Seven Years of Winter (2011) dir. Marcus Schwenzel
Starring: Sasha Savenkow, Roman Knyzhka
Script: Schwenzel and Howard Hunt
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Seven Years of Winter is one of the finest short dramatic films made in years.
Unlike so many of its Canadian and American counterparts, this is no empty, hollow "calling card" ("Look Ma! I can do coverage! Hire me to direct crappy TV!") nor is it bite-sized sketch comedy (the kind that sadly gets programmed far too often at film festivals).
There's nothing annoyingly quirky or whimsical about it (the kind of short that makes festival programmers think they're delivering an artistic antidote to the aforementioned one-note jokes) and though the picture deals with an important political backdrop, its eye is clearly on humanity and doesn't become mired in pretentious didacticism (where subject matter is more important than content and the films find themselves shoved into thematic programmes to display the dazzling curatorial - ahem - genius, of the programmers, rather than the films themselves).
Seven Years Of Winter, however, is exactly the sort of film to play in an esteemed international film festival. Quite simply, it's a great picture
Director Marcus Schwenzel captures the near-perfect screenplay with intelligence, sensitivity and cinematic artistry - rendering the simple, heartbreaking and originally-structured-and-wrought narrative with grace and purity. He's a filmmaker I long to see a feature from.
The abandoned Ukrainian city of Pryp'yat, which overlooks the Chornobyl nuclear plant (site of the greatest environmental disaster in recent history) was, during the early years of "democracy" in Eastern Europe, a dangerous beacon to those who sought its bounty. The entire city was evacuated after the Chornobyl meltdown and its thousands of residents had no more than ten to fifteen minutes to gather what belongings they could.
In the deep of night, one winter after many years following the disaster, a van carrying a thirty-something man and a little boy pulls up to a Chornobyl checkpoint. The guard warns the man that radiation levels have increased because of a recent forest fire in the area.
"If I were you, I'd take the kid and just leave," he says.
"Don't be stupid!" says the man in the van. "We've been driving all night." He offers the guard a "gift" of cigarettes, tea and vodka.
The guard is satisfied enough with this token to look the other way, but gruffly adds, "Next time, bring more cigarettes."
Antyom (Knyzhka) delivers words of encouragement and instruction to Andrii (Savenkow), his young charge. The boy has a mission and he vows to carry it out better than the last time he helped Antyom. And on this cold winter night, the little boy enters beyond the barricade, looks to the forest of birch trees and trudging happily through the snow, disappears in the darkness of Chornobyl.
Here is where the screenplay kicks into stylistic high-gear. Moving from naturalistic dialogue, the film deftly traverses into the child's voiceover and from here on in, whenever we're with Andrii, the narration and dialogue shifts seamlessly from his innermost thoughts, to play conversations with an abandoned radiated dog, to imaginary chats with children long gone from their homes in Pryp'yat and eventually, once Andrii has secured the booty for Antyom and is dropped off at the dank, seemingly abandoned housing project where the child lives alone, we move into dreamy flashback-like conversations with his long-dead Mother.
For such a simple tale, that of a young orphan from Kyiv who is exploited by an older man to make endless (and ultimately deadly) trips into the highly radiated poison of Chornobyl to secure passports, I.D. cards and other important documents to sell on the black market, the film touches upon so many important political and cultural issues that plagued the country (and in, fact, continue to do so).
Using simple storytelling, poetic writing and direction, Seven Years of Winter yields all the levels of theme and complexity without abandoning the basic principals of great moviemaking. It is a movie with exquisite performances, fine writing and staggering images from cinematographer Eduardo Ramirez Gonzalez that will haunt you long after seeing the film.
The white of Ukraine's snow, the birch trees, the radiated ash and the boy's seemingly ever-whitening face and black eyes leave indelible impressions upon us. Through the character of Andrii, we are left with the hollow, sickly, starving and dying faces of thousands upon thousands of children who literally or figuratively walked into or from the poison of an abandoned city and a country abandoned by the rest of the world and like its children, exploited by criminals at any cost.
This short film is not to be missed.
SEVEN YEARS OF WINTER is playing at the
Canadian Film Centre Worldwide Short Film Festival 2012 - Toronto
in the OFFICIAL SELECTION: HOMELAND SECURITY
Isabel Bader Theatre: Thursday June 7, 9:30 pm
Isabel Bader Theatre: Sunday June 10, 2:45 pm
Tickets and Info: HERE
READ REVIEWS OF THE WORLDWIDE SHORT FILM FESTIVAL OPENING NIGHT GALA HERE