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BERLINALE 2021 Generation

Review: Stop-Zemlia


- BERLINALE 2021: This ambitious first feature by Ukrainian filmmaker Kateryna Gornostai immerses the viewer in the teenage world of its characters, played by non-professional youngsters

Review: Stop-Zemlia
Maria Fedorchenko, Arsenii Markov and Yana Isaienko in Stop-Zemlia (© Oleksander Roshchyn)

In her first feature, Ukrainian director Kateryna Gornostai displays rare ambition for a debutante in the film’s scope and approach, and more than pulls it off. Having its world premiere in the Berlinale's Generation 14plus, Stop-Zemlia [+see also:
interview: Kateryna Gornostai
film profile
creates a convincing world of high-school troubles, pains and joys, but also darkly sensitive moments that the viewer easily gets immersed in.

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The film does indeed present more of a world rather than a straight-forward narrative, although a central story does exist. Our hero is Masha (Maria Fedorchenko), an introverted girl who hangs out with two other outsiders, Yana (Yana Isaienko) and Senia (Arsenii Markov). The rest of their class does not, however, represent a huge contrast as it would in a standard teenage comedy or drama — there are no popular cheerleader or fraternity jock types here, just kids who belong to a larger, more conformist group.

One of them is Sasha (Oleksandr Ivanov), a handsome boy who catches Masha's eye. In another twist on teenage tropes, it is actually Masha whose family is better off. They live in a modern apartment, in fact they are so cool that they are even growing an indoor marijuana plant. Mom and dad are often away, so Masha and her two besties have frequent sleepovers.

On the other hand, Sasha struggles with his single mother who does not seem to be able to find a way through her son's emotional armour. This makes her feel frustrated, unhappy and guilty as she tries to control him. They live in a drab, much more stuffy place than Masha's, but Sasha goes to piano classes (while Masha trains in badminton) though we can feel that he is doing so only in order to keep his mother happy about at least one thing.

Masha does not go right after Sasha. Instead, the director composes a series of set-pieces with various high-school situations — two girls teasing a boy during recess and throwing his backpack out the window, the class going to an astronomy museum, our main trio having a sleepover while the rest of the class has a big, weed- and alcohol-fuelled party in a typical nouveau riche apartment. At one point, in a park, they all play “stop-zemlia”, a sort of a catch-me-if-you-can game.

Throughout the story, Masha chats with a mystery guy on Instagram, secretly hoping it's Sasha. Smartphones are of course everywhere in the film, and the worlds of particular characters are shown through their typical teenage interests. But there are darker, painful moments too, like when Senia realises that he has been traumatised by his experience in a war zone, something he was not previously aware of.

None of the kids are explicitly bullied, but we learn more about one specific, very insecure boy through subtle visual cues, and through one of the documentary-like, talking-heads interviews that intercut and ground this very fluid film. In those interviews, characters talk about their hopes and fears, their views on love, friendship and family... Or could these actually be interviews with the young actors themselves? This overlap stems from Gornostai's casting process in which she picked twenty five youngsters who did not know each other prior to filming, and who improvised most of the dialogue while following a basic script describing the situations.

It is a truly immersive film, with extremely detailed set design and costumes, while Oleksandr Roschyn’s handheld camera puts us right in the middle of the group of kids as they walk down the street or do a rap battle in the classroom. Maryana Klochko’s softly pulsating electronic score easily slips into a more infantile, bell-like tingling, to signal how close to childhood the characters still are.

Stop-Zemlia was produced by Kyiv-based ESSE Production House, and Germany’s Pluto Film has the international rights.

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