Life During Wartime: Dmytro Moiseiev Chronicles Everyday Survival In Donbass Before Russia’s Invasion
How did life go on for people living in the grey zone of the Donbass region before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? With the stoic determination of just getting through each day. It sounds like pat cliché but in director Dmytro Moiseiev’s sensitive yet unsentimental Grey Bees, he gradually reveals the internal conflicts and accumulating tensions of everyday survival before everything changed. But an unstable peace and the ever present threat of all out war are both sides of the same knife edge and at some point, something’s got to give.
It’s January 2022 and Sergiich (Viktor Zhdanov) and Pashka (Volodymyr Yamnenko) are the only ones remaining in their small village which has been scarred by shelling and had its electricity cut off. Sergiich is a retired and divorced mine inspector, his ex-wife now living further west in safety with her new family. Pashka is his old schoolmate, but circumstances have brought them together in a stubborn friendship, even though the two mix like oil and water.
The taciturn Sergiich would prefer to tend to his beekeeping in peace and keep up the pretense he cares little for the outside world, but hardly a day goes by without the gregarious Pashka turning up at his door to share a cup of tea. The days pass with the occasional rumble of bombs that are far enough away that they’re out of danger, but close enough that the reverberations blow their windows out. The infrequent visits by soldiers on patrol or journeys to neighboring villages keeps them supplied with the bare necessities, while plundering the abandoned homes of their neighbors turns up anything else they might need.
The temperature of this precarious existence shifts when Sergiich spots the corpse of a soldier lying in a field. It’s far enough that even with binoculars they can’t tell if the body belongs to Russia or Ukraine, but it’s the first physical indication that simmering tensions between the two countries may be threatening to boil over again. Pashka has heard these murmurings, but the solitary Sergiich has kept himself wilfully ignorant of all such talk. But upon the realization the brittle life they’ve forged may be upended, Sergiich and Pashka must confront the fact that living in limbo is longer tenable.
Adapted from the novel by Andrey Kukov, the author’s adaptation for the screen plays out the story between Sergiich and Pashka in a carefully measured tempo. Even though Russia’s invasion is just weeks away, its wisely never played as a point of tension or thrills. Cinematographer Vadym Ilkov’s bright and frosty photography, Moiseiev’s penchant for unfussy framing, and editor Oleksii Shamin’s relaxed cutting draws out the feeling of one day passing imperceptibly into the next, until the realization of what’s coming arrives as a sudden inevitability.
“Before the war was before the war,” a soldier shrugs when Sergiich inquires what his life was like when he wasn’t keeping an eye on a remote patch of Ukraine. For the young man, it seems easier to consider what might come after. But for the much older Sergiich that’s not a luxury he’s allowed. Grey Bees slowly builds to an astonishing conclusion in which Moiseiev captures his nation’s feeling of pride, powerlessness, and resistance in a shattering final image. The colors of the Ukrainian flag stand boldly on a bullet battered gate while somewhere beyond Sergiich considers his past and future within an intolerable present.
Reviewed on February 1st / 2024 International Film Festival Rotterdam – Tiger Competition section. 100 mins.