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CPH:DOX 2022

Review: Outside


- Ukrainian director Olha Zhurba’s powerful and heart-breaking debut feature leads us through the ruins of a life cut short from birth

Review: Outside

Presented in a world premiere at the CPH:DOX (International Documentary Competition), Outside by Ukrainian director Olha Zhurba attempts to reconstruct, through fleeting and deliberately fragile film documents, the life of a now adult child called Roma who has been relegated to the margins of humanity by a society which doesn’t consider him worthy of existence. In a permanent state of vagrancy, Roma tries to survive the life that has been brutally forced upon him. Now a ghost among ghosts, an invisible presence hovering on the fringes of a society which has labelled him from birth as a second-class citizen, the protagonist of Outside speaks with courage and rare dignity of his desperate day-to-day existence, the final vestiges of a childhood lost, and an adult life marked by rejection and violence.

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Co-produced by Ukraine, Denmark and the Netherlands, Outside is the first feature film by Olha Zhurba, a director who previously turned critics’ and audiences’ heads alike with her short film Dad’s Sneakers, which was selected in the Locarno Film Festival in 2021. By virtue of Zhurba’s clear-sighted yet empathic approach, Roma seems to regain the dignity which society has robbed him of, that small yet essential sprinkling of humanity which allows him to exist despite it all. Roma’s voice, his thoughts but first and foremost the desperate strength of his body, which is becoming that of an adult without ever having been a child, take possession of the images, inhabiting them at each and every moment as if taking revenge on a life which has never really begun.

During the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, thirteen-year-old Roma infiltrated the front line of Kiev at war, throwing stones and Molotov cocktails alike. The little boy soon became a well-known face and a mascot, of sorts, for the unfolding revolution. But behind his uniformed facade hid a frightened human being who was raised in an orphanage and, within the space of five years, found himself living on the streets, abandoned by a system which no longer cared to look after him. Now an adult, Roma has ended up living with his older brother, a “criminal” who is also trying to survive on the margins of a society which he observes without being a part of. Frightened by their unexpected co-habitation, which each of them handles in their own way - Roma losing himself in artificial paradises, his brother adopting a grotesque and desperate form of masculinity – the two youngsters find themselves wrestling with the reality of a life built upon the ashes of a past scarred by violence.

By way of phone calls between Roma and the director (against a black screen which seems to embody the protagonist’s denied identity), CCTV footage, and seven years of archive images, during which time Olha Zhurba followed his ups and downs, between addictions (drugs seems to substitute his mother’s milk) and traumas, Outside tells the story of a human being whose identity has been torn away from him; a stray animal who’s constantly on the run and has no right to refuge, temporary or otherwise.

Of a rare potency and truth - and exceptionally significant given the awful situation which Ukraine is currently suffering - the film’s images accompany Roma on his pilgrimage towards a form of salvation which feels increasingly like a pipe dream. A Dantesque journey, of sorts, without any eventual arrival in Paradise, Outside shows us the other side of the coin, the life of a person denied any form of affection and solidarity, a life which limits the protagonist, as in the film’s final scene, to observing the world through a pane of glass. As Roma reminds us, “the only thing we need is a family,” a phrase which might seem trite, but which harbours profound truth. It’s a desperate cry from a human being who is reclaiming the right to love and be loved, in spite of it all.

Outside is produced by Moon Man (Ukraine), Final Cut for Real (Denmark) and Tangerine Tree (the Netherlands), with international sales entrusted to Deckert Distribution.

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(Translated from Italian)

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