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The flush of first love is excellently rendered in this touching Ukrainian coming-of-age drama - live from Berlin


Is there any stronger feeling in the world than the flush of first love? There probably is, but try telling that to a teenager who finds themselves awkwardly infatuated, unable to hide the blushing in their cheeks? Masha (Maria Fedorchenko) is one such teenager, who has developed a crush on the quiet and sensitive Sasha (Oleksandr Ivanov) — in a pivotal scene, simply walking by this boy and trying to say “hi” is a moment of stress seemingly on par with living in a war zone.

A teacher explains how the stress activator in your brain turns on and admits that falling in love can create much the same effect. Stop-Zemlia has a similarly forensic approach to both the psychological and physiological emotions of being a teenager, when your hormones are rampant and your emotions impossible to fully explain. Masha finds comfort in the kind presence of her friends Yana (Yana Isaienko) and Senia (Arsenii Markov), who form a trio based more on platonic love than any potential for romance.

Coming in at an unwieldy two hours, Stop-Zemlia uses a longer-than-normal runtime for this genre to fully explore the contours of teenagehood, dipping in and out of musical sequences, magical realism and intersecting storylines; even allowing Masha’s love interest full autonomy instead of mere idealisation. Fictional scenes are intercut with documentary-style interviews, with characters asked questions by an unseen director, allowing for further development of their feelings and more mature development of their emotions. Characters’ names are almost the same or simply diminutives of their actors (Masha for Maria, for example), blurring the lines between performer and character to excellent effect.

Coming at a time when coming-of-age dramas are so saturated with copious smoking, drinking and shagging — such as Russia’s Everybody Dies But Me, UK’s Skins and USA’s Euphoria — Stop-Zemlia offers a far more thoughtful and sober take on the messiness of growing up. In this respect, it owes as much to recent trends in French documentary-making — the films of Sébastien Lifshitz and Claire Simon’s Young Solitude — than stereotypical coming-of-age films. There’s a great eye for dialogue that genuinely apes that way that generation Z teenagers talk — and not the way that many adults assume they talk — showing off the patient and workshopped approach of first time feature director Kateryna Gornostai.

The fluidity is sexuality is explored here with real sensitivity, showing the rise of a generation far more nuanced and mature than even my generation; in fact, what seems to matter more than sexual expression is simply being honest with yourself and understanding what you want to be. There is the larger context of growing up in Ukraine, one of the poorest countries in Europe, where opportunities are scarce and men have to join the army once they turn 18. In one touching scene, Senia recoils when he attends a class explaining how to load an AK-47, remembering his traumatic upbringing during the conflict with Russia. It’s a difficult place to be an adult, with these teenagers — thoughtful, kind, confused, learning as they go along — under no false impressions about what the future might bring. Stop-Zemlia captures them at this most precarious age with great empathy and precision.

Stop-Zemlia plays in the Generation section of the Berlin Film Festival, running from 1st to 5th March.

By Redmond Bacon - 05-03-2021

Redmond’s tastes are pretty diverse – from the neglected cop classic Tango and Cash (Andrei Konchalovsky,1989) the lesbian drama Show Me Love (Lukas Moodysson, 1998) to Scorsese’s best film:...

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