Belarusian comedy touches upon the trauma of post-socialist rule
Words by Savina Petkova / @SavinaPetkova
VELYA (ALINA NASIBULLINA) IS A STURDY YOUNG GIRL who proudly wears her electric blue wig and spends her nights as a DJ in a factory-turned-nightclub in Minsk, Belarus. Her agency, as well as her restless insistence to move, are the narrative drives of Darya Zhuk’s Crystal Swan / Khrustal. Tiptoeing around clichés of fragile womanhood, this zig-zag between Minsk underground house music scene and remote province town of Khrustal opts to feed a hunger for comedy, coming of age, and women rights. To say that the film stands by the #MeToo movement and passes the Bechdel Test, is just one part of the embroidery woven into the Crystal Swan’s textures: they are rather pale-coloured patches, instead of shining brightly. An apt metaphor for Eastern Europe’s yearning for meaning after the fall of Communism, the film uses absurdism and irony to strip down, rather than build up its main character Velya. Crystal Swan does not bear the scent of belonging.
This Belarusian comedy touches upon the trauma of post-socialist rule, being set in Minsk, 1996 — only six years after the fall of Communism and two years in the grasp of authoritative president, Alexander Lukashenko. While being far from politically condemning in its treatment of the past, Crystal Swan advances a reminiscence of uncertainty. Such doubt in future’s bright promises characterise contemporary cinema in various ex-Soviet countries. Possessing freedom and not knowing what to do with it — a crucial leitmotif usually presented in the figure of the wanderer-immigrant-wannabe.
Evelina (or Velya) is a young rebellious Law student that is willing to do everything in order to secure a US visa. Even buying a work letter from a suspicious red-tracksuited man on the flea market, to confirm that she is a manager in a fine crystal factory. A mistaken phone number on a form brings our protagonist on a Kafkaesque search for the designated telephone (such as Kafka’s enigmatic Castle) and brings her to a desolated fictional town, Khrustal (Crystal), which explicitly harbours the famous factory. The industrial motif is a crucial reminiscent of the communist past, as we see the narrative interrupted by the daily mechanised behaviour of the factory workers: women whose monotonous motions produce fine glasses and decorative swans as export trade. The loud buzzing of the machines is nonetheless a feature of industrial documentary which focuses on mass production of food and/or goods. In these short repetitive intermissions, the past and present are bridged over the apparent 22 year gap.
Velya arrives at a cluttered apartment, its domesticity taken over by wedding preparations. In the chaotic hubbub of family, neighbours, and friends, the “Minsk princess” is found guarding the phone from 9 to 5 in case the US Embassy attempts to verify her visa application. Facing resistance from the mother of the house, Alya (Lyudmila Razumova), and the jealous bride-to-be, Vika (Anastasia Garvey), Velya is backed up by ex-military man, Stepan (Ivan Mulin), who is to be married the following day. While Stepan arranges a dusty local motel room for her, his intentions remain ambiguous and we follow the unlikely couple bickering their way into friendship. Leaving behind her bitter mother, who is loyal to the Old Regime, our protagonist faces actual opposition regarding her decision to leave Belarus in the face of Stepan. Disapproved by both her mother and the Motherland, Velya is stuck in a caricature of a town, in which everyone keeps quiet about inequality, violence, and theft. In a lawless place, Velya is used, abused, and violated by Stepan, who does not take “no” for an answer. Driven by assertive dominance, disguised as blind passion, he takes advantage of the young woman and forces her to partake in his wedding celebration the following day. In a grotesque sequence of group violence Velya is kicked, hit, spat on, her dignity shun to the ground - a condemnation of her desire to leave. As disturbing as Dogville's (2003) iconic ending, the aggressive overtake of Velya serves as a verdict: one can never leave the Motherland.
As a promising protagonist, Velya is no icon of purity; she is a young woman entitled to a choice, even if hushed by everyone in her proximity — both family and strangers. Nevertheless, Crystal Swan ends on a claustrophobic note, striking a verdict over 1990s Belarusian society which seems to resonate with xenophobia today. In a global world of media and communications, hostility reigns over political regimes and wins referendums (Brexit, Trump elections are the now-classical examples). In a mirroring analogy, the countries which were once closed-off to Western influences because of the Communist regime, are today amongst the most xenophobic and intolerant. Darya Zhuk does not defend her protagonist, nor does she indulge in castigating her choice, positioning her parenting attitude somewhere in between feminism and censorship. Yet, such weakness of a stance is no sublimation of the trauma of Post-Communism, not at all. The film rejects its own remedy by choosing not to turn the volume up on its (potentially) strong female lead, delivered way too cowardly by Nasbulina.
Crystal Swan / Khrustal
Director: Darya Zhuk
Duration: 93 mins
Release: Premiered as part of the BFI London Film Festival
Savina Petkova is the Managing Editor of Electric Ghost Magazine. She also contributes to MUBI Notebook, Photogénie and Girls on Tops.