– Dmytro Moiseiev directs an intense and lightly surreal adaptation of Andrey Kurkov’s novel, about a beekeeper caught between the frontlines of the Donbas war

Review: Grey Bees

Viktor Zhdanov in Grey Bees

Bees play productive and unique roles in the natural ecosystem, supplementing the lives of greenery and humans, yet they’re also drawn – almost in spite of their natural industry – to congregate around putrid, decaying matter. The title of Ukrainian director Dmytro Moiseiev’s film, and the acclaimed original novel by Andrey Kurkov, imagines these insects as haggard, aged and sluggish, certainly a cruel, imaginative description for the residents holding out in a levelled mining village amidst the Donbas war.

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Premiering late in IFFR’s Tiger Competition, Grey Bees is an adroit, tidy piece of storytelling, abounding in subtle ironies before its plot gradually escalates. Cutting back the travelogue structure of the novel, Moiseiev updates the action from the mid-2010s to January 2022, an ominous timestamp, of course, whilst containing it solely within the mining village, itself rendered in a kind of picturesque ruin and desolation. Yet his film’s key limitation is that it doesn’t particularly expand upon what we already know of this much-discoursed conflict, and restricts its three central characters to a caricatural mode; however charismatic their on-screen portrayals, they don’t always suggest a life and interiority beyond symbolic reductions of common perspectives on the war.

Moiseiev generates some productive tension as we observe the lead character, Sergei (Viktor Zhdanov), a retired miner who has evidently found rewarding new work for himself as a beekeeper. The landscape is both post-apocalyptic and pre-modern: in the absence of agriculture, he still has to reap what he can from the highly constricted environment for sustenance. We can feel the sweet, if temporary, satisfaction of manufacturing and tasting the precious honey in these hopeless environs; its function is also currency that can be exchanged for other food items, if definitely not water and fuel.

His politics and scepticism towards the wider Ukrainian nationalist cause are securely shown (and are also bracing and uncompromising, given the automatic solidarity given by the West and its institutions), yet some existential mystery is maintained by his refusing to depart the village. Marooned in later-life arrested development, could he be suffering from PTSD? The care and patience through which Moiseiev shoots him fermenting the honey betrays the fact that this narrow routine is its own reward. Bright horizons are dimming in the soot-filled air; can he believe that bees exist wherever else he might settle?

His childhood friend Pashka (Vladimir Yamnenko) lives closer to DPR-controlled territory, and quietly acts as an agent and lookout for their forces; Sergei values his companionship but certainly opposes his Russian sympathies, yet he can’t rouse himself to be a chest-beating, proud Ukrainian, at least not within the conception promoted by Zelenskyy. Dialogues with a soldier from the national forces – who initially seems concerned for his protection, yet is actually spying on him – make this clear in overly blunt terms. It feels as though an extra dimension and array of detail provided by the novel have been shorn. Kurkov himself was born in St Petersburg and publishes in Russian, but undoubtedly self-identifies as Ukrainian; that the countries have been perpetually at war for 130 years is voiced directly in this exchange with the soldier. Grey Bees’ encroaching turn towards tragedy is a pessimistic reminder that this war might never be comprehensively won, only temporarily quelled.

Grey Bees is a Ukrainian production, staged by Idas Film.

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By fcjyy