Sickf*ckpeople: Sarajevo Review

Hey hey we’re the junkies.

Prize-winning documentary explores the brutal impact of drug addiction on young Ukrainians.

This bleak but powerful documentary about juvenile drug addicts living in post-Soviet Ukraine is not exactly a fun viewing experience, but there are flickers of humor and humanity beneath the surface squalor. The feature debut of 27-year-old Juri Rechinsky puts a stylized slant on verite-style naturalism, finding a poetic kind of beauty amongst filth and despair. Taking the top documentary prize at Sarajevo Film Festival last week, this trawl through the Wild East seems likely to enjoy further festival bookings before finding a natural home on the small screen.

Originally a stand-alone short, the first chapter in this loose triptych profiles a gang of junkies living in shockingly sordid conditions in the hellish subterranean bowels of an Odessa apartment block. Rechninsky shoots these damaged youngsters in sweaty, pockmarked, unforgiving close-up as they inject heroin, shake with epileptic convulsions, booze and bicker and beg on street corners. Sickness, petty crime and police brutality make up their daily routine. Words tumble from their toothless mouths in a zoned-out zombie slur. These are emphatically not the glamorous big-screen addicts of Trainspotting or Pulp Fiction.

Revisiting the same crowd two years later, the film’s midsection follows a recovering addict as he journeys from Odessa to the snowy outskirts of Kiev in search of the mother he has not seen for years. Yegor is a slow-witted but oddly charming soul, his essential sweetness depleted but not defeated by drugs. And yet the brutally unsympathetic neighbors he meets seem to have stepped out of a Dostoevsky novel. “Your mother’s a whore, like your sister!” snarls Yegor’s grotesque stepfather.

The third chapter is the most moving, following vulnerable young drug casualty Anya as she confronts the desperate choices available to a pregnant addict in Ukraine. Living in a crumbling ruin of a house with her deadbeat junkie boyfriend, Anya’s romantic fantasies of a bright family future soon prove to be heartbreakingly detached from reality. Her long-suffering sisters offer grudging support but no empathy: “In my opinion she’s not a human being.” The wrenching finale comes as no surprise, but still packs a bitter punch.

Some key strengths of Sickf*ckpeople are arguably also weaknesses. With his unobtrusively observational approach, Rechinsky teases out intimate character studies rather than factual reportage. But his reluctance to supply any broader social or political context, or any clear narrative closure, means these human stories remain frustratingly fuzzy. The sensational title and edgy subject matter could also open the director to charges of voyeuristic misery porn. This is an admirable first film about the private and public damage caused by drugs, but it leaves too many threads hanging.

Production company: Novotny & Novotny Filmproduktion GmbH

Producers: Franz Novotny, Alexander Glehr

Director: Juri Rechinsky

Cinematographers: Alex Zaporoshchenko, Serhiy Stetsenko

Editor: Juri Rechinsky

Music: Anton Baibakov

Sales company: Novotny & Novotny,

Unrated, 74 minutes