Streaming Releases: Yeva (2017) - Reviewed

The strength of good cinema rests within its smallest stories – the internal struggles of a woman fleeing her past in an insular pocket of the world, the confusion of a child caught in a shadowed half-life, and the gentle strength of a tiny, warmhearted community trying to determine what is right and what is true. There are films that focus tightly on such infinitesimal narratives, and yet speak to global themes. Such films pace themselves quietly, steeping in what is left unsaid and trusting its actors to deliver its contemplations without overt pomp-and-circumstance.

Armenian-Iranian director Anahit Abad’s debut film, Yeva, is precisely such a story; subtly mirroring the closely emotional inner life of its protagonist with the ghosts of wartime conflict and its effects on the wider world around her, it brews like a well-steeped tea, much of its tension lying beneath the surface and expressing itself in the taut expressions of the characters and the general feelings of looming menace that permeate the settings. Conflict, itself, permeates like the spirit of an individual character, hanging over the tightly knit community of the Azerbaijani village still softly living its life in the memory of the Nagorno-Karabakh war.

The film bookends with rain, pelting down and blending its fury with the periodic explosions heard whenever a leftover mine is triggered in the distance. Yeva herself, (Narine Grigoryan) a front-lines war doctor suspected of her husband’s murder, is stoic and soft-spoken; her resolve to protect her young daughter Nareh from her former in-laws grounds her in the here-and-now, even as the past begins to creep up on her and she realizes that she cannot run forever. Hoping to escape to France with her child, she anxiously awaits forged documents in the village of her aunt and uncle, where she tries to hide her identity among people who know her as a medic heroine among soldiers.

Abad uses the surroundings to illustrate the nature of Yeva’s solitary heroine – burdened by the memories of her first husband and fearful for the safety and welfare of her child – we see her, when she is alone, framed in the center of the scene walking with purpose and wrapped inside her thoughts, appearing smaller but with pointed contrast to the light. When she is among the villagers, however, Yeva moves with less certainty, her trust precarious but necessary as she tries to navigate the customs of a community in which she is only a visitor. Nareh, by contrast, is framed as a bright spot among nature – there is a particularly striking scene as Yeva silently venerates a trio of graves, as her daughter picks wildflowers amid clusters of Queen Anne’s lace. As Nareh, unaware of the significance of the markers, gently lays a single bloom on each one, we are reminded of the dark red spot in the center of the frilly white blossoms and the stain at the heart of every secret Yeva has had to keep from her beloved child.

Life and death are at the heart of the narrative; the community of people go about their daily lives bargaining and bickering with one another, first dancing in the union of a wedding and then being ripped apart by the agony in the death of a child. Throughout, the everpresent specters of the soldiers, and the somber solemnity of the local house of worship, act – like grief, like fear – as intangible, faceless winds that drive the people to their loyalties and their largesse. Despite the surrounding conflicts, this peaceful town is built upon kindness, and it is this kindness that gives Yeva pause and forces her to reflect upon her options.

The tender pacing of this film, and the way it circles the sacrifices made by so many of the women in this small community, imbues it with an understated sort of strength. While the story is fairly straightforward, the way it ravels the threads of Yeva’s resolution with the pain of the villagers – again, with particular focus drawn around its women – create a sort of tension that doesn’t require a lot of outward drama. Much of the real message seems to concern itself with the skeins of time, how both individually and globally, the shadows of the past can twine with the present and the trajectories of all possible futures – how one can vainly try to outrun the former to outsmart the latter, and yet all around life will go on celebrating and mourning. Safety is not guaranteed, acceptance can be conditional, integrity is at the heart of honesty and strength is found within. 

--Dana Culling