Pretty little Mother Earth

MAVKA’s ally Swampy, the last of the kitty frogs in the land behind the mountain. Photograph courtesy imdb.

TOSS TOGETHER THE notion of undisguised good and evil, with a bit of lumpen docility in between; the forces of nature with those of easily corruptible and gullible humanity, blend it with hard-boiled yet utterly gorgeous computer-generated animation and a traditional Ukrainian and Slavic legend and you have Mavka, the one work on this year’s European Film Festival in South Africa, which is completely suitable for all ages. You can see it on this year’s European Film Festival, which is online and at cinemas in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, until 22 October, in eSwatini between 20 and 22 October and Lesotho between 26 and 28 October.

In so many respects the filmic integrity of Mavka is saved from sugary pretty cliches of good and evil by the way in which past and present in the tale are indicated with graphic wood-cut-like drawing juxtaposed with the modulated realistic forms of CGI animation. And of course, the music.

It’s an easy tale to follow. Human beings are perceived by the forest folk – think of ents in Lord of the Rings lore – as greedy, evil and stupid. And all the bad guys in this tale fit that bill beautifully, armed as they are with an evil queen, two large and silly side-kicks, called Eric and Derrick and a big forest-destroying machine. As well as a fashion guru called Frol who lends a bit of camp asides to the plot.

The forest community on the other side of the mountain, including some spiteful nymphs and generally benign bits of tree root and plant follicles with arms and eyes, need to understand that human beings can also be kind. The village lot are ordinary and malleable and will sway in one direction or another. But then there is Lucas. With his wooden flute and his lucid complexion, he has the folly or the genuineness to dance to the evil queen’s whims and into the land which his people consider taboo, simply because he needs to find the money to heal his beloved uncle who is ill. In short, he is our hero.

In the area believed to be cursed and dangerous and forbidden, Lucas encounters Mavka, the nymph of spring, who gets appointed forest boss to everyone’s surprise, because she’s generally considered too nice. But she has the mettle in her belly, when pushed enough, to be a lot more than just ‘nice’ and to make huge sacrifices for her community but also her own heart. So it’s not exactly happily ever after from that moment, but the chords are all in place.

With her green locks and sparkly eyes, her adolescent form and her ability to be entranced by someone else’s music, and get her heart aflutter by a new boy she’s just met, she’s not exactly the Mother Earth stereotype along the lines of the Venus of Willendorf, you may be inclined to think of in this role. Pretty little Mavka takes on the role which becomes a love story that fits into all the sweet cliches of the lovely and nice and sometimes bullied girl finding her prince, with a little animated creature by way of Swampy, the last of the kitty-frogs, to add a touch of happy comic relief.

But it is the traditional Ukrainian/Slavic music which holds the whole work together, fancy animation and all, that will move you the most and draw you almost to tears at the end of this work. This music, in both its simple and its orchestrated forms, lilts this full-length animation into the bosom of old tradition, making it something that holds real communities together, particularly in the face of the natural world itself which needs the kindness and support of potentially destructive, occasionally docile, and often evil and greedy human beings.

  • Mavka is directed by Oleh Malamuzh and Oleksandra Ruban and features a voice cast headed by Nataliya Denisenko, Nina Garenetska, Marko Halanevych, Jeffrey Hylton, Laurie Hymes, Mykhailo Khoma, Iryna Kovalenko, Elena Kravets, Eddy Lee, Marca Leigh, Nina Matviyenko, Oleh Mykhailyuta, Sarah Natochenny, Katya Osadcha, Artem Pivovarov, Mike Pollock, Serhiy Prytula, HD Quinn, Scottie Ray, Alyson Leigh Rosenfeld, Christian Sanford, Yuliya Sanina, Oleg Skripka, Sarah Smithton, Khrystyna Soloviv, Nataliya Sumskaya, Nikki Thomas, Marc Thompson, Olena Tsybuska, Tom Wayland and Nazar Zadneprovskiy. Written by Oleksandra Ruban, Yaroslav Voytseshek and Yevhen Yermak based on the eponymous play by Lesya Ukrainka it is produced by Anna Eliseyeva, Iryna Kostyuk, Egor Olesov and Sergey Sozanovksy and features creative input by Dario Vero (music) and Nataliia Alekseieva (head of animation). In English, it is part of the 10th European Film Festival South Africa, screening at The Zone in Rosebank Johannesburg, The Labia in Cape Town, Gateway in Durban and online until 22 October, with satellite programmes in eSwatini from 20 to 22 October and in Lesotho from 26 to 28 October 2023.

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