Trigger Warning: A newsreel montage near the beginning includes footage of wartime incidents, including the dead and wounded.
We are a world on the brink of a third global war all because of pride and greed. For nearly 10 years, the Russo-Ukrainian War has gone on with the Russian invasion into Ukraine in February 2022 escalating things to the point of international intervention and assistance. As people are prone to do, the use of art becomes a way to both process trauma and spread the word of what’s taking place. Examples from 2022 include both the Well Go USA-distributed Sniper: The White Raven (set in the beginning of the war) and the Janek Ambros-directed documentary short Ukrainians in Exile (taking place in March 2022 post-invasion), each offering unique takes of the war through the specific lens of Ukrainian people. Having its world premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival 2023 is co-writer/director Eva Strelnikova’s feature-length directorial debut Stay Online (Лишайся онлайн), a screenlife dramatic thriller set in 2022 which evokes a unique helplessness and detachment that comes from seeing the world through the blue light of a monitor.
Amidst the attacks on Kyiv, volunteer Katya (Liza Zaitseva) opens a laptop sent to her by her brother Vitya (Oleksandr Rudynskyi), a fighter on the front lines, to install GPS software before passing it off to someone else on its way back to him. However, while she waits for the program to download, she receives a message from Sava (Hordii Dziubynskyi), a young boy separated from his parents who mistook Katya’s activity for his father’s. Filled with anger and rage at the invaders, Katya doesn’t want to get involved with Sava, but a nagging feeling provokes her into contact and it will change both their lives forever.
Constructed by Strelnikova and co-writer/actor Anton Skrypets (Knockdown), much of the narrative takes place through the screen of Katya’s borrowed computer. For those unfamiliar, that’s what screenlife as a genre is, akin to films like Unfriended (2014), Searching (2018), and Missing (2023), which confine all the character interactions, questing, and discoveries to the monitor. There are a few moments in which Katya is depicted in ways that the laptop camera cannot capture, each done so as a necessity in order to create a break from the growing intensity brought on by the perceived limited space of the monitor. Largely, though, the film is set within only that which can be used or seen on the laptop, the formatting of an actor’s visual space limited to how they hold their phone: vertical for video chatting, horizontal when watching previously recorded videos, or contained within a circle due to the formatting of a specific short-message-service (SMS) that makes the videos circular. The change in visual language enables the audience to quickly get a sense of which tech Katya is using to converse with which individual, as well as utilizing a shift in cinematography that zeroes in on specific parts of a conversation that are otherwise left small and off to the side. The significance of this is that much of the text-based conversations don’t take up a great deal of visual real estate, ensuring that the desktop remains as naturally cluttered as it would be for someone working on multiple programs or projects at once, limiting emphasis via zoom to only-as-necessary situations.
In a bottled narrative such as Stay Online, everything must feel necessary, and much of that comes down to Zaitseva’s performance. Her Katya is the literal anchor for the whole story, her choices being the driving factor in everything that happens. It’s not explored why she herself isn’t fighting alongside her brother (he asks her and it’s mostly waved off), yet there’s a sense that she’s far more comfortable using intermediaries for access to delicate information so that she can get her version of revenge on their Russian aggressors. One can’t help but wonder if the idea of Katya’s starting point is even partially inspired by the real-world use of social media to find and attack Russian soldiers who kept posting online with geotagging turned on. The use of intermediaries and the laptop allows her the false sense of victory, of vengeance, and it’s this understandable pettiness that creates the window of opportunity for Sava and his plight. His appearance requires Katya to decide which is more important, potentially damaging a foe or helping a fellow Ukrainian in need. Which is more valuable to the cause? More importantly, what does it require of Katya that her choices before perhaps didn’t allow? I know I’m prone to softness when children are involved, an aspect made worse thanks to being a parent and uncle, so Dziubynskyi didn’t have to work hard for me to open up to his particular vulnerability. Zaitseva, however, gives the audience a performance that’s rife with complexity, an internal struggle made external as Katya arrives at a crossroads where the only victory may be pyrrhic given her limitations at the keyboard and the deadly machinations at work.
Unlike White Raven or Exile, Stay Online possesses a disquiet about it. Whereas White Raven was in production and set for release well before the invasion (a presumption based upon how long it takes to fund, produce, finalize, and release a film) and Exile uses footage taken on the ground in Ukraine with dialogue from an unknown individual (for their protection) as a means of getting the word out to the international community regarding the atrocities happening, Stay Online is specifically framed within the early days of the invasion, meaning that this was conceived post-February 2022 and went through all the normal processes of getting a film made. In fact, based on the credits, there was even support from members of the military (unspecified) in getting the film made. On the one hand, the film is an engaging piece of art which utilizes real world material to generate a fictional experience. On the other, the film reads as a propaganda, designed from start to finish to invoke within the audience the same helplessness that real Ukrainians are dealing with every day. Creatives in storytelling want to pull their audiences in, to make them believe in the world of imagination that exists between the credits. This is why audiences were thrilled at Captain America (Chris Evans) picking up Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) hammer in Avengers: Endgame (2019) or why so many cried out of fear for Rocket’s (voiced by Bradley Cooper) future in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3. (2023). At the same time, there’s distance enough with these fictional worlds that audiences can get the emotion without the associative trauma. Same thing with watching Schindler’s List (1993) or Saving Private Ryan (1998) decades post-World War II. There is no distance with Stay Online unless one is very much not online, in which case their ignorance protects them from the countless assaults, abductions, and deaths since Russia’s attack. Even as the film places the audience two screens away from the danger, our viewing screen and Katya’s, knowing that this fictional tale is set within currently existing circumstances often overwhelms, distracting from the excellent staging and performances of the narrative. Whether a Katya exists is unclear, but there’s likely more than one Sava wandering the streets looking for their parents.
It’s difficult to consider there being any free-thinking person who agrees with Russian Prime Minister Vladamir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, even before he started having his own soldiers and hired mercenaries turning against him. Just because one *wants* another country to be part of their regime, doesn’t mean that they have the right to attack it. In under two hours, with an exceptionally limited perspective, Strelnikova plunges us into the conflict, our only protection being dual-screens and fictional drama. Though not everything works as smoothly as one may want, there’s thoughtfulness in the rising tension and breaks so that the audience isn’t ever fully exhausted or too calm. And yet, Stay Online not only captivates, but, in the end, it may well shake you to your core.
Screening during Fantasia International Film Festival 2023.
For more information, head to the official Fantasia Stay Online webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.