Currently available for viewing at the 2021 European Film Festival, Stop-Zemlia is a sincere and contemplative coming-of-age film that breaks from the Western tradition.
The genre of the high school coming-of-age film is well-loved and well-known. It has, over the years, given way to a number of filmic clichés and a copy-and-paste style plotline – a group of friends, uncertain of where their lives are headed, attempts to make the most of their final year of high school. There are crushes, friendship fall-outs, and identity crises, almost all of which are resolved after the film’s climax – the school dance. They’ll learn a few lessons along the way, form lasting friendships, and ultimately figure out what it is they’d like to do with their lives. This is, for the most part, the American tradition of the coming-of-age film. In Stop-Zemlia, however, writer-director Kateryna Gornostai acknowledges this tradition, but shirks its conventions, opting instead for a contemporary and honest portrayal of Ukrainian youth.
The film follows Masha, an introverted 16-year-old figuring herself out. She spends most of her time with her two best friends – Yana and Senia – drinking, going on aimless walks through the snow, gossiping, and thumbing through their phones during sleepovers. She also has a crush – the aloof and occasionally abrasive Sasha. While Masha is the protagonist of Stop-Zemlia, Gornostai provides a rich and sweeping account of all of the characters that occupy and contribute towards Masha’s world.
With a background in documentary film, Gornostai has a penchant for both storytelling and pursuing the truth. As such, Stop-Zemlia merges feature film with documentary-style interviews. Opening the film, and peppered throughout it, are short interviews with the cast. All young and relatively unknown actors, they sit before Gornastai and her camera and answer questions about youth, friendship, high school and more. They answer as themselves, rather than as the characters we see them portraying in the film, and the result in a heartfelt and sincere glimpse into their lives.
The film itself manages to carry this sincerity and authenticity throughout. Gornastai has a knack for isolating and expanding upon moments of seeming mundanity – of drawing out the emotion and interiority of her characters through their quieter and more contemplative moments. Long, quiet scenes, devoid of dialogue, frequently tell us more about a character and their intentions, insecurities, and emotional states, than their scripted conversations and interactions do. These scenes are, effectively, the vessels for all of the heady and overwhelming emotion and confusion that colours high school life.
In a scene where Masha puts on her make-up before the big dance, there is no ready interpretation of growth or transformation. Rather, she takes off her make-up, applies it again, and leaves to meet with her friends. There is no significant action to be aware of, here, nor is there any particular revelation for the character. In this way, the scenes are open-ended and affect-laden, refusing to bend towards easy resolution. In another scene, Masha’s class is on a school trip to the local museum. A group of her classmates, mucking about as kids tend to do on school trips, bumps into her by mistake, causing her to knock over one of the smaller museum displays. Glass shatters, people gasp. It is a short and ultimately forgettable moment for the class. For Masha, though, it is awkward and agonising, a moment full of embarrassment and alienation, the kind that always seems to be felt more keenly when you’re a 16-year-old just trying to survive the school day.
A smaller theme grappled with in Stop-Zemlia is that of conscription. Unlike the girls, who must regularly endure long and tedious science and biology lessons, the boys are allowed to miss out on classes to go and learn shooting, gun control, and the overall practice of familiarising oneself with a loaded weapon. For Masha’s friend Senia, the experience is a traumatising one. As a scene, it serves to add a certain gravity and urgency to the lives of these schoolkids – they are growing up quickly, and some of their most carefree days will soon be behind them.
Ultimately, Stop-Zemlia is a nuanced and compelling portrait of Ukrainian youth. It is a story of contemporary womanhood, teenagehood, and all of the loneliness, boredom, yearning, romance, and uncertainty that comes with it.
The 2021 European Film Festival runs from 14 – 24 October 2021. Stop-Zemlia is one of many films that will be available for viewing on the European Film Festival website for the duration of the festival. For South African viewers, the film is also free to view.