This is a well-drawn human tale of post-Soviet human grit and determination, the first feature directed by Darya Zhuk. Set over 20 years ago, when public assets were stolen in brazen fashion by those in high office in the late Soviet state, transforming them into oligarchs almost overnight. Instead of the thriving western-type capitalism that reactionaries in the UK and USA had predicted, despotic accumulation robber-baron style imprisoned Russia’s and Belarus’s populations.
Alina Nassibulina wonderfully expresses Velya, a young woman eager to escape a corrupt and degraded Belarus in 1996 for the Belly of the Beast, the USA. Although Velya has Minsk city smarts, her mistake is to imagine the US Consulate will accept any old rubbish on its visa application form. So what’s likely to stop her going to Chicago – her house music heaven – is the telephone number on her fake job reference, which a US official will check; she discovers too late that it belongs to a random family in a faraway dead-end town. She sees no other choice than to try to remedy matters directly, using her mother’s food money for bus fare to go there and find the family, a pretty unsympathetic crew. She camps out with them during preparations for elder son Stepan’s wedding waiting for the call. Alya (Ludmila Razumova), the mother of the family, lost her job of 30 years at the crystal glass factory; the whole family lives in a Soviet-era flat that two individuals would find cramped.
This is a tale of how adversity by no means brings out the best in people. Towards the end of her time there Stepan (Ivan Mulin) rapes Velya. (Whoever placed this film in the Laugh category of the BFI London Film Festival has abysmal judgement or did not view it.) Degradation of a society takes many forms, and the attitude to and treatment of women within it is a major touchstone. The rape is a bellwether of this societal failing. In Crystal Swan Velya represents youth, and especially young women, naturally optimistic and with big dreams for their futures. She sets out confidently and, even if naive in her approach, intends to make something of her life: she is determined to see through her vision. But the reality of exploitative societies grinds this out of many as we can see it starting to do to her when she comes up hard against those who have already been ground down.
Nonetheless, who could fail to root for Velya, spirited and always inclined to make the best of herself according to her lights? And who is to say that she will fail in her mission? The pity is that those who escape deprivation can be exactly the most energetic and resourceful who might otherwise make a fist of changing the society they leave behind.
Crystal Swan is screened at the London Film Festival on 14 & 16 October 2018.