A coming-of-age story in Europe’s last dictatorship, Crystal Swan, as director Darya Zhuk tells me, is neither a one-off life lesson nor an “all-encompassing portrayal of a nation”. Rather, it is a Kafkaesque tragicomedy, a reinvented American Dream portraying universal struggles in an unusual setting. Our main character, Velya, (Alina Nasibulina), is a bohemian butterfly, the embodiment of the quest for freedom from societal conventions and expectations. Velya’s main trait is her electric blue wig, which contrasts with Minsk’s grey concrete as much as her beloved house music does with the Soviet statues in the underground venues where she DJs. This Man Vs World conflict, set against the backdrop of post-Soviet Belarus, is the journey of a fish-out-of water. However, despite addressing questions on politics, gender and nationalism, Crystal Swan spirals into an incoherent yet eye-pleasing palette of colours with a topical ring.
Premiered at Karlovy Vary earlier this year, Crystal Swan has since then been screened at multiple film festivals around the world, as well as in Belarus. As Darya tells me, the film caused especially polarizing reactions amongst Belarusian audiences, stirring a conflict that touches upon the most existential features of nationalism. “I never intended it to be a complete picture of the country”Zhuk says about her film, yet Belarusian audiences expressed concern regarding the way the film depicts their homeland, and thus accused Darya of “not being Belarusian enough”. This is a particularly daunting comment to receive, as a filmmaker hoping to pave the way for local filmmakers, who sees taking risks as the change needed if the Belarusian new wave is to move away from WWII films and the post-Soviet label.
One such story is Velya’s, a law graduate in lawless 1996 Belarus who seeks to escape her Motherland and redefine herself. Velya dreams of fleeing monotony while indulging in a repetitive, reckless nightlife away from societal expectations. These are embodied by her strict mother (Svetlana Anikey), whose values are as dusty as the statues she relentlessly exhibits to indifferent visitors as the guide of the National History Museum. Tired of following someone else’s rules, Velya dreams of moving to Chicago, yet a DJ’s dream of freedom is not enough for the bureaucrats in the U.S. Embassy, and she is denied a visa for lack of ties with her home Belarus. However, with the help of her straight-out-of-Trainspotting boyfriend, she buys an employment letter from the black market that paradoxically embarks her on a journey to Khrustal (Crystal). In this fictional town revolting around the social dynamics of a dysfunctional crystal factory, Velya, renamed “Minsk Princess” gets drawn in the midst of the chaotic wedding preparations of a local couple, Stepan (Ivan Mulin), and Vika (Anastasia Garvey). In a satirical exacerbation of provincialism, Velya’s cosmopolitan ambitions become shattered crystals in a cascade of events that expose her to the crudest violence, mockery and indifference by a rowdy clan in a decadent industrial setting. A kind of post-Soviet American Dream, the cheery house music beats of the plot are abruptly replaced by strident folk tunes. And, instead of getting closer to Chicago, Velya finds herself on the side of the road, just like the factory’s unsalable Made-In-Belarus Crystal Swans.
Ceaselessly bouncing between the portrayal of harsh reality and dystopian fantasy, Crystal Swan rests in a limbo between autobiography and universal odyssey. Darya Zhuk tells me that the film was born “partly out of her feeling of duty to tell the story of the people she grew up with, inspired by real-life stories and geographical locations”. Velya’s journey, set in a fictional town and bygone era, aims to detach itself from reality and, in the director’s words, creates a space for the audience to compose their specific understanding, either as sociopolitical commentary or as an individual journey of misfortune.
The plot of Crystal Swan resolves into a bittersweet tragicomedy slightly abandoned to clichés. Departing from the cinematographic potential of an unusual setting, it merely adds Belarusian folk touches to a universally overused take on the American Dream. The contemporary themes of women’s’ struggles, identity, belonging and quest for self-definition, are chaotically enmeshed throughout, yet remain unexplored both in a national context and as universal human themes, making of Crystal Swan a Belarusian version of a kitchen sink drama.
As Darya Zhuk tells me, Crystal Swan is void of a homogenous moral, a meta-fable conceived to “reflect reality rather than exist as an aspirational image.” Crystal Swan is “the portrayal of the inability to be free in a society that is emotionally restrained,” showing how suffering in the quest for freedom, as in the case of Velya, turns out to free you from such dreams and aspirations. The film ticks all the boxes of a coming-of-age film, both drawing from universal identity struggles and contemporary distant references to migration issues and the #metoo movement. Yet, though undoubtedly shedding light over the Belarusian film scene, Crystal Swan, neither purely local nor entirely universal, falls into a limbo of clichés in a relatively unexplored New East setting, partially adding a folkloric touch to an otherwise overused plot. An aesthetically pleasing yet predictable dystopia with an excessively tragic ending, Crystal Swan overlooks intricacies to create a ready-made Belarusian product. As a consequence, it leaves a souvenir-like feeling similar to that of the film’s crystal figures with the nation label as unique selling point – aesthetically pleasing yet with a need for reinvention.