Two women are sitting in a not very clean, not exactly delightful kitchen. The older looks out of the window. We can’t see what she is looking at. Maybe she is just staring. We see dust glittering in the sunbeam though. The take seems long, very long, which is typical for the excellent cinematography of Alexey Ubeyvolk. It is his almost tender framing that, among other achievements, distinguishes the film At the River (U reki or Bilja ricki in Ukrainian, 2007), the first feature film by Eva Neymann from Zaporoshje, who used to spell her name Nejman and who lives in Germany now. She had already attracted attention with her documentary Wege Gottes (God’s Ways, 2006). At the River is based on a short story by Fridrikh Gorenshtein, the script writer of Tarkovsky’s Solaris (Solyaris). But it is not really a film following a strict narrative. Rather it looks like a docu-dramatic sequence of impressions. In the center of what could be described as a plot is the above-mentioned old woman, a “shameless old lady” as the title of Brecht’s story and René Allio’s film from 1965 had it. Her not so young daughter is trying to keep her from taking a trip by boat on the river — but fails. Along the way the two meet several strangers with unusually funny habits. It is the absurdity of these coincidental encounters that gives the film its comedic dimension intertwined with poetic fantasy. It would be a cliché to mention Chekhov in this regard, but on the other hand it would not be an exaggeration to say that art in Russia and even in the Ukraine has been influenced by this great writer since the beginning of the 20th century.
At the River is not literature though, and, as already suggested, it is the visual quality that actually distinguishes Eva Neymann’s film from other less ambitious, run of the mill cinematic explorations from Eastern Europe. Though Neymann’s is not exactly a beguiling world, nevertheless the beauty of the images leaves us with some hope, and even in good spirits. The acting is restrained, and the actors function rather as signs, some of them even as caricatures. They come and go as musical leitmotifs. And when in the end mother and daughter seem to vanish in the rain it is like a coda of an elegy.
It is this musicality that wraps At the River in an air of timelessness. But there are signals that ground the film in actual history. The awkward visitor in the beginning is related to re-compensation for people deported (in Stalinist times we understand), and at one point the old lady mentions the year 1956 – when, as we know, the XX Communist Party congress took place, featuring Khrushchev’s secret speech. It is the richness of a film that on first sight might seem “simple” that made At the River the proud winner of the FIPRESCI prize — as the jury decided unanimously.