Bergen International Film Festival 2018
When Velya, a Belarusian DJ with dreams to make it to the United States, “accidentally” puts someone else’s phone number on her visa application, she is tossed into a Kafka-esque bureaucratic nightmare in a small suburban town as she patiently awaits a phone call in a stranger’s home.
Director Darya Zhuk and lead actress Alina Nasibullina are both fresh voices in the industry. Zhuk has written and directed short films since 2011, but this is her first venture into feature-length films, and it is clear that this is someone who has worked within the language of cinema for some time. Crystal Swan is shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, a wide box, that is both reminiscent of the Instagram-aesthetic the film is clearly indebted to, but it also heightens the mental and emotional state of the character: the world looks beautiful through sophisticated cinematography, but it is also claustrophobic — trapping Velya in a place she wants to escape from.
It doesn’t take long before you realize Zhuk not only understands the language of cinema but also the conflicts of aspirations and ennui. As Velya dreams to go to Chicago to see the birthplace of house music, she is also gripped by a sense of apathy. In her regular DJ-ing quarters, an abandoned factory-turned-night-club — with statues of Lenin looming large over the DJ booth and dance floor — she seems lost and uncertain. Her relationship with her mother is in shambles, consisting mostly of telling lies and “borrowing” money. She has one friend, a drugged-out fellow disc jockey, and their friendship seems built more on circumstance than desire or want. Velya is, however, very determined and clear-eyed when it comes to her desire to leave, and this is here Zhuk’s direction and screenplay work so well. It’s not an original story, to leave one’s birthplace in a desperate desire to reinvent oneself in one’s own time and place, but through Zhuk’s deeply empathetic direction Crystal Swan manages to transcend its genre and synopsis in more ways than one.
The film perfectly captures the hopefulness of someone dreaming of a better life, and someone who goes out of her way to attain it. Velya is trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare, but through Zhuk’s compassionate screenplay and Nasibullina’s nuanced performance — teetering somewhere between lost child and grown woman — she is given a stage to grow and mature in her own right, by her own accord. The film seems to challenge the notion of agency in the face of extreme opposition. While Velya is dependent on the kindness of strangers (to use their phone), she always stands her ground and does what she wants. Her presence in this home cause a lot of disharmonies, but she proves to be the one voice of reason when it is needed. It is hard to believe that Nasibullina only has three credits on her IMDB page because there is a level of vulnerability and fierceness in her performance that hints at someone with years of experience. It is impressive enough to convince with one of these contrasting traits, but to balance them like Nasibullina manages, is to be on a whole other level.
There is a scene late in the film that feels more aimless than the rest, a provocation for the sake of it, but when the film reaches its final moments, it is still Velya’s strong independence we get to witness. It’s still her fierceness we get to admire, and finally, it is her newfound compassion we are warmed by. Crystal Swan does not hint at two important voices to pay attention to in the years to come, it shows them right now.