'Ukrainian Sheriffs': IDFA Review

Ukrainian Sheriffs still - H 2015
Courtesy of International Documentary Festival Amsterdam
An arresting experience.

Roman Bondarchuk's Ukraine-Latvia-Germany co-production won the Special Jury Award at the Dutch documentary behemoth.

Though its title conjures the Wild West, Roman Bondarchuk's village chronicle Ukrainian Sheriffs is more a case of "mild east" — until the drums of war start beating over the sleepy horizon. Winner of the runner-up Special Jury Prize when world-premiering at IDFA in Amsterdam, this is an accomplished and highly promising feature-length debut from director/cinematographer/co-editor Bondarchuk that will enjoy plentiful exposure at festivals and on TV (no fewer than six European channels were involved in its production).

Stara Zburjivka is an out-of-the-way farming settlement of some 1,800 souls located "near Crimea" in southern Ukraine. At the start of filming, Crimea is still Ukrainian territory — but just after the half-hour mark a vote in the peninsula sees it become a de facto part of the country's giant northern neighbor, Russia. The conflict between the two nations formed the backdrop to last year's mid-length documentary Euromaidan: Rough Cut, whose 10 directors included Bondarchuk and one of his co-editors here, Kateryna Gornostai. Taking viewers far beyond the tumult of Maidan Square in the capital Kiev, Ukrainian Sheriffs provides a welcome and illuminating look at the specter of war — how it comes to color lives apparently far from any frontlines.

Indeed, daily existence in Stara Zburjivka seems to have been long untouched by any wider national or geopolitical upheavals, its shack-like dwellings and adjacent natural environment exuding a bygone, pre-Soviet ambience. Bondarchuk's entry point into this cozy but slightly diffuse mini-society is via Vitya and Volodya, the two dudes entrusted by the village's mayor Viktor with upholding law and order — the closest proper police station being an unspecified distance, "so far away." The duo go about their business in mostly genial fashion, in a place where people know each other's business and policing is clearly a matter of consent rather than coercion. The younger man, Volodya, is, despite his bruiserishly ursine mien, particularly easygoing and genial. Mustachioed, sixtyish Vitya, his eyes always hidden behind dark glasses, is a pricklier presence, violently losing his temper with a small-time miscreant at one startling juncture.

Despite the picture's catchy moniker, the sheriffs often feel like supporting players in their own movie, especially when town drunk Kolya is around. Bondarchuk and his editors show a particular fascination with this hapless, chaotic chap who seems to have wandered in from a previous century, or perhaps a Nikolai Gogol short story. But as their focus shifts from individual to individual and incident to incident, Ukrainian Sheriffs emerges as an episodic, wryly amusing affair, displaying considerable interest in and sympathy with human foibles. The result is a life's-rich-pageant tapestry whose apparent modesty belies a rich and sturdy complexity, and whose climactic coup de cinema crescendo involving the terrifying roar of an overhead jet resounds long after the credits have rolled.

Production companies: VFS Films, DocuDays SOUTH, Taskovski Films
Director/cinematographer: Roman Bondarchuk
Screenwriter: Darya Averchenko
Producers: Darya Averchenko, Uldis Cekulis, Tania Georgieva
Editors: Roman Bondarchuk, Kateryna Gornostai
Sound: Boris Peter
Composer: Anton Baibakov
Sales: Taskovski Films, London
No rating, 88 minutes