Issue 63 (2019)

Darya Zhuk: Crystal Swan (Khrustal’, 2018)

reviewed by Olga Klimova © 2019

crystal swanOn 30 June 2018 Crystal Swan, a film from the small Eastern European country Belarus by the young film director Darya [Dar'ia] Zhuk, opened the East of the West competition at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. Since its success at this A-class event, this co-production between Belarus, Germany, US and Russia, has travelled to the Almaty International Film Festival, the Tbilisi IFF, and the Odessa IFF, where it received the Grand Prix. It also won the main prize at the Window on Europe Russian Film Festival in Vyborg in the category Coproduction, as well as the prize of the Russian Guild of Film Critics and Film Scholars. It has also received international accolades at Milan, Bergen, Cork and other film festivals.

For Zhuk, Crystal Swan is her feature debut after a number of music videos, commercials, TV projects, documentaries, and short films. What unites many of Zhuk’s previous shorts with this feature is her detailed focus on female characters and the dramatic and tragic situations in which they find themselves in an unfair and often ossified, patriarchal world. In many of her films, she manages to reveal and expose the most sacral, painful, and emotional parts of female characters’ experiences. Her characters may include a little girl, a seriously ill young woman, or a female Orthodox Jew discovering their identities and exploring their sexuality (The Air Inside Her and Wax); young women on their coming-of-age journey (The Real American and Crystal Swan); or older women trying to deal with some unexpected news and discoveries (The Air Inside Her and Half-Life). As she defines on her personal website, her goal as a director is to “tell fun, unapologetically messy stories about always strong, diverse, and sometimes shocking women.”

crystal swanThe director herself may object to her 2018 film being named a “women’s drama” (especially by male representatives of the film industry); however, Crystal Swan, fits well within the framework of “women’s cinema”—cinema made by women, often about women, and distinguished by a specific female voice and presented through the unique female gaze. According to Zhuk, among the female directors who had an impact on her cinematic vision in Crystal Swan were Kira Muratova and Susan Seidelman. References to their films can be found throughout Crystal Swan,along with intertextual connections to the films by Jim Jarmusch, Mike Nichols, Paweł Pawlikowski, Andrei Tarkovskii, and others. American professional film circles have recognized Zhuk’s potential in making strong, relevant films about women through a specific female perspective (Dalton 2018, Lodge 2018); in 2015 she received the best female writer-director award from New York Women in Film and Television for her previous short, The Real American.

Besides being directed by a young female director, Crystal Swan has other women participating in the production process as creative forces. Zhuk, together with writer, poet and filmmaker Helga Landauer, co-wrote the script for her film. The Brazilian cinematographer Carolina Costa is the woman behind the camera, whose use of the 4:3 Academy ratio adds a more realistic and even nostalgic effect, and whose unique vision has created another layer of meaning to the overall unsophisticated and straight-forward narrative plot of the film. Zhuk’s film crew also includes a female casting director and a female costume designer, and a team of producers consisting of women and men.

crystal swanIn order to make “honest” women’s cinema, female filmmakers should also have a chance to express their voice and share their opinion and artistic vision freely, without limitations and censorship. For that reason, the means of production should be also free from mainstream, patriarchal, and institutional ties. In her production of Crystal Swan, Zhuk (partly intentionally and partly due to circumstances) has been able to stay faithful to her original intentions and ideas, because she received a budget for her film from five different production companies located in Germany, US, Russia and Belarus. In her interviews she explains that neither of these companies tried to limit any of her artistic choices or forced her to make any changes into the film. Because the Belarusian government did not provide her with any financial support apart from the use of locations and some costumes and equipment, the state’s control over production and distribution was minimal. The only scene that the director had to cut for the wide-screen release in Belarus in August 2018 was the final scene with the mass protests “Chernobyl'skii shliakh” (“Chernobyl Way”) dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the Chernobyl tragedy on one of the central streets of Minsk, Frantsisk Skorina Avenue. Even though the Chernobyl'skii shliakh has been taking place every year since 1989, it is with this protest in 1996 that it gained more political overtones and has also started to promote civic, ideological, and political freedom in the country.

There are several reasons why Zhuk’s film has managed to avoid any harsh criticism from the Belarusian government and has even been submitted for the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film from Belarus. Among these reasons is her attempt to create a more abstract timeline for the events in her film. Besides the Chernobyl protest in the closing scene, the temporal markers point at the more general transitional decade of the 1990s with numerous references to the disappearing Soviet times. The signifiers of that period include tape recorders and players, large headphones, an outdated Soviet-style interior design of apartments, Andrei Gubin’s song “Boy-tramp” (1994), and easily recognizable fashion of the 1990s such as clothes with shoulder pads, Adidas and “zhatka,” or “pressed” track suits, and backcombed and hair-sprayed bangs. The remnants of the corpse of the Soviet empire with “Byelorussia” as its part are represented in the sculptures of Lenin and the Byelorussian poet, Iakub Kolas, in the Zair Azgur museum; a stained-glass window with a hammer and a sickle inside of a red star in the WWII museum; old Soviet relics at the flea market; and the popular song “Spadchyna” (“Motherland,” 1972) by the famous Belarusian band Pesniary. Zhuk adds documentary footage from Minsk in the 1990s with locations recognizable to all Belarusians: the Palace of Sport, Victory Square, the Komarovskii market, and Skorina Avenue (the former Lenin Avenue and current Independence Avenue) to set a more authentic, nostalgic tone from the very beginning of the film. Thus, Crystal Swan serves as Zhuk’s personal artistic recollection of what it meant to live and grow up in Minsk in the mid-1990s.

Another reason why Crystal Swan was not subjected to state censorship and was released in cinemas in Belarus, Russia, and other former Soviet republics with ease (even though it did provoke some negative reaction among Belarusian viewers) is its relatively mild critique of the state and of the Belarusian mentality in the 1990s. Unlike late-Soviet perestroika chernukha films with their tendency to depict a bleak, pessimistic, and overall negative atmosphere in the country at the end of the Soviet era and to present both the old and the new generations as dysfunctional and corrupt, the director of Crystal Swan manages to avoid using only black and white, while sharing her own memories of Belarus in the 1990s with her viewers. In this regard, Crystal Swan is more about Zhuk’s own nuanced emotional, intellectual, and philosophical reaction to the cultural transformation of Belarus in the 1990s rather than a commentary on the social, political and ideological changes in the country from the position of an active citizen or a political subject. Following the principles of “women’s cinema,” in her film, she shares her own experience of growing up in a youth subculture influenced by Western music, such as house and rave, a desire to be different and to be free, and a longing to see the world beyond the borders of her home country.

Throughout Crystal Swan Zhuk juxtaposes the city and the provinces, the post-Soviet and the Soviet, the new and the old, and “them” and “us”—the dichotomies embodied in the female protagonist Evelina (Velia) Soroka, a recent college graduate, and the rest of her surroundings in Minsk and the provinces. Velia’s mother works as a tour guide at the local WWII museum, and spreads patriotic mottos not only at work but also at home: “One should live in the Motherland!” and “Belarus is my karma!” Even though initially the director creates these binaries and thus distinguishes two generations, she gradually reveals that the borders between them are not so rigid but more fluid. Velia’s mother is a zealous patriot of her country on the one hand, and practices Buddhist ideas and believes in karma on the other hand. Her moral values are not as pristine as she might try to present them, and she even starts a relationship with Velia’s boyfriend, the DJ and drug-user Alik, once her daughter leaves the city. Alik, who is the representative of the same subculture as Velia, gives up his desire to be different and “to seize the moment” in exchange for domestic comfort, cabbage soup that is “good for karma” and prepared by Velia’s mother, and, as is implied in the film, for some sex with her.

crystal swanVelia is an outsider both in the city and in the provinces, and has trouble finding a place where she belongs. Despite her prestigious law degree, she is unable to find a job, she lives with her mother and makes some money by DJ-ing at night clubs. She is driven by a desire to go to Chicago, “the birthplace of house music” and to become a famous DJ there. Velia’s fascination with America and her “strong connections” to the American dream are signified through her choice of clothes and her speech. She regularly uses English words and phrases, such as “Help me, please!”, “House is freedom!”, “Come on, Alik!” and “I don’t want any strong connections.” She is DJ-ing at a party in a bright red-blue-white outfit with stripes and stars symbolizing the American flag, wears a T-shirt with the words “Chicago” written on the chest, and throughout the film the colors of the American flag—blue and red—prevail in her wardrobe choices.

To make her dream come true, Velia applies for an American tourist visa. However, because of her unstable income, she has to fake her employment documents that would prove her status as a manager at the crystal glass factory in one of the provincial towns, Khrustal’nyi (“Crystal Town”). The only thing that separates her from her “American dream” is the phone call from the American Embassy to the phone number that she has randomly written on her visa application. The rest of the events take place in Khrustal’nyi, where Velia travels by bus in order to answer this important phone call. She spends several days waiting by the phone in the apartment of Alevtina, a former worker from the crystal glass factory, her husband Mikhalych, and their two sons, Stepan and Kostia, while the family is getting ready for the wedding of their older son.

Velia is distinguished from the rest of the characters both in Minsk and in Khrustal’nyi. Already in the opening scene of the film, in her black fedora hat, a bright red coat, a blue wig, and an oversized blue scarf, she stands out among other people who are trying to get on the overcrowded bus. She separates herself further from this mundane, unappealing environment by inserting a tape with house music by Marshall Jefferson into her tape player and putting on her headphones in response to the assault by the two gopniks on the bus. For the rest of the film, house music serves as the main way for her to tolerate the people and the misfortune in her life. Velia’s difference from other characters is emphasized throughout the film; however, the most important and unique characteristic feature—the yearning to get out of her hometown and home country—she shares only with teenage Kostia at the end of the film.

Despite her visual “otherness” and some negative traits of her personality (she is unmotivated, dishonest, and steals money and gifts from her mother), she is, overall, shown in a positive light. Small and almost unnoticeable signs of her good nature can be traced throughout the film. Thus, Velia declines her boyfriend Alik’s invitations to use drugs; she advises her pregnant friend to quit smoking for the benefit of her unborn child; she befriends a homeless dog in Khrustal’nyi, who follows her to the town from the bus stop; she is able to connect to Kostia, the youngest, teenage son of the family in Khrustal’nyi, whose phone number she has put on her visa application; and, finally, she saves her “host” father from jail time for fish poaching. Velia is sensitive and not as arrogant and self-centered as she might appear at first glance. She is deeply hurt when she overhears her mother complaining about her daughter, calling her “empty” and “a waste of space,” and saying that her daughter does not deserve her love.

crystal swan zhukZhuk renders Velia’s emotional vulnerability in the following scene when she allows the camera to follow the protagonist running along a grey brick wall with a patriotic poster dedicated to the anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War (WWII) and the melodramatic non-diegetic music “I’m Sorry (Clairvoyage)” by Sound Patrol. There is a discrepancy between the visual layer with the splashes of Belarusian national colors of red and green on the poster and the sound of the sad, but hopeful Chicago house music in the background. Similarly, Velia’s Belarusian reality is disconnected from her world of dreams and expectations. This scene is also reminiscent of other running scenes, such as that in Tom Tykwer’s Run, Lola, Run (Lola rennt, 1998), where another bright-haired girl runs in an urban setting.[1] If in Tykwer’s film Lola is running out of desperation to save her boyfriend’s life, in Crystal Swan Velia is desperately running to save herself from her unhappy and suffocating life at home specifically, and her native land in general. In allegorical terms, one may interpret Velia’s comment to Alik at the half-empty Belka-Strelka party (yet, another reference to the Soviet symbols) in the later scene—“Let’s go. It is dead here”—as her invitation to get out of this country with its decomposing values and ideologemes. The provincial town of Khrustal’nyi becomes a transitional place on Velia’s path to her complete and ultimate freedom in the United States, as she pictures it herself.

Surprisingly, upon her arrival in Khrustal’nyi, she bonds more with the family of blue-collar workers than with her own mother, a representative of the intelligentsia. Unlike Velia, Alevtina’s family and the other residents speak trasianka (a mixture of Russian and Belarusian languages), do not listen to music, and are generally more concerned with having enough food for the wedding than with existential questions. At the same time, Velia fits better in the provincial setting, where many residents wear bright outfits and accessories, where she can discuss moral and philosophical questions that matter to her with Kostia and Stepan, and where the police officer sincerely listens to her lies and even sympathizes with her. The provincial Belarusians gradually accept their guest from the capital, and not only allow her to stay in their apartment from 9am till 5pm to answer the phone, but also assign her important tasks of preparing food and setting the table for the wedding. Velia is finally depicted as enjoying conversations and interactions with the people, even if they have opinions that are diametrically opposed to her own. Back home in Minsk, she lacks communication and an opportunity to be heard by her mother and Alik. The metaphor of unaccomplished, or broken communication is emphasized in numerous images of telephones and phone booths in the film. The calls do not get through because the phone bill is not paid or no one is at home, or Velia hangs up the phone because of unsuccessful conversations, or she cannot find where the call comes from. The final call from the embassy that originally triggered the events in Crystal Swan does not end successfully and reveals that Velia is still a misfit. She cannot build any “strong connections” with the residents of Khrustal’nyi because of their philistinism and backwardness, and because of the ossified patriarchal structure of the Belarusian provinces in the 1990s with remnants of Soviet mentality.

The title of the film—Crystal Swan (or Crystal as in its original title in Russian)—is explained several times in the film. Crystal glass functions as a narrative trigger for Velia’s trip to Khrustal’nyi when she purchases a stamped letterhead for the crystal glass factory at the market for her forged employment letter. By repeatedly showing the same monotonous scenes of factory workers cutting patterns into the glass, Zhuk hints at the boring, passive, uneventful, and mundane existence of the people in the provinces. These people are conservative and unmalleable; the idea of freedom is alien and unappealing to them. Therefore they are satisfied with their petit bourgeois, inflatable and only half-inflated swan on top of the wedding car instead of a crystal swan—the symbol of purity, transparency, and awareness.

Velia’s freedom-trip from Minsk to the provinces and back to Minsk, and, finally, to the United States also never ends at its intended final destination. The only freedom she obtains lies in the exclamations “Freedom! Freedom!” at the “Chernobyl Way” protest march which she observes through the window of the bus, with the sleeping Kostia sitting next to her. However, the crystal swan that Kostia is holding in his hands leaves the viewers with a grain of hope for the new generation’s ability to change.


1] Zhuk also acknowledges the importance of this scene and reveals its intertextual connection to Leos Carax’s Bad Blood (Mauvais Sang, 1986) and Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2012).

Olga Klimova
University of Pittsburgh

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Works Cited

Dalton, Stephen. 2018. 'Crystal Swan': Film Review. Karlovy Vary 2018. The Hollywood Reporter 6 July.

Lodge, Guy. 2018. Karlovy Vary Film Review: ‘Crystal Swan’. Variety 1 July

Crystal Swan, Belarus, Gemrany, US, Russia, 2018
Color, 95 minutes
Director: Darya Zhuk
Script: Darya Zhuk, Helga Landauer
Cinematography: Carolina Costa
Production Design: Andrei Tolstik
Editors: Sergei Dmitrenko, Michal Leszczylowski
Music: Andreas Lucas
Casting: Dar’ia Zakirova, Dar’ia Korobova
Costume Designer: Elena Hordionok
Cast: Alina Nasibullina, Ivan Mulin, Iurii Borisov, Svetlana Anikei, Il’ia Kapanets, Anastasiia Garvei, Liudmila Razumova, Viacheslav Shakalido
Producers: Birgit Gernböck, Olga Goister, Debbie Vandermeulen, Valerii Dmitrotchenko
Production companies: Turnstyle TV LLC Demarsh Films Minsk, Unfound Content, Fusion Features, Vice Media

Darya Zhuk: Crystal Swan (Khrustal’, 2018)

reviewed by Olga Klimova © 2019

Updated: 2019