Kateryna Gornostai’s film had its world premiere at Berlinale 2021, proceeding with virtual and in-person screenings at New York City-based festival New Directors/New Films.
There’s a scene in Stop-Zemlia where the camera weaves through a crowd of teenagers dancing at a discotheque. Beams of pink and purple light silhouette their pulsing bodies, eyes closed in focused meditation. You get the sense the kids are liberated through their expressive movements, and at the same time restricted by an innate self-consciousness. One thing is certain – they are not aware of how cool they really are.
Such are the woes of high school, where adolescence clashes with adulthood in a fury of angst, boredom, and a constant yearning for real life to begin. Insecurities are plentiful, and so are the long debaucherous nights where things happen for the first time. Kateryna Gornostai chooses to record these sensitive moments and more in her feature fictional debut, a film that follows a group of students through their final year of high school in Ukraine. Alongside our protagonist – the fragile and sincere Masha – Goronstai navigates timely epidemics such as youth anxiety and the negative influence of social media. However her approach to these topics differs from the stereotypical and often gratuitous portrayals of Gen Z in cinema; she’s not interested in reductive or glamorous depictions of a struggling generation, but in chronicling an individual experience agnostic of one’s broader social relations, revealing slowly the important features in the lives of one’s peers that are by nature obscured to them.
Gornostai’s meticulous research and production, along with her treatment of a ‘film within a film’ component of the narrative, are products of her experience as a documentary filmmaker. For Stop-Zemlia, she intentionally sought out non-professional actors and spent a great deal of time casting across schools in Kyiv. For most of the actors it was their first time in a film, and for all of them it was their first time in a feature film. You wouldn’t know, especially in the instrumental performance of Maria Fedorchenko as Masha. It’s also refreshing seeing high school characters played by kids their own age – creating a space where earnest improvisation and authenticity flourishes.
Throughout the film, Gornostai explores the boundaries of friendship, and the lengths teenagers will go to care for one another and harm themselves. Stop Zemlia, translated roughly as “stop the planet” draws its name from a Ukrainian version of tag. Through the various scenes in which this game is played, the camera zig-zags between players, ultimately focusing our gaze on Masha. In one sequence – with eyes closed intently – Masha struggles to capture one of her peers as the group moves in hushed giggles around the school playground. She’s blindly reaching out, the tips of her fingers brushing a pant leg – the wisp of ponytail. Although she’s much closer to them than she thinks, she’s clearly struggling. It’s only until she opens her eyes that she relaxes into a state of defeated glee. All the while we’re focused on her timid movements, the way she stop-starts, searching. The camera guides her – and us with it – rooting for her all the way.