Positioned as a modern parable with themes of duty, love and tradition, The Gulls is an exploration of one woman’s inner struggle with the expectations placed on her in modern-day Kalmykia, a south-westerly republic of Russia.
We are introduced to Elza as she prepares to leave her husband – but her fear doesn’t allow her to board the minibus that should have taken her away. All is not well in her marriage to fisherman husband Dziga, the silences in their minimal exchanges saying the most, while Elza mechanically fulfils the role expected of her. Detachment bordering on resentment is felt in all areas of her life: as a music teacher at a school, she gazes distractedly out the window, and at a family celebration, she keeps herself to herself, unaware of her brother-in-law’s gaze.
A foreboding sense of the inevitable is felt from the very beginning, and is exemplified by the film’s other lead, the Kalmyk landscape itself, presented to us as both beautifully desolate and omnipresent to the point of severity in the lives of its residents. Polarities are self-evident between the older and younger generations. Tradition plays such a strong role in the mentality that it seems, on the one hand, ingrained into the land and psyche, and on the other, only half given credence to by those of the younger generation, who when spoken to in the local Kalmyk dialect, can only answer in Russian.
The small community is hit by tragedy when a group of fishermen, including Dziga, don’t return one evening from an illegal fishing expedition. As the time passes, and hope begins to fade of their ever returning, Elza is faced with a future on her own. Her impending loss serves as both her grief and emancipation, and ever closer camera angles intensify the more she contemplates cutting herself off from her current life.
As the directorial feature-length debut of director and Kalmykia native Ella Manzheeva, this is also the first Kalmyk film to be made by a Kalmyk native in 30 years. One senses that Mansheeva could have not have allowed herself to use another location as her debut, and it’s under-representation geographically should serve well as a selling point on the festival circuit. Fortunately, it does so; it’s refreshing to see a side of Russia away from Moscow and the Black Sea coast. The Gulls is an impressive debut, suggesting greater things in the future.
The Gulls does not yet have a UK release date.
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