Stop-Zemlia: I Was There | European Film Festival 2022

10 May, 2022

There, sometime in the past, when the it kids of the 2010s, whose cardinal points were the Super Festival and the SUB25 magazine, moved from the dank promiscuous bars – without fully letting go of them – towards the central splendors of the online world where, especially on Tumblr, each of them could be the inventor of their own grace. The spark was elusive, undoubtedly so, but not in vain, not lacking in importance, because the lion’s share of these magnificent or terrible fixations of the new generation of teenagers, such as the bravado of sexuality, new age-ism, social hyper-sensitivity along with hyper-lucidity, the ways of being online, at last, the majority were vaguely starting to take shape back then, all in all. But the cinema of this transitory sensibility, whose patron saint was none other than Xavier Dolan, didn’t age as gracefully. Looking back at any given film that was too squeaky, too plasticized, from Kill Your Darlings (dir. John Krokidas, 2013) to The Perks of Being a Wallflower (dir. Stephen Chbosky, 2012), to Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003), the latter having something of the allure of a cult movie, there is not much to see aside from historical or genre pornographies, along whose lines, without any prelude, the act of belonging trumps meaning. Dolan’s films were of a different ilk, they were unpredictable, eccentric, always willing to scream the whispers of youth from the tops of the roof, willing to blow up the tiniest of things to the biggest of measures. Of course, the ideal film of a youth shared by so many does not exist; but what I can say is that I have discovered the film that was missing from my own teenage experience. It just so happens that this film is Ukrainian, and, I think, it comes at a great delay.

The charms of Stop-Zemlia (2021), the feature debut of filmmaker Kateryna Gornostai, arise precisely out of the de-escalation of these moments which habit compels us to consider the climaxes of adolescence. Tropes are not inherently silly; sure, they simplify, they trivialize, they regularize, but they do have a certain precision. For the sake of it, Stop-Zemlia begins like many other such films, at the end of high school, with everyone anxiously lying in wait, ready to take off, but not quite. In the classroom, distinctive amongst others, we have Masha (Maria Fedorchenko), Yana (Yana Isaienko), and Senia (Arsenii Markov). Masha is in love with a boy, while another is in love with her; outside, on the hallways, rumors have pinpointed them, talk about them, sometimes even belittle the others, the geeks, the freaks with scarred wrists and dilated pupils, but soon enough, at the prom, the tiny yet oh-so-big dance where cigarette smoke is covered up with perfume, will shine a spotlight, especially on them. We know this all too well from films that are a dime a dozen, just this time, for the first time, I see the life of these sad girls and of these jaded boys, eternal protagonists, doesn’t ebb to the flow of the script’s waves, galloping from one juvenile problem to the final kiss, but simply seems to go along with the rhythm of the world; something which I believe is fantastic, because adolescence, in my memory, has more to do with inertia than it has to do with spectacle.

Taking her mission to dispel myths even further, the filmmaker, who began her project by calling out to unprofessional actors, that is, full-time teenagers, breaks the narrative apart by using small confessional, documentary moments of the performers, who talk about love, future plans, their families, in short, about pocket-sized moments of happiness and of problems that are bigger than them, things that always relate to the moments in the storyline that we have just witnessed, or are just about to. Thus, the promise of a special sort of sensitivity is made concerning the entire endeavor, to a true film of adolescence – nothing more beautiful than that, given that Gornostai doesn’t turn this into a documentary obsession, faithful to any given sociologically static art form. On the contrary, one can hint at a certain sensitivity of a plausible ideal: everyone, from colleagues, to teachers and parents, seems to be a bit better, a bit kinder, a bit more understanding, and somewhat weightless, but never are they derided as mere examples. Even so, the gusto of optimism seems a bit far-fetched at times. I won’t pretend to have any first-hand knowledge of the numbers in Ukraine, but I am aware of the kind of role that party drugs now occupy in juvenile recreation. In 2012, something like MDMA and amphetamines seemed unimaginable for a teenager that wasn’t all that popular, especially if they were hailing from the province. It’s not that the governing morals (or shame?) were in any way superior at the time, but rather, their time simply hadn’t come yet. Things have changed in the past years, the risks taken have mutated, and maybe that’s exactly why I feel that Gornostai’s film is a late-comer for my teenage self, limited to the bravado of alcohol, and, rarely, to that of a 0.3 joint. I am one of those who believe that party drugs have irredeemably changed the recreational culture of teenagers and students; I’m not sure if it’s for better or for worse, but what I do know is that it’s radical. Little by little, Stop-Zemlia seems to wage a battle with time itself.

Anyway, the teenage film shouldn’t be a documentary, but rather, it should have the necessary flair to set aside descriptions and prescriptions, and should focus on in-descriptions. Since indescribable are those moments of reverie and magic that are surrounding Masha, the half-light, the glittering bleeding, the tenderly erotic fantasies played out on the stage of a concert hall, but especially that gorgeous game of badminton against the wind, these ever-young proclamations of the belief that being a teenager is not inasmuch a state of affairs, as it is also a state of grace.

In any case, grace has its own set of coordinates. This isn’t a film that comes from a random place or a random time, but from now, in an era when young faces covered in glitter grow dark as they discuss global warming and homophobia, often under the glistening mask of their telephone screens. And it must be said that it was high time for an approach such as Gornostai’s, in which social media isn’t turned into the standard-bearer of alienation, but rather, is portrayed as a complement to the so-called real life through the suspense of immateriality. Of course, it could have been done better, and the technology could have been different; but the emotions of nowadays, if, indeed, that is what we are searching for in cinema, are read especially in the eyes of people who are sunk in their telephones, and to ignore this is to become increasingly unfair.

I was there, in Stop-Zemlia, like I was present in no other teenage film; up to a certain point. As I said, this is not a film that comes from a random place. The same faces pale in horror whenever weapons are brought up – Senia is one of the children of 2014, of the annexation of Crimea, a teenager of this film, and now, probably, a student of war. Of course, most Ukrainian films from the past few years cause such shivers, but it’s all the more powerful in a film such as this one, so filled with youth, lightheartedness, and especially closeness – that of close-ups. What Gornostai made could be the film of many – but now, more than ever, it fully belongs to those who were a part of it.

Film critic and journalist. He is an editor at AARC and writes the ”Screens” features for Art Magazine. He collaborates with many publications and film festivals as a freelancer and he is strangely attached to John Ford's movies. At Films in Frame, he writes "Footnotes" - a monthly editorial published on a Thursday.