Swedish director Anna Eborn’s documentary follows six teenagers as they go about their lives in Transnistria, an unrecognised state which broke off from Moldova and attempted to assert its independence after the fall of the USSR. Intimately shot on 16mm film, Eborn explores the dynamics of the group, commenting discreetly on youth, love and life in a place such as this.
Transnistra lies somewhere between fiction and documentary. Eborn, eager to explore the lives of young people in a place where memories and traces of the Soviet Union still remain, sets her story in the early 1990s. On the other hand, she selects as her subjects a group of people who were clearly born after that era and yet records with great authenticity and a complete sense of abandon an actual time in their lives.
Specifically, she documents one languid, idyllic summer when they spend most of their time in their favourite haunts bathing in the river, swinging and wrestling, climbing abandoned buildings and talking about love. This warm, golden-hued summer and the sense of tranquility that it holds within it however slowly transition into a harsh, lifeless winter when the film’s central figure Tanya prepares to move out of the state, leaving behind a sense that with its anchor gone the group will inevitably fall apart and its interpersonal relations change forever.
There is an awareness of a time gone by not only in the film’s fleeting, dreamily shot summer but also in the very real sense of place Eborn conveys through the scenes in the local hospital or the military school. While popular Russian songs from the 1960s enrich the soundtrack, we see the vestiges of an earlier era in the archaic administration and medical infrastructure at the hospital where one of the members of the group, Tolya, goes to get his tests done or the school ceremony where the children are made to speak of a glorified home and a past even as we see the emptiness, boredom and frustration of their lives which starkly contrast those outdated beliefs.
Eborn has spoken of a magnetism and strength that she saw in Tanya the first time she met her, of being filled with a sense that nothing could break her. Although the film opens on a deeply placid and innocent time, Eborn, with great tenderness and lack of judgement, is able to delicately tease out darker strands through the conversations she captures. There are mentions of the scars that Tanya bears on her body from past pain, while Tolya, who is treated poorly by the rest of the boys, believes that it is his disability that makes them do so and by the end of the film fears that he might be sent to a mental institution.
Similarly, while there is something almost wistful about the languor that prevails throughout, those moments are offset by the characters’ observations about the dullness and monotony of their days and of how their lives feel empty, and by our growing realisation that no real opportunities or prospects await these young people in their own homeland.