Merging reality and fiction, Stop-Zemlia is an honest account of adolescent turbulence in Ukraine

Merging reality and fiction, Stop-Zemlia is an honest account of adolescent turbulence in Ukraine

Debuting earlier this year at Berlinale Film Festival, Kateryna Gornostai’s Stop-Zemlia blends documentary and fiction in a sincere, emotionally complex coming-of-age film.

22 September 2021

Embodying a very different temperament to the conventional coming-of-age indie, Stop-Zemlia is a multi-layered portrait of Ukraine’s youth from writer-director Kateryna Gornostai. Tired of both Ukrainian stereotypes, and excessively-staged teenage dramas, Gornostai opted for her own unconventional approach to casting and acting. The result is a sincere, modern representation of Ukrainian youth, in which Gornostai uses her know-how as a documentary filmmaker to present the intricacies of teenage life, devoid of clichés.

In search of who she is, who she wants to be, and what her future holds, 16-year-old introvert Masha (a spellbinding Maria Fedorchenko) is the quiet but powerful beating heart of Stop-Zemlia. Surrounded by her two best friends — vibrant Yana (Yana Isaienko) and sensitive, beanie-clad Senia (Arsenii Markov) — Masha spends a sizeable amount of her last school year longing from afar for her classmate crush: the aloof Sasha (Oleksandr Ivanov). While Sasha and Masha provide the film’s two central character arcs, Gornostai’s sharp lens comes to focus on the latter, as she navigates the uneven terrain of Ukrainian teendom.

“At first I joked about it, but my intention was truly to make a boring film about teenagers,” Gornostai tells The Calvert Journal, on Stop-Zemlia’s origins. “I’m a great fan of coming of age films, from childhood I grew up on this American genre. I loved to watch them, but every time I thought: ‘Wow, they have such an interesting life, and I’m so boring.’” Stop-Zemlia, in turn, departs from sensationalism and over-trodden Americanised conventionalisms to present a patient depiction of the everyday minutiae of being young.

Gornostai regards mundane moments of quiet solitude with deep contemplation, and with an appreciation of the aimlessness of tender adolescence. Teenage temporality comes into clear focus as Masha gets ready for a party alone; an extreme close-up lingers as she goes through the practised ritual of putting on make-up, wiping it off and trying again. It is one of many sequences that Gornostai could have turned into transformational montage. Instead, she spotlights instead the meditative experience of young womanhood.

Gornostai also seeks to emulsify the real and the fictitious to highlight the fringes of insecure adolescence. The film opens with a plethora of documentary-framed headshots, dozens of teens staring beyond the camera as they are asked by Gornostai, who sits out of frame, about their ambitions, feelings, and relationships. The documentary motif sequences, intermittently revisited, see the line between character and performer blur as these young actors play fictional versions of themselves. “My aim was just to talk to them about some important issues we have in the film. It was a dialogue with a real person but through the prism of a character,” Gornostai details. “Documentary film is like that: building this story together, the author of the film as the observer and the protagonist living his or her life. They are forming questions that maybe they couldn’t answer at the time, but they’re looking for the answers through the film.”

The director describes her actors as “co-authors of the film,” and finding a cast that encompassed the social microcosm of the classroom was an essential part of the filmmaking process. Gornostai found the 25 young people in a casting process that lasted more than two months. Instead of focusing on the actors’ traditional photobooks and reels, Gornostai paid special attention to the teenagers’ body language. The result of this chemistry-focused casting process is most visible in the platonic love between Masha, Yana, and Senia; their physical proximity and communication feels effortlessly natural.

“A lot of films coming out now are like a parasite, living off this post-Soviet aesthetic. I wanted Stop-Zemlia to be fresh and new”

This intimacy between subject and lens extends inside the school, where a monotone biology lesson provides the background commentary to Masha’s daydreams. Gornostai says that she and director of photography Oleksandr Roshchyn initially struggled to find a balance while capturing classroom scenes: “[Roshchyn] wanted it to be more active and I, as the scriptwriter and director of the film, wanted it to be in this state of…” she trails off, unable to find the right word. That granular texture of Stop-Zemlia is hard to articulate; expository scenes are kept to a minimum in this narrative that eschews melodramatics and instead relies on slow visuals to express teenhood’s intense, confusing, and thrumming avalanche of emotion.

One dialogue-free scene that embodies this versatile visual style shows Masha dancing alone in the sanctuary of her bedroom (a carefully-curated set created from scratch by production designer Maxym Nimenko.) The city lights beyond her window look like stars, and Masha dances to “Skin” by Maiia Nehrebestska. Meanwhile, the camera actively follows her freely-flailing limbs. “We wanted these spaces of teenagers to be colourful, a representation of their inner worlds,” Gornostai explains.

Gornostai carefully considered the crafting of this interior scenery while trying to define Stop-Zemlia within Ukrainian cinema. “A lot of films coming out now are like a parasite, living off this post-Soviet aesthetic,” she says. “I wanted [Stop-Zemila] to be fresh and about something new, that’s why we wanted Masha and Yana to have modern interiors.” Departing visually from Ukrainian cinematic conventions and coming-of-age stereotypes, Stop-Zemlia’s portrays a universal story of young womanhood embedded within a Ukrainian-specific modern cultural backdrop.

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