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A Bit of a Stranger

Four generations of women in Russian-occupied Ukraine explore family trauma and ethnic identity through brutally honest conversations - from the Panorama section ofnthe 74th Berlin International Film Festival


Four female characters come from war-torn Mariupol. The filmmaker Svitlana Lishchynska is one of such people, and the story is often structured around her point-of-view. This lends the movie an auto-ethnographic quality. Her storytelling technique blends archive footage from the past few decades with recent images, captured after the Russian invasion. The other three women are her daughter Alexandra (Sasha), her granddaughter Stefania, and her mother Valentina (Valay).

The filmmaker’s daughter was brought up by her grandmother in Mariupol. Svitlana Lishchynska moved to Kyiv in the 1990s in search of career opportunities, and she ended up working in television. There is no explanation for her decision. The feelings of abandonment and lovelessness that the women in her family experience is treated as mere fate. The proximity of the Soviet Union and now Russia is not a straightforward matter. The family lack a sense of belonging, perhaps because of the many trans-generational ruptures and marriage breakdowns, and the absence of a strong male figure. Putin’s macho persona remains attractive to some Ukrainians, particularly in Mariupol.

There are some very intimate and poignant moments: footage of a young Sasha singing the Russian anthem on Russian television, before being abruptly interrupted her grandmother; Sasha and Stefania visit Svitlana in Kyiv, but suddenly decide to turn around; Sasha explains that she likes Russians and feels like one of them. The young woman changes her mind after her city is bombed. Images reveal unimaginable damaged inflicted on Mariupol. Next, we see her in London. She moved to the UK on a sponsorship visa scheme. The irony of fate is crystal clear: a Ukrainian who previously identified as Russian leverages the special status reserved for Ukrainian Refugees in order to leave the the country. They appear to have settled in a comfortable house in the British capital. They invite mum and granny to visit or perhaps even join them. But not all is rosy. Sasha and Stefania question their identity, their choices and their world stand as they begin to learn English,

Language is one of the most interesting aspects of A Bit of a Stranger. Svitlana wants to speak Ukrainian, and that’s her language of choice in Kiyv, even for fitness classes. The national news are in Ukrainian. Back in Mariupol, her family watches Russian television, and Russian is indeed the language that she uses in order to communicate with them. To complicate things further, the little Stefania does not see Ukrainian as her mother tongue, It would be beneficial for viewers not familiar with the difference between the two Slavonic languages that the subtitles were marked (for example, a colour code for Russian and another one for Ukrainian).

Svitlana takes her mother to Warsaw so that the elderly woman can take a flight to London. She then returns to Kiyv. She wholeheartedly embraces her home and her national identity, despite the mounting dangers and the relative safety that a London refuge could offer her. A courageous film that contributes to the Russo-Ukrainian War debate. The inevitable consequences of war are widespread destruction, poverty and the breakdown of the collective psyche.

A Bit of a Stranger just premiered in the Panorama section of the 74th Berlin International Film Festival

By Agnieszka Piotrowska - 20-02-2024

Agnieszka Piotrowska is a British (Polish born) award winning filmmaker, author and theorist. She is particularly well known for her iconic documentary Married to the Eiffel Tower (2008) about women...

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