Serhii (Viktor Zhdanov) and Pashka (Vladimir Yamnenko) are the sole inhabitants of their desolate mining village. The other houses have been looted and abandoned. Their existence is extremely primitive, and the scenario is post-apocalyptic. Their scarce electricity is generated by the little gas that they possess. Their windows have been shattered by consecutive explosions, and the blistering cold January wind enters their house unapologetically. They live the grey zone, an almost entirely deserted buffer area separating government-controlled Ukrainian territory and those occupied by the pro-Russian militia, in the self-proclaimed DPR Donetsk People’s Republic.
The time is January 2022, the month immediately before Russia started the Russo-Ukrainian War. The lives of Serhii and Pashka, however, feel detached from time and space. They feel a deceitful sense of protection in oblivion. Why would Russia want to invade such an impoverished region of the planet? Surely they have more profitable priorities? Despite noting that the two countries have been at loggerheads “for 300 years”, the two men grossly underestimate the futility and the irrationality of the Russian war machine. They forget that Putinism is defined by military belligerence and a deluded sense of moral superiority over the decaying West. Instead, they simply forge ahead with their existences as usual: Serhii as a beekeeper, and Pashka as someone who simply “enjoys” life (even if it’s unclear what kind of enjoyment and pleasure can be derived from this bleak and colourless predicament).
Despite their isolation and complicity (they have been friends since childhood), the two men have some significant political differences. These come full circle during an argument outdoors, hilarious in its pettiness. Pashka has Russian sympathies, while Serhii identifies as Ukrainian. Ultimately, they allow their friendship to prevail above their deadly differences, while also carefully playing cat-and-mouse games with the forces on both sides in order to stay alive. This way, they offer tacit protection to one another, while also vouching for their right to remain in this barely enviable setting. Their silence is their refuge.
A spoon lying precariously on an old-fashioned iron and also on the brim of a mug is a gauge of their vulnerability. If the kitchen utensil visibly shakes, this means that there has been a bomb in the distance. If it collapses, the bomb is very close. They have very limited mobility, and even the most trivial tasks could lead to death (in the hands of the enemy or also through friendly fire). A mysterious corpse appears in the distance, but the prospect of burying it could have serious repercussions. It is with such casualness that they must contend with the presence of death (and the eventuality of their own demise). They seek enjoyment in trivial little moments, but that too proves difficult. Two elusive females – Vitalina and Katka – were once part of their lives, and and now nowhere to be seen. Maybe a little music and dance could bring a little respite? Not without enough gas to power the speakers.
Based on the eponymous novel by Andrey Kurkov, Grey Bees provides viewers with insight into the lives of two worn-out human beings at the twilight of life, and dangerously hanging by a thread to the only existence that they have ever known. This is a quiet statement about the absurdity and the risibility of war. In a way, Pashka and Serhii’s attachment to their land is as incomprehensible and indeed laughable as Putin’s narcissistic self-determination.
On the other hand, the intricacies of the national allegiances aren’t always easy to decipher. It takes some effort to figure out which side our two protagonists support, and why. The differences are too subtle for someone with limited experience of Ukrainian history and politics to grasp.
Grey Bees just premiered at the 53rd edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam.