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A US-based film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer.
CONFLICT / Through their collective artistic project, a single mother and her four children cope with life inside a war zone.

Winner of the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Iryna Tsilyk’s The Earth Is Blue as an Orange is an unusual addition to the recent slew of nonfiction films portraying everyday life in war zones. This particular frontline is the «red zone» of eastern Ukraine, a place where a young boy can look straight into (Kyiv native) Tsilyk’s lens and explain how one can tell, just by the sound, if a shell is heading towards you, or moving away.

Cinema vérité

Or, is it really his big sister’s lens? What makes Tsilyk’s film so unexpected is that it is also a meta meditation on the healing power of cinema itself. The family at the heart of Tsilyk’s story (not incidentally, the filmmaker is also a celebrated author) are bound together by a shared project: an attempt to create a narrative work based on their own wartime experiences. Headed by eldest sibling Mira, whose sole life dream is to become a cinematographer, and aided by her single mom Anna, two brothers, and sister, the quartet craft sequences that Mira then directs and films – which Tsilyk, in turn, captures cinema vérité style.

Interestingly, Tsilyk’s most powerful scenes involve the unspoken, the ones in which the war in Donbass hovers like a ghost offscreen. In addition to her many elegant establishing shots, Tsilyk composes a beautifully framed image of Mira and a friend dressed to the nines on graduation day – happily posed in front of a disintegrating building battle-scarred with scaffolding. When Mira and her mom travel across the country to Kyiv so she can apply for a film school scholarship, their faces reveal more than merely a longing for higher education. For Mira, it’s a chance at a life.

The Earth Is Blue as an Orange-MTR-post
The Earth Is Blue as an Orange, a film by Iryna Tsilyk.

The act of creation

And yet, the precariousness of life somewhat counterintuitively leads to the sheer joy of being alive. Even when Anna and Mira argue about specific shots – like how best to go about showing their destroyed city, artistically – we see how the act of creation can be both an exercise in bonding and a means of processing an incomprehensible reality. A nail-biting tracking shot from behind a tank leads to a panicked woman dashing up to the camouflaged soldiers, pleading for medicine for her sick child. Suddenly, we hear «cut». Then, the men in uniform are on the ground, smiling for Mira’s camera (and, of course, Tsilyk’s too).

the precariousness of life somewhat counterintuitively leads to the sheer joy of being alive

But to balance this cathartic fiction, Mira (and thus, Tsilyk) also choose to document each family member as they sit, one by one, in front of a black backdrop to deliver a confessional of sorts – on how the war has affected them, how its sights and sounds are now part of their personal landscape. When Mira holds forth with a lovely soliloquy on «war is emptiness,» Tsilyk’s framing becomes equally riveting. The aspiring DOP is seen in profile, but the camera is pointed squarely at her mother as she fights to hold back tears. Then it’s Anna’s turn to explain how her decision to stay was not an easy one. Just because she is unable to leave the extended family – and poignantly asks if she leaves, «Who will rebuild?» – doesn’t mean she isn’t gravely aware of what she’s putting her children through.

By the time we reach the doc’s grand finale, the very necessity of art becomes stunningly apparent. The audience’s reaction – one of collective grief – simultaneously provides us with what can only be described as a portrait of unified survival.

‘The Earth Is Blue as an Orange’ will screen at the 2020 Thessaloniki Documentary Festival