In her first feature-length film, a Belarussian director Darya Zhuk skilfully introduces us to an unapologetic dreamer whose road to the land of opportunity leads through a bizarre provincial town.
When we first meet Evelina, Velya for short, the bald men in tracksuits mock her as soon as she gets on the bus. She scoffs, turns up her music of choice – Chicago house – and heads for her DJ set at one of the nightclubs. Between the hangouts with her stoner boyfriend Alik (Yuriy Borisov), arguments with her mother (Svetlana Anikey) and gigs all around Minsk, she dreams of escaping her dull surroundings. Setting her eyes on America, she figures out that her law degree or musical ambitions aren’t quite enough to secure a visa. To forge her employment history, she submits a fake reference letter from a crystal factory but mistypes the contact number on her application. Desperate to find its owner, she locates a house in a remote small town and knocks at its door, asking if she could wait for a phone call. The bawdy family who the line belongs to are suspicious of her aspirations and distracted by the wedding of Stepan (Ivan Mulin) that is about to take place, but eventually, they allow the wide-eyed dreamer to stay.
Immersing us thoroughly in mid-nineties Belarus, Darya Zhuk brings us a rich landscape of the capital and contrasts it with the provincial climate, drawn with similar attention to detail. However, she manages to inject colour into the sceneries that we expect to be overcast by the shadows of the country’s past. In ephemeral snapshots captured by Carolina Costa, she leads us through the post-Soviet cityscape of Minsk. Here, markets where you can get anything you can think of, from cassette tapes and pirated films to fake documents, hide between the grey blocks of flats. Shady people clad in multicoloured (and sometimes mismatched) tracksuits fill the discos, jumping around to dance music around bizarre historical statues. The interiors are just as carefully crafted: a plastic rotary phone takes the central place on a small table in the living room, and the old-fashioned shelves are filled with the finest glassware – the titular “khrustal” that is an essential staple in an Eastern European household and an iconic product of the town she arrived in.
The country our protagonist dreams of is the land of the free; it’s not always as straightforward with her homeland. While Belarus theoretically regained its democracy, the country is still going through the period of transformation that doesn’t always allow the youth to be themselves. That’s why Velya asserts her individuality with her music choices, but also with her appearance and attire: the blue wig she uses when she DJs, the red coat and bright everyday clothes help her to stand out in the sea of sameness. With her faux Armani jacket and bright colour combos, she’s a modish, colourful bird on the backdrop of the pre-fabricated slabs of concrete composed into housing estates. Finding her footing as an eccentric daydreamer, Alina Nasibullina gives an energetic performance, charms with the honesty in her eyes and makes us root for her immediately.
Zhuk manages to capture the Eastern European spirit, which she pokes fun at in her uncompromising satire. Be it the rude ladies at the post office who won’t talk to you unless you find them at the right window or lavatory attendants who are always archetypical grumpy elderly ladies, the mannerisms that she captures immerse us in the reality of everyday life. The traditional small-town wedding and the busyness of the preparations are depicted in such detail that when the comical bits hit – for instance, the cringy wedding games between the groom and the bride – it could be difficult for an international viewer to believe that they aren’t always exaggerated for a humorous effect. The director incorporates the slightly surreal aspects of provincial day-to-day in her picture; sometimes, she picks everyday details apart and blows them out of proportion to capitalise on the hyperbole. Besides her sardonic humour, the director captures the glimpses of unfiltered emotion: Velya’s frustration, her fantasies about better life, and distressing tribulations that force her to prove how much she wants her visa time after time.
But the real strength lies in how the director deconstructs two opposing attitudes: the disillusionment of the transformed system and the cosmopolitan daydreams of the youth. The juxtaposition between the generations is drawn clearly: the elderly are more than sceptical of her American dream, while the people her age understand her motivation to escape the place where nothing ever changes. “We never had these problems in the Soviet Union,” remarks one of the older characters. “A person should stay in their motherland,” protests Velya’s mother. “Belarus is our karma,” she continues, revealing a curious paradox that lies at the heart of older generations’ outlook. With the patriotism (bordering on nationalism) indoctrinated into them, lives that hardly ever allowed any social mobility and attitudes that forbade individuality as a method of keeping themselves away from the watchful eyes of prying neighbours and political police, they gave up on expecting anything else than the bare minimum. Their freedom from the constraints of communism becomes their punishment, a complication in the grand scheme of things they were used to. That doesn’t mean, however, that they support the changes brought forth by their children: the old ways still reign supreme, and the only way to break free from their restraints is to escape.
Generational gap aside, Stepan is a quintessence of old-fashioned toxic masculinity. Having served in the army, he suffered the bullying that was more than a common occurrence in the nineties, ending up with a humiliating tattoo and a need to dominate others. His entitled attitude is hinted at fairly subtly, but in the final act, the unease we feel around his brutish persona finds justification, succumbing us to a sequence of the most unpredictable events in the entire film.
Zhuk balances the spotless record of cultural insight with sarcastic humour and weighty emotional moments, taking us on a surreal escapade with its protagonist. Although Crystal Swan is wonderfully specific to the country of its origins, it finds its universal connection to the audience, telling a story of one American dream from a fresh, fascinating perspective.
Crystal Swan opens as a part of the London Film Festival. The film is currently seeking a distributor for its UK release.
- Crystal Swan