A Ukrainian miracle
A review of Гніздо горлиці (The Nest of the Turtledove). A film directed by Taras Tkachenko, Ukraine, 2016.
“Welcome to Ukraine,” says a border guard with a smile on his face and a bribe in his hand. This is one of the introductory scenes of the film The Nest of the Turtledove. The main character, Daryna, is returning home, pregnant, after working for two years in Italy. She leaves behind tireless work and a relationship with her boss and his constantly unsatisfied mother. At home she is greeted by a parade of empty vodka bottles, an inconsiderate husband and a reckless teenage daughter. Directed by Taras Tkachenko, the film was released in November 2016 in Ukraine and was awarded as the best Ukrainian film at the Odesa Film Festival, already the summer before its premiere.
Through the eyes of the workers
It is impressive that the film was released in more than 100 theatres throughout Ukraine (this typically only happens with the big Hollywood blockbusters). Indeed, the mere fact that it was released at all is a miracle. Shooting a film is undoubtedly a daunting task, and it is not for the feeble –particularly so in Ukraine. Filming began in 2013, before the EuroMaidan and the budget was 15.4 million hryvnias. Yet numbers in Ukraine are relative. When the work began, the dollar was worth only eight hryvnias and when it was finished, it was 25. At one stage it was as much as 30 hryvnias. This created an added challenge for the film cast and crew.
“We were making a film about the hungry with hungry eyes, in other words about workers through the eyes of the workers,” said Tkachenko, who was named head of the Association of Cinematographers of Ukraine last October, perhaps the youngest in its history. This is the first full-length feature film by the 41-year-old director from Kyiv.
The plot is based on the real-life situation of Ukrainian workers abroad, a topic to which most can relate; very few Ukrainians do not have a relative or friend working abroad. Moreover, according to the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as many as five million Ukrainians work abroad. Unofficial data suggests that this figure is much higher: perhaps around eight million. Like so many migrant workers, Tkachenko’s main character, Daryna, is humiliated on a regular basis. Her employer calls the police because she thinks Daryna stole expensive jewellery and the boss uses the word badante so contemptuously it seems as though she was not talking to a housemaid but a slave. Nonetheless, this is still considered a good job for Daryna, even though she has to pay 500 euros to the friend who recommended her. She does not speak Italian, but it does not matter. “You simply should reply to everything with ‘Si, signora’”, was the sole advice she received upon getting the job. She sends most of her money to Ukraine, to her drunken husband.
In Italy one can recognise Ukrainians relatively easily. They have specific features which can be seen in their faces: worry, tiredness and fear. Most of them work illegally. They have long discussions about their children in Italian parks. Back home, inside the house of a Ukrainian villager, one can often find good Italian coffee of a variety not found in the local stores. Packages are regularly sent home from Italy. The women who leave their homes – it is mostly women who seek work in Italy – often do so for good. There is no doubt that the work in Italy is difficult, but in a Ukrainian village, the situation can be much worse.
This is essentially what The Nest of the Turtledove is about. The experience of Ukrainians working abroad and the difficult choices they face: the choices to leave and the choices they face in new surroundings without knowing the language and having to rely on strangers. The film is also about the breakdown and chaos which undoubtedly follows after these choices. Daryna decides to leave her family for her family’s sake; and yet for her family she is forced to come back and sacrifice everything. She is constantly starting over. When her husband, Dmytro, finds out that she is pregnant, he decides to leave her at first, moving into the unfinished house he was building nearby. Daryna tries to convince Dmytro that the baby is his, and he eventually decides to come back to her.
Dmytro was building this new house with the money his wife made in Italy. Becoming pregnant with an Italian can be understood as a side effect of the abandoned house, and payback for cheating. Though from Daryna’s point of view, it was more of an attempt to seek security, and maybe even love. Daryna’s heart is torn between the elegant Italian lawyer and the rude villager from Ukraine. She chooses the latter. She considers an abortion, but puts it off, almost intentionally. She is seemingly waiting for the doctor to say: “Abortion?This late? Sure, no problem, I will give you the scalpel and you can do it yourself.” At the same time, Daryna refuses to let her pregnant daughter get an abortion. Even though she will have to leave university and return to the village, jeopardising her own future.
The plot is a typical Ukrainian tragedy about suffering and deadlock. As viewers, we may ask ourselves: Who is this film for? The husbands of the women working abroad? It probably will not change their attitude. The contemporary Ukrainian audience? There is too little action and too much suffering. Maybe it is for a future Ukrainian audience to inform them of what it was like before? Or for those who did not leave to work abroad? Or maybe a combination of all of these?
Rimma Zyubina, the actress who played the main role of Daryna, confessed: “After the premiere in Zaporizhzhia one woman came to me with tears in her eyes and with a 20-year-old daughter and said: ‘Thank you so much. I was once offered to work abroad, but I declined. I regretted it for a very long time. But now I realise that it was my daughter’s future on the line.’”
Optimism with a reality check
The director gave the lead role to Zyubina, a well-known actress from the Kyiv Academic Youth Theatre, without any auditions. He believed she was the perfect fit after he saw her starring in a film made by one of his students. It was a good choice, as Zyubina is one of the best features of the film. “Every woman can relate to this story. It is about pain, a broken heart, a broken family, disagreements with a daughter and unrealised potential,” she says. “I played something similar in the theatre. Of course the topics are different, but the same depth can be found in plays by Shakespeare, Chekhov, or Schiller, in which I had an honour to perform. But, unfortunately, before this film our cinematographers only saw me as a girl who could tell good jokes.” After the war broke out in Ukraine’s east, Zyubina consciously decided to decline any roles in Russian films.
During the filming, the well-known actor Vitaliy Linetsky, who played the role of Daryna’s husband, died in an accident before they had completed shooting all the scenes. Two years after his death the audience had a chance to see him perform, lively and genuinely, on the big screen. This kind of genuineness is a very rare thing among Ukrainian actors.
“We had to make some significant alterations to the plot because of Linetsky’s death,” Tkachenko says. “The ending was supposed to be completely different with the wedding of Daryna and Dmytro’s daughter. It turned out that that movie had two directors – me and fate. The other director knew more than I did. It is very sad what happened to Vitaliy, but it is more life-like this way. The movie itself portrays optimism with a reality check. It is harsher but more real. Today, I can say that I am completely satisfied with how the film ended.” After all, it is a happy end – or at least there is a hint in that direction, since the characters still need to learn to forgive each other. And when you learn to forgive, you pass the exams for the rest of your life.
Translated by Viktoria Chaban
Olena Pavlova is a journalist based in Kyiv covering art and cultural issues.