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Soyka [Anastasiya Sergienya, USA, 2020]

Anna is a bird that has flown the nest. A Belarusian immigrant finding her way in the bustling metropolis of New York City, her resolve to carve out her position in the art world – or even extend a clinging grasp at the first rung on the ladder of respectable employment – is proving futile. As she rides the morning metro (the façade of its entrance warmly inviting the daily throng of passengers into its murky underbelly, with the word ‘Subway’ speckled in glimmering lights), we learn quickly of the isolation and cold public remonstrations that deface her wide-eyed optimism as she searches for independence and identity in the land of opportunity.

Struggling over the churns and squeals of a train, Anna loudly and excitedly shares news to her grandmother back home of multiple job opportunities and a tentative engagement with her boyfriend, Kostya. A woman sat across from her, visibly agitated, snarls at her aggressively, “Shut up and go back to Russia!” Ending the phone call, an offended Anna proudly retorts, “I’m from Belarus, actually”. The moment smartly sets the tone for rest of the film that lays bare a very recognisable and modern milieu, fraught with social ignorance, political tensions, economic disparities and exploitative indifference.

The sequence is very telling, as we see Anna returning home in the early hours, sneaking past the pool in the garden to escape the attention of the property’s superintendent, and urges us to raise questions about whence she might be returning. Another phone call in her room – this time hushed and whispered, in contrast with her earlier conversation – coupled with a late rent notice slipped under her door, signals the first real clue into her actual circumstances, and they appear very far from the glowing prospects conveyed to her grandmother. Her finances are dwindling, there are no job prospects, and there is no boyfriend.

As an aspiring artist, the protagonist clearly has an aptitude for creating worlds (on canvas or imaginary), as the empty streets, faceless subways and nondescript neighbourhood offer themselves up as blank slates upon which her imagination can run freely. It is the type of setting where films operating across more fantastical plains might feel at home, its crystalline blue-grey palette and claustrophobic suburbia comparable with David Robert Mitchell’s neo-noir Under the Silver Lake [USA, 2018]. Sergienya’s film, though, rightly avoids any kind of dream-logic or mind-bending obfuscation, sticking resolutely to the cold and harder realism of a young, female immigrant’s limited fortunes at the hands of a self-assured, nepotistic patriarchy.

This unfortunate ontological imbalance reveals itself during two key scenes in the film. The first instance presents itself in an art gallery where her work is rejected for being “too depressing”, as she is quickly glossed over in favour of another young male client. The second and more tragic instance occurs in a strip club, where we discover Anna had (until recently) been working to make ends meet (rewind to her morning train journey home). Considerably less glitzy and femme-fisted than Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers [USA, 2019] (though demonstrating a kindred sentiment of female solidarity as Anna genially coaches new girl Marina), it is at this point we understand this isn’t Anna’s story alone, but the collective experience of countless young women who have endeavoured to escape a life of austerity and suppression, only to find themselves swallowed up by an equally uncaring and brutal professional and social class system upon, supposedly, more welcoming shores.

The film’s primary concerns are able to be understood clearly due to a combination of an effervescent lead performance by Lyanka Gryu, Sergienya’s expert direction, and Valentina Caniglia’s gently luminous cinematography. Soyka’s visual language is its greatest strength, the director’s background in photography evident in the composition of its mise en scene.

As for the title, that still remains slightly enigmatic, but the translation ‘blue jay’, according to some explanations, is often seen as a trickster figure, whose superficial beauty hides a less than perfect nature. That certainly goes some way to elucidate at least some of Anna’s fabrications. Though one can’t help but hope beyond that, as the camera zooms out in the final scene, Anna will one day spread her wings.


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