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Ukraine presents a very twisted horror tale with a Norman Bates type of protagonist grappling with tragic motherhood, failed masculinity, disability and... erm... cross dressing - from the Official Competition at the 26th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival


Sacha (Dmitry Nizhelsky) is a disabled 20-something-year-old living with his parents somewhere in rural Ukraine in the 1970s, when the country was still part of the Soviet Union. The elderly couple dress and treat him as a woman, whom they call Sashenka. One sunny winter day, a stranger breaks into the house and kills them with a rifle as they sleep in bed. Sashenka jumps from her wheelchair and crawls through the snow for a nearly a kilometre until he/she reaches the main road and flags a passing car down for help. Sounds strange? Well, that’s just the beginning of this wildly imaginative horror story.

Rewind about 25 years. Sasha’s mother is very keen to have a baby girl, and becomes profoundly disappointed at the birth of Sasha. She forces the boy to wear girl’s clothes and to adopt feminine pronouns. Predictably, this lands him in a lot of trouble at school, and he’s left with profound psychological scars. He is so disappointed at the intimidating attitude of his parents (particularly of his mother) that attempts to take his own life, which leaves him instead wheelchair-bound, having lost movement of his legs. His parents continue to dress him as a girl/woman into adulthood. The family continue to live in almost complete isolation.

The only recent visitors (before the murder). were two old school friends of Sasha: Kolya and Lena. They intend to get married, but the police begin to suspect that Kolya may have murdered Sasha’s parents. They also suspect that Sasha may be feigning his disability and perhaps killed his own parents. Sasha is indeed very frustrated at his inability to have sex and exercise his masculinity. So perhaps he could be the culprit. But not all is what it seems. Throw in another murder, a little masturbation, necrophilia, a lot of awkward sex and perhaps even a dash of incest and you get one of the most bizarre horror movies you’ve seen in a long time.

At 130 minutes, Olexandr Zhovna’s second feature film has more twists and turns than a snake with an itch. Sashenka is some sort of Slavonic Norman Bates, with the maniacal laughter et al. I can’t reveal the further similarities without ruining the plot of this profoundly weird yet strangely entertaining movie. Some of the events are so absurd that the tale borders on the farcical, even humourous. Just don’t try to squeeze much sense out of it. The director seems more concerned about being subversive for the sake of it than conveying some sort of psychological, social or political message. Anyone expecting a subtle LGBT statement is in for a disappointment. That would have been nice, and truly subversive for a country as homophobic as Ukraine.

The director combines forces with DOP Sergey Kolbinev in order to create a sense of terror and desolation. The film is entirely shot in sharp black and white. Most of the action takes place inside the large and creepy house (which resembles a Soviet dacha), complete with a semi-derelict facade, steamy windows and scarce, old-fashioned furniture. The majority of events happen in winter, when the house in covered in snow, adding to the nightmarish sense of detachment from reality. Television images of Communist propaganda, military marches and a speech by Soviet leader Brezhnev remind viewers that these people indeed inhabit the world of yore. While mostly sombre and elegant, the cinematography is not flawless. For example: a couple of sequences in the rain look very awkward, and footage of a real birth is clumsily mixed with images of doctors (actors) performing the c-section.

Sashenka has just premiered in the Official Competition of the 26th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. An acceptable entry however an unlikely winner (unless the Jury cast the solidarity vote for Ukraine).

By Victor Fraga - 18-11-2022

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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