Eva Neyman: At the River (Bilia richky/U reki), 2007
reviewed by Volha Isakava© 2009
At the River is the first full-length feature film by the Ukrainian filmmaker Eva Neyman, who was educated and currently resides in Germany. Neyman has made a couple of short films previously that, like At the River, were shot in Ukraine. At the River has enjoyed several nominations and awards at different international festivals and competed at the Moscow International Film Festival in 2007. The film is based on the 1964 short story “Old Women” [“Starushki”] by Fridrikh Gorenshtein, and with some notable exceptions follows Gorenshtein’s dialogue and storyline diligently. The film was shot at the Odessa Film Studio and mostly features Odessa, with the exception of footage of the river, which was shot on location elsewhere in Ukraine. The film, in my opinion, is very well done and easily falls into the art cinema category, featuring long takes, carefully constructed tableau-like mise-en-scene, the absence of a coherent storyline, and a penchant for absurdist dialogue and vignette-like sequences within the film. The last points made some critics place Neyman under the direct influence of another Odessa-based auteur director, Kira Muratova, with whom Neyman worked briefly as an assistant. Muratova, being one of the most revered contemporary filmmakers in the countries of the former Soviet Union, has a very unique and well-established filmmaking style. Her films usually play with conventions of storytelling, introducing fragmented narrative underscored by the absurdist dialogue and by not-so-sympathetic characters. Muratova also quite often uses several stories, or vignettes within one film. Whether it is a question of influence or not, At the River has points of intersection with Muratova’s style, but also has points of departure embedded in the film’s style and message.
At the River starts with a sequence of a boat towing a raft packed with passengers and their belongings along picturesque riverbanks on a sunny summer or early fall day. As if the camera has arrived at the town by the river all by itself, it wanders the streets until it enters a church, where it encounters the first “old lady”—the daughter Masha—played by Nina Ruslanova. Then we see Masha in the apartment as we are introduced to her mother—Klavdiia—played by Marina Politseimako. The mother-daughter relationship proves to be complex and bitter from the start—the daughter appears to be uneasy and tired of taking care of her mother who is suffering from sclerosis. The mother appears in better spirits but delusional and child-like. As the two old women squabble and move about the cluttered shabby apartment it is hard not to sympathize with such bold unhappiness in old age. Undoubtedly the emotional impact of the film is created by a brilliant performance from the two lead actresses. The morning is interrupted by a visit from an official, presumably from the KGB, who comes in to request a list of belongings of Masha’s late brother, a victim of the Soviet regime who is now being rehabilitated, and so the state promises to return his possessions that were confiscated. A grotesque interaction ensues with women bickering with each other and attempting to perform the strange task of evoking the past and remembering details of the furnishings of the dead man’s apartment. The mother requests that the KGB gentleman, who apparently works for a newly elected member of parliament, help her down the stairs so she could go for a walk to the river. The daughter initially opposes this idea, but finally gives in to the mother’s demands. The two ladies start the journey to the river, during which they encounter a grotesque assortment of characters—a little girl and her mother, with whom Klavdiia has a squabble; or a boat captain preoccupied with the possibility that meteorites might crash on earth. The old ladies make it to the boat station only to find out that they cannot hire someone to paddle the boat for them. Two young girls who happen to be nearby offer to help and the old women take a boat ride to the other shore of the river. There the mother reminisces about her youth and how she used to dance. Her memories alarm Masha and she has a violent fit and collapses crying. The girls run away as they witness Masha’s breakdown, and heavy rain starts. Sitting on the ground amidst pouring rain the mother comforts her daughter with a child’s lullaby, holding her in her arms, using for the first time the endearing name “Mashenka,” rather than more casual and less affectionate “Mashka” that she had been using throughout the entire film.
At the River made an emotional impression on me as a film about aging and the vulnerability that it brings. The film showcases some universal metaphors—the primary example being the river as the river of life, and at the same time the final crossing, the place of reconciliation and death. The film also weaves a more subtle narrative and visual web around its heroines to convey its message. For example, it boasts a masterfully constructed often tableau-like mise-en-scene that offers an abundance of medium and long shots to provide a more broad view, but shies away from close-ups, which are very few in the film, as are the reverse-shots—techniques known for drawing attention to the individual character and her motivation. The effect of such camera work is interesting since most of the time we look at the old ladies within the scope of their surroundings. Diegetic sound effects that feature prominently—dogs barking, birds singing, church bells chiming—achieve a similar effect of integrating the heroines into the larger town canvass. On a certain level it creates a detached effect—the camera becomes an observer that wanders freely from the protagonists’ story to the things and people around them. That vision is also supported by different fragments of other people’s stories within the film. We witness a boat ride, a young couple’s quarrel, and follow the captain of the boat onto the shore where he meets and parts with strangers until, in the restaurant, the captain's story comes together with the old women’s narrative. The film engages with and disengages from different personages with a certain carelessness, creating a sense of life as an independent flow that picks up and drops the principal characters at will. Here the film comes closest to Muratova’s language. However, in addition to a detached observing eye, the film also creates a strong emotional appeal. The old ladies are not only defined by the wandering camera gaze but also singled out. It is their age, their slow painful motion, their helplessness that stand out amidst the flowing river, green nature or outdated clutter in the apartment. This is where I think Neyman’s vision differs from Muratova’s: At the River is a film that holds emotional appeal, that arouses sympathy and moves the viewer. Muratova’s late work—as in films like Two in One (2007) or Three Stories (1997)—offers hard-to-swallow visions of the monstrosity of human life. However, Muratova creates a detachment similar to exaggerated theatricality or as Tatiana Moskvina calls it, “ornamentality”—a barrier of absurd and grotesque vision that allows for a very dark worldview to be unstained by emotional involvement or sympathy. At the River is a different film—it ponders the fate of the heroines and their misplacement with care and tenderness. The ending in particular expresses these sentiments strongly, as the two women lie in each other’s arms. For the first time they are honoring their relationship as that of a mother and a child, a relationship usurped throughout the film by everyday existence and by the reversal of these roles with aging. The painful bond of dependency and mutual irritation dissolves in the rain as the women reach the other side of the river and seem to reconcile themselves with the reality of death and old age.
The emotional impact that reaches its climax in the end is also present throughout the film. The women are misplaced not only spatially, as they make their way, clinging to each other through various landscapes and meeting different people, but also temporally. The film maintains a deliberate ambiguity towards its historic timeline. On one hand it reinforces the “flow of life” impression that gives a place a nameless, timeless existence. On the other hand the film provides enough context to make the viewer think about the timeline and the relationship that the old women have with it. The film gives several mixed timeline signals—the use of cell phones and the election of the parliament member suggest post-Soviet or contemporary times, however there are also what seems to be Soviet markers in the film as well—the issue of rehabilitation that comes from the original story from 1964 accompanied by the strange exercise in memory of things and people that were lost. Less significant touches include the captain wearing what seems to be a Soviet uniform, the taxi being an old Soviet car, the close-up of the camera in the film revealing the Soviet brand Zenith. The mother mentions 1952 as the year when she was young and happy. The years before the construction around the river and some other memories that the old women share also have specific time attribution. I think the film tries to avoid making the old ladies anachronistic in a sense of their ill fit with “contemporary” life, making this life ambiguous and generic, but pointing out that their misplacement is an irrevocable and existential one—it is age, not time. The old women would not belong in any timeline, and therefore the film eschews the idea of timeline as such, preferring it to be fragmented, just as narrative is. The only real time for the mother and daughter in the film is the private time of memory, and the space of belonging is the private space of memory—but this space and time are long gone like the perished son and his belongings. In the film, it seems, aging is about being misplaced in the world and locked into memory that could not be shared or transformed into a communal knowledge of history and shared identity. That is why the women cling to each other throughout the film with underlying tenderness and expose this vulnerable bond to the viewer, a bond of loneliness of old age that does not belong in history books or cultural annals but fortunately for us makes its way into good films.
Volha Isakava, University of Alberta
1] “Three Stories are also ornamental, but the passions of this film’s characters are hard to consider funny: they are enthralled by murder. Both murderers and their victims are the puppets of conventions, lifeless, slow, creating their menacing ornament almost mechanically, since such is their way of filling up time and space. Such is the tired artistic vision of Kira Muratova” (Moskvina; my translation).
Moskvina, Tatiana. “Kira Muratova,” Entsiklopediia otechestvennogo kino, vol. 2. St. Petersburg: Seans, 2001.
At the River, Ukraine, 2007
Color, 84 min.
Odessa Film Studio with the support of the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and Tourism
Director: Eva Neyman.
Script: Eva Neyman and Serhii Chetvertkov based on a short story by Fridrikh Gorenshtein
Cinematography: Aleksei Ubeivolk
Art director: Volodymyr Ievsikov
Sound: Iukhym Turets'kyi
Cast: Nina Ruslanova, Marina Poltseimako, Sergii Bekhterev, Iurii Nevhamonnyi
Producers: Olga Neverko, Oleksandr Tkachenko
Production: Odessa Film Studio, Nova Kinostudiia
Eva Neyman: At the River (Bilia richky/U reki), 2007
reviewed by Volha Isakava© 2009