Documentary filmmaker Roman Bondarchuk’s first feature, Volcano, is an odyssey into the Kherson province of southern Ukraine, which through his lens becomes a land of anarchy and freedom. The film is a bizarre, occasionally whimsical comedy, rich with subtexts and surreal moments.
Bondarchuk told the audience at the New East Cinema’s Barbican screening that he was inspired to make Volcano after spending time in Kherson with his wife’s eccentric uncle, Vova, who lived in the town of Beryslav on the shores of an artificial Soviet-era lake. When there was still work, in Soviet times, Vova had a good job in a fishing cooperative – but the work was long gone when Bondarchuk arrived in the late 2000s and the institutions one would expect to find in a modern democracy still hadn’t arrived.
The filming took place on location in Kherson, where the steppe is vast, dry for the most part empty; a mirage – a long-lost vision of a more cheerful past – appears in the film as a bright splash of blue against dull yellows and browns. The characters take up most of the frame and the camera follows them around as though they were in a mockumentary. In fact, Bondarchuk almost made a documentary about Vova and his outlandish survival strategies; Volcano, in which many locals participated as actors, merges life and fiction to create a strange world in which nothing is at it seems.
Vova is also the name of the character who takes in Lukas, a translator with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a real organisation despite the absurdly bureaucratic name. In the first five minutes of the film, Lukas, who’s on a work trip in Kherson, loses his colleagues and then himself in the middle of an arid landscape of sunflower fields. Although he’s handsome, with a good job, a house and a wife in the capital, Kyiv, he quickly finds that none of this is useful anymore. Someone steals his bag, he gets put in jail by the policemen who are supposed to help him, and is beaten up when he tries to find work. Since there’s no way out of town with no money, Lukas is stuck helping Vova with unconventional money-making exploits.
Helped by his daughter Marushka, Vova guides Lukas through the unfamiliar spaces of Beryslav, where a solid wall seems to separate inhabitants of the capital from those in back of beyond Kherson. The locals make a mockery of Lukas’ identity as a translator. They don’t understand a word he says and he doesn’t understand them. Vova’s bad-tempered mother, for instance, insists on referring to Lukas as German even as she speaks to him in Ukrainian. This almost insurmountable divide between city and provinces, which makes Lukas a foreigner in his own country, is one of the most interesting aspects of the film. The arm of the state doesn’t reach as far as remote Beryslav and its normal day-to-day interactions are run through a system of violence and corruption entirely unfamiliar to Lukas, who can barely believe what he’s seeing. Bondarchuk never tries to hide the differences – economic, political, cultural – between city and country. Instead, he accepts they exist and proposes that the path to overcoming them is not as easy as one might think. A common language doesn’t help. Lukas has to first relax and accept that his fate brings freedom and renewal as well as terror.
Despite the latent violence, Volcano is above all a very funny film – no one at the screening could hold their laughter, even at the darkest moments. The war with Russia, for example, is ever present, yet it created some of the film’s most humorous moments. Nevertheless, one can’t say that Bondarchuk isn’t taking the situation seriously. As he himself explained, the locals themselves laugh because otherwise things would become unbearable. The comedy in Volcano feels like an acknowledgement of the unique way of doing things in Beryslav.
New East Cinema’s premiere was, as I’ve since found out, a rare chance to see Volcano in London. I hope it’s not the last – I’d go again, even without the lively Q&A with the director!