year of production: 2021
country of production: Ukraine
director: Olha Zhurba
production: Maxym Asadchiy & Sashko Chubko/Pronto Film
director of photography: Volodymyr Usyk
editing: Olha Zhurba
cast: Bohdan Zenchenko, Dmytro Buchek, Ihor Oliynyk
distribution: Vasyl Yavtushenko
festivals: Locarno Film Festival, Leuven Short Film Festival, Tampere Film Festival, Glasgow Short Film Festival
It’s impossible these days to watch a Ukrainian film without relating it to the ongoing war. ‘Dad’s Sneakers’ by the young filmmaker Olha Zhurba — Jury Prize winner and EFA candidate at Leuven Short Film Festival, currently in competition at Tampere Film Festival, part of Glasgow Short Film Festival later this month, and been made available to stream in Switzerland by Locarno Film Festival as part of a charity mission — succeeds to bring us further beyond the topicality, while inevitably evoking associations with the present crisis. Through the minimalist story and point-of-view of a thirteen year old boy, the film, unintentionally, resonates with the worldwide sympathy for a country and people whose integrity (both physically and spiritually) is currently being under attack. A nostalgic take on a state that might never wake up again in the same world as the one that its citizens used to know. Just like ‘Dad’s Sneakers’s main character.
In the opening scene, bathed in aseptic light, cold-bloodedly shot through a peeping viewpoint and with a more narrow aspect ratio which differentiates it from the rest of the film, nervously giggling and barely talking Sasha is sitting at a table, opposite an English-speaking woman who is trying to ease the atmosphere by giving him a little plastic Ukrainian doll cat. An immense language abyss stretches between the two of them: he does not speak English, nor does she speak Ukrainian. Via flashbacks, the immediate prehistory of the scene is unveiled, as we get a snapshot of Sasha’s former life, painted in a tender, sunny palette but also filled up with tension. Those are the last hours he’s spending in an orphanage for adolescents in his native Ukraine, before being delivered to his new mum who will take him to his new home across the Atlantic. Forever.
Shaken by the fateful situation, he’s wandering around in his white embroidered shirt, unwilling to learn by heart the barely comprehensible welcoming speech for his adopter, written by someone else in his soon to be “mother tongue”. We follow Sasha in his desperate attempt to delay the looming farewell of the dazzling green overgrown grass of his homeland; of his cocky mates who mock and bully him (but at least he fully understands their intentions); of his dad, though he hangs up the phone when Sasha tries to reach out. Of the world and the humans he’s familiar with, no matter how hostile they might have been with him; of the cultural environment that raised him, no matter how insecure he grew. Physical departure is possible only with a special amulet: a symbolic connection with his past and origins, which will help him leave without falling into pieces — or at least for some part.
Some short films can feel like a feature — not because they are tedious to watch but rather for their rich post-screening effect, which gives rise to extensive elaborations after the final credits. Olha Zhurba’s 19-minutes-long debut leaves an aftertaste of a multi-layered feature film: a fable charged with deep emotions that hosts the seeds of various parallel narratives which might grow and cross roots through the otherwise uncomplicated plotline. And since no firm answers are provided, the viewers’ associative imagination begins to flow.
The upper level narrative is unfolded by the authentic portrait of an abandoned and love deprived kid, trembling in his uncertainty about the place he occupies in the world. How did the boy end up as an orphan though he appears to have a father who is alive? What happened to his mother? Was his abandonment a result of a previous armed conflict in Ukraine or is it a mere failure of parenthood? Bohdan Zenchenko as Sasha truthfully transmits the complexity of his character’s disruptive feelings. More than that, his intuitive talent evokes identification on an universal level that connects the spectator with the inner self of Sasha way beyond the concrete situation featured in the film.
Underneath all that, we find social commentary. The film paints a picture of a society that is willingly sending its children away to restart their lives with no option for a step back, further nurtured by the popular image of Ukraine as an international surrogacy hub. The decisive voice of the boarding school supervisor, who behaves as if executing a routine task on default and, unquestionably for Sasha’s good, not only transmits the message that Sasha is unwanted but also that the state cannot bear responsibility for him. Once banished by his family, he’s expelled for a second time: by his home land — a predestined human condition for many post-Soviet people finding themselves orphaned by their own countries due to political or economic reasons.
The story’s strong connection to the subject of personal and national self-identification is where the film excels. Being a teenager with all the fragility this shaping age suggests, Sasha is about to face a drastic cultural shift before even establishing a first understanding of who he is as a person. We can only surmise his anxiety while trying to imagine an upcoming life in a context he does not have a clue about. In this regard, ‘Dad’s Sneakers’ is a dramatic and heartbreaking poem on parting with one’s childhood, language, identity. The mild-toned images of nature and the sunlit interiors embody the sweet recollections that will stay in Sasha’s sensorium, bathed in nostalgic tones and sealed in his memory for the times when he will be out of touch with this reality. Those captions of his coming-of-age personal time and space will remain encapsulated in his conscious only and, if his integration is successful, will be sublimed into to the subconscious.
Since the way we perceive film is very much impacted by what’s on our mind at this moment, one cannot help thinking about Sasha and Ukraine simultaneously. Just like the boy, Ukraine is on its own right now, in need to mobilize its strength to face an unknown future. In this sense and context, ‘Dad’s Sneakers’ could also be recognized as a gentle tribute to its sunnier days.Mariana Hristova