve her humanity given how her utter disempowerment is presented in the guise of family and community bond.

Volha Isakava
Central Washington University

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Far Frontiers. Russia 2020
Color, 80 mins
Director: Maksim Dashkin
Script: Boris Frumin
Cinematography: Andrei Naidenov
Composer: Dmitrii Noskov
Cast: Viktoriia Tolstoganova, Sergei Shnyrev, Aleksandr Kudin, Aleksei Kashnikov
Producers: Denis Kovalevskii, Maksim Dashkin, Boris Frumin
Production Company: Republik, Kinostudiia Sol’, Victoria Films, Mosaic Films

Maksim Dashkin: Far Frontiers (Na dalnikh rubezhakh, 2020)

reviewed by Volha Isakava © 2021

Updated: 2021