Saturday 5 October 2019

Transnistra (Anna Eborn, 2019)

Anna Eborn's Transnistra was produced with support from the Flanders Audiovisual Fund (VAF), and earlier this year it scooped the VPRO Big Screen Award at the IFF Rotterdam.  It continues its festival run today with a screening at the London Film Festival, and although it has enjoyed real success on the festival circuit, it's difficult to see it having much of a life as a theatrical release.  However, this documentary may just find a more suitable home on the small screen; indeed, winning Rotterdam's Big Screen Award guarantees it a screening slot on Dutch channel NPO 2.

As its title just about tells you (it's one vowel short), the film takes place in the breakaway state of Transnistria, which most of the world considers to be part of Moldova.  Eborn's film isn't really concerned with Transnistria's history nor its position in the world; there's no exposition here, so you'll have to read around the film if you don't (and wish to) know about the post-USSR birth of the republic and the ensuing conflict with Moldova.  Instead, the director focuses on half a dozen 16-year-olds: one girl, Tanya, and her five male friends.  Naturally, more than one boy has their sights on Tanya's affections, and the group dynamic shifts according to who she's closest to at any given time.  The youths spend much of their time hanging around a factory that appears to have been abandoned halfway through its construction, although in summertime they do enjoy swimming and generally messing around in the water.  There's little ambition in evidence until Tanya mentions she would like to move to Greece for work; this statement does not go down well with her peers.

While nicely shot (on 16mm), Transnistra can't overcome the dull and largely unappealing nature of the six people it chooses to track; Tanya is fitfully interesting, but the five boys soon become virtually interchangeable to us and, seemingly, to Tanya.  Quite why we're watching over 90 minutes of this group, who go through the film without doing or saying very much of note, is something of a mystery.  The film remains just on the right side of watchable, but it's a one-paced effort that left me with no idea as to what Anna Eborn was trying to say.  Take away the setting, which admittedly is rather novel for audiences outside of the former USSR, and you may as well be watching any bunch of bored, aimless teens.

What is quite exasperating is that there is more than one opportunity for Eborn to jump into more interesting waters; there's no better example of such oversight than when Tanya's little brother signs up for military academy, which seems like an ideal starting point for an examination of the state he's pledged to defend.  But the film sticks to its pedestrian path, with the director seemingly uninterested in anything which strays from the ennui depicted here.  Transnistra may not be a bad film per se but, most frustratingly, it chooses to disregard what many viewers will want from a documentary.

Darren Arnold