We all know about the American Dream. We see it in movies, we read about it history books, we talk about it all the time. In achieving this proverbial dream, we have achieved the pinnacle of success and freedom, whatever that means. In her directorial debut, Darya Zhuk paints a different picture of chasing the American Dream in the newly sovereign nation of Belarus, one that is funny, tragic, and confused.
In Belarus in the 1990s, Velya (Alina Nasibullina) is an aspiring DJ who wants nothing more than to move to Chicago, home of house music. She and her strung-out boyfriend party all night, and she survives by living at home and stealing from her mom. But, Belarus’ bureaucracy makes it virtually impossible for an unemployed woman living with her mom to leave the country. In an attempt to trick the system, she buys a letter of employment from a factory, but this backfires as she writes down the wrong phone number, which means the embassy can’t call to verify her “employment.” So, she heads to the phone number’s address in the factory town of Crystal City to ensure she gets her visa. This leads to a clash of the classes in the name of reaching that American Dream.
Nasibullina plays Velya with such determination and sass that she becomes almost unlikeable. You can admire her dedication to achieving her dreams, stealing whatever she needs and pushing through anyone in her way; she is a strong woman who refuses to hear the word, “no.” But in this refusal to hear “no,” she presents a different kind of privilege. While she believes herself in the worst position imaginable in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, she is confronted with a very different way of life in Crystal Town, a place where women work in factories and are only paid in crystal. Again and again she is told that she’s lucky to live in the city. And again and again she doesn’t listen or learn any lesson about how her actions could perhaps affect other people.
The film starts as a comedy, where Velya’s stubbornness factors into punchlines and jokes. She begins to develop relationships with the citizens of Crystal Town, no thanks to her attitude, but there seems to be some kind of learning happening here. Then, something very dark and unexpected happens, completely shifting the narrative’s tone. No longer is this a story about Velya learning to understand those different than here. It just becomes a story about how everyone is capable of horrible things.
While the tone is unstable, Crystal Swan’s constant is its cinematography by Carolina Costa. Velya is a pop of color in the grey urban landscape of Minsk, with her bright blue scarf and electric blue wig standing out against the dull stone of the capital’s buildings. When she enters Crystal City, she is still a pop of color, but against the country’s warm colors, her presence now seeming abrasive or too bright. She is conspicuous, obviously marked as an outsider. Costa’s cinematography also highlights the beauty and age of the Soviet era buildings that permeate the setting, pieces of history that represent an unstable past. This is a country stuck in the past, which is why Velya so desperately wishes to leave.
Crystal Swan is a pitch black comedy that stumbles to find its voice but never loses its vision. Steeped in Belarus’ turbulent history, Zhuk tells a story of chasing the American Dream set to the thumping bass of house music. More importantly, she tells a story of the consequences of chasing a dream that may never come true. Even situated within the fall of the Soviet Union, this film still holds relevance today with issues of immigration and what a new life could truly mean for those trying to come to America.