Fantasia 2023: Stay Online: The First Film from a New Ukraine

How do you review a film made in the middle of a major conflict? Stay Online is the first film out of Ukraine since the Russian invasion. The first thing you want to do is not trivialize the war effort. The second thing you want to do is to give the film a fair hearing anyway. To make anything in the middle of a country-wide conflict is daunting but ultimately is a useful source of public information.

As the news media cooled off on covering the Russian invasion of Ukraine, our continuing sources are, to a great extent, the primary sources on the ground. The rise of a platform like TikTok is helpful, in showing the immediate reality of the situation and in overcoming media biases and propaganda. Social media continues to be our most direct tool of interaction with current events. As such, it works out that the context of this new movie from Ukraine uses the Screenlife model (a film that takes place on a computer screen) for its characters to navigate their interactions in the scope of actual war happening outside.

It’s impossible to shake the context around the movie and Stay Online cannot afford to pretend it is made in any other context. Given the conditions of real-world danger in which the film was made inside, the context of design makes an awful lot of sense. In dangerous situations, the design of art turns insular. Insular filmmaking, especially in wartime, becomes a national text: a form of defense in the arts. Stay Online takes on the surrounding conflict head-on.

The film is composed of many vignettes of the pain and suffering that has come out of so much hardship. It is also brave and essential to make any art in such tumultuous conditions. This feels like an inventive use of Screenlife in practice and the computer screen used is the impetus for the in-film story being told. The computer is one of many donated to the war effort by the public of Ukraine, as volunteer Katya (Liza Zaitseva) comes into its possession, charged with uploading military tracking software onto it. There’s just one thing: the computer is still attached to its previous owner and receives a call from their son, checking to see if his parents were still alive. This creates a personal crisis, amid an entire international crisis, for Katya: she has been given this computer for tracing purposes, and here is the child who just wants to find his parents and find out if he’ll still be getting his Spider-Man costume his father bought him in the mail.

While Katya tracks down the whereabouts of the family, we stay with her in almost real time. The innovative purpose of the computer is a compelling twist on Screenlife formulas, although a non-webcam camera is used several times to capture Zaitseva’s deep well of emotions, which feels entirely real and scarring. Not all of the on-screen information reads as absolutely real. The bite-sized news reports in the corner are distracting, often relaying in blurbs all the action happening in the country around them. The reports come with associated emojis, which is a confusing layer given the gravity of their seriousness. There is also the use of social media. Generally, it plays well when just using the full screen but the computer screen often zooms in on viable information. Since these movies are best experienced on a laptop in a general context of use, it is my personal preference that they just keep their full windowed perspective.

Here’s where it already gets sticky to write about. Whether the movie works is less important than the welfare of the people who are making it. It’s hard to critique each moment of a film created in these conditions. The creation of the movie is clearly being used as a means to process the tragedy of the scenario and as a sign of hope. This is the debut feature of Eva Strelnikova, who turned inward in the early months of the invasion, pooling whatever few resources were available to her to write and produce her own movie. As there are no viable resources or locations to shoot in Ukraine, the context of Stay Online feels like an invention of necessity, joining the lineage of the Unfriended and Searching movies as a creative use of screens as part of the medium and meta-text of the storytelling. As it’s the first of a proud new culture of Ukranian cinema, the bold call to action feels as immediate as it was at the start of the war.


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