Rotterdam Film Review: ‘Transnistra’

Talented Swedish-born documentary director Anna Eborn has an affinity for communities that exist outside space and time, locating people whose lives are spent in areas that don’t conform to common notions of 21st century globalization. In “Pine Ridge,” she turned her camera on Native Americans in a South Dakota reservation; in “Lida” she spent time with an elderly woman in Eastern Ukraine, one of the last speakers of an old Swedish dialect. Now she’s followed a group of teens in Transnistria, a breakaway republic largely unrecognized internationally, sitting between Moldova and Ukraine, which seems determined to maintain a Soviet lifestyle.

Transnistra” (without the penultimate “i” in the territory’s name) moves through the four seasons, focusing on Tanya, a charismatic young woman trailing a posse of boys who shift through friendship, rivalry and puppy love in the usual hormonal adolescent manner. Attractively lensed in handheld 16mm by Virginie Surdej (“Much Loved,” “Lida”) in an unobtrusive yet impressively composed squared frame that captures the freewheeling spirit of the clique without losing track of its members’ individuality, the documentary only touches upon the society they live in, basically showing that teens are teens the world over. And that’s the problem: Whereas the protagonist of “Lida” was fascinating partly because she had a lifetime of experience and secrets behind her, here the kids are a generally likable bunch but with limited intellectual attraction except to audiences unfailingly intrigued by the under-18 set. “Transnistra” won Rotterdam’s VPRO Big Screen award as well as Gothenburg’s best Nordic documentary, suggesting Eborn’s latest will discover there’s life outside of the festival gulag.

Those walking in without knowing the lay of the genre land might think this is a work of fiction, given the photogenic leads, carefully thought-out visuals and a classic opening line, “Did you figure out if you love me?” The setting is the town of Kamenka, on the Dnister River near the Ukrainian border, and it’s summer, when Tanya and her five male friends, all 16, hang around the water or in the ruins of a half-constructed factory. In describing the group, it’s difficult to avoid animal terminology: She’s the alpha female, with the male juveniles alternating between hesitant mating patterns and semi-playful wrestling and slapping among themselves, designed to show off and expend some pent-up energy. She grooms them by popping their pimples and pairs off with whoever she fancies at the moment.

It’s casually mentioned that Tanya was self-cutting, though there’s no delving deeper. Her younger brother, Vanya, goes off to a military academy, which allows the viewer to get a brief glimpse into the Soviet-style rhetoric still very much part of Transnistria society. Yet here, too, Eborn’s idea is to unobtrusively build her puzzle outwards without sharpening the edges: These bits of information give a sense of the world Tanya and her pals live in, but the director carefully avoids turning something that might feel foreign to the audience into a film about “the other.” These teens may be living in a little-known corner of Europe, yet cell phones and the internet ensure they’re not cut off from the latest pop bands. And when you get down to it, the stages from adolescence to adulthood are pretty much the same everywhere.

Autumn turns to winter and the friends still largely get together outside, though the future begins to loom large as Tanya talks of moving to Athens and the boys grow sullen wondering what will happen when the group fragments. Her affections transfer lightly, yet Tolya is the one she’s closest with. He’s a handsome, troubled boy with sight and speech impediments that make his future particularly disquieting, especially when he talks about being placed in a mental hospital for one year. Tanya aims to give him support, but if she leaves, it’s clear his life will turn very dark indeed.

The 16mm format gives the film a home-movie kind of feel at times, accentuated with occasional light flashes as if it’s been slightly aged. Eborn and Surdej don’t shy away from giving the boys’ lithe, semi-naked bodies a Bruce Weber vibe, perhaps with a bit of Sally Mann thrown in. Their skin glistens in the golden summer light while Tanya’s radiant personality helps to keep interest from wavering too much as the teens do what teens do. The choice of music, with a sort of post-modern 1960s vibe, leans heavily toward a self-conscious indie sensibility.