Frank, a Tanzanian taxi driver who came to the Soviet Union to study, is just one of the colourful characters woven into Long Echo –Lukasz Lakomy and Veronika Glasunowa’s touching portrayal of life in a small Ukrainian town on the edge of a war zone.
As an outsider, Frank’s views on the history and contemporary story of Dobropolye, a small Russian-speaking mining town in Eastern Ukraine some 70km from the frontlines of the country’s festering civil war, create a narrative backbone for the film. Despite the many tragic and heart-rendering stories its subjects reveal, it manages to bring a light, lyrical and enduringly positive touch to its subject matter.
Part of a crop of Ukrainian and European-produced documentaries focusing on an internecine conflict that is now entering its fourth year, Long Echo offers a new perspective on a story that has all-but disappeared from the daily news bulletins of European media outlets.
Taking its title from the mournfully poetic lyrics of a Russian folksong that plays out the end titles, Long Echo carries many levels of meaning – from the distant crump of shellfire, to the enduring nostalgia for the Soviet Union evinced by older inhabitants of the neat little concrete apartment blocks that make up a town founded in 1900 to exploit the rich coal reserves beneath its green orchard-peppered fields.
«Children are schooled in how to hit targets with air rifles.»
In a balanced, well-crafted film, the directors introduce us to a selection of characters, all of them to a greater or lesser degree engagingly eccentric.
In an opening sequence of the film, we meet Tatyana Aleksandrovna, who runs a singles’ club responsible for 28 successful matchmakings and introduces viewers to the town’s history (and odd little footnotes such as its place in the Guinness Books of Records – for being home to Europe’s shortest tram line, which opened in 1968, but is no longer functioning.) The film also introduces us to the head of a medical massage parlour Elena Alekseyevna, who treats men and women suffering from various ailments including spinal problems and high blood pressure.
Then there are the lively young miners who practice enthusiastic and loud – if not particularly tuneful – death metal songs in the town’s social club, home also to a tiny zoo, run with love and dedication by Nikolay Nikolayevich.
These, along with Frank’s commentary – delivered from behind the wheel of his taxi as he drives around the town in winter, spring and summer – are the film’s central characters. Together they provide a solid scaffold for telling an intimate story of the cost of an apparently insoluble conflict.
A war-torn community
From the grieving mother at a memorial service for her son Valodya – killed serving in the Ukrainian military – who pleads for «peace and love», to Nikolay Nikolayevich’s prosaic problems of attempting to source a chameleon from a breeder across the lines in rebel-held territory [«Can you come through Donetsk? Is the permit system still in place? And how much are the chameleons? What do they eat? Cockroaches?»] – the war is never far away.
«I don’t understand. If my son gets called to the army, who is he supposed to fight against?» – Tatayana Aleksandrovna
Children are schooled in how to hit targets with air rifles; at a memorial service they are exhorted to remember the sacrifice of «teachers and student» of those who participated in the protests in Kyiv’s Maiden Square in 2014 and «later formed the armed groups that met the enemy on our own land».
Dobropolye — as Frank explains early in the film — is in a region that was settled by Russians, immigrants to the Ukrainian lands who came to work the mines and factories. Firmly Russophone (all the principle characters speak Russian and are apparently ethnically Russian), the pain and despair the war is causing is a subtext throughout the film that is made most explicit when – over a small buffet in the club with Tatayana Aleksandrovna and others – enunciates her feelings in a tearful outburst.
«I don’t understand. If my son gets called to the army, who is he supposed to fight against?»
«My grandchildren were born here… my children live here…We love Ukraine. Ukraine has sheltered us. My daughter’s husband is Ukrainian…My grandchildren are Ukrainian…And now we should fight against Russia?»
«In a balanced, well-crafted film, the directors introduce us to a selection of characters.»
«I cannot grasp how it could get to this. How can my relatives in Russia shoot at me? And how are we supposed to shoot at our relatives? I cannot even imagine it. It is terrible and hurts…We want peace. We don’t need war. We already lost on daughter. If we lose all our children, what is there to live for?»
The agony of civil war is also witnessed as the death metal band «Rage of Madness» members – all of them Russian speakers – chat about how they cope with the pressures of never knowing when a rocket attack may fall on their town. [And from the images of heavily shelled houses filmed during a bus journey around the town, it is clear just how close the war has come to Dobropolye].
One of the band members, Dimon, insists that the Russian Army is firing at targets near Dobropolye as other voices shout «Come on Dimon, cut it out!» Dimon defends his comments, saying they are frightened to admit that Russia is backing the rebels. «They don’t want to say that Russia is attacking us. It is not Russia – it is their system… the Kremlin. We are still friends with the Russians, but it is their government that is to blame.»
Long Echo ends with brief notes on the back-stories of the main characters, detailing the dreams they hold for the future. That faith is what keeps people living on the edge of a war zone going.