Based on a true story, Jessica Oreck’s (Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga) film is one that requires concentration and work. What I mean by that is it is not a tent pole Marvel film. It is something a lot more deep than that. A film which on the surface seems like it is about the Seige of Leningrad and an attempt to rescue or save one of the world’s most important seed banks. At first glance it might seem rather basic, but then as you unpeel the layers of this particular cinematic onion you realize that it is about other important and universal issues like love, war, growth, decay, hunger of all types, and finally, the big question of what it actually means to be human.
There is a human element running throughout the black and white film. The director and screenwriter has paid particular attention to that. Making the story even more tangible is the fact that the narration is in the words of actual survivors of the Seige. Those words are taken from the journals they kept and the poetry they wrote. Poignant to say the least.
We are in the near future in Leningrad and it is winter. Because the city is under seige by the enemy, much of the metropolis’s population is starving. Several botanists, Alyssa (Alyssa Lozovskaya – first film) and Maksim (Maksim Blinov), heroically attempt to save the seeds housed in the institute they work at. It contains the most important seed bank in the world. Despite the fact that they like many others are surviving on precious little food they know the importance of these seeds. Know they are the key to the food supply of Russia in the future…when the horror of war is finally over. Doing this they put their own lives at risk. True heroes.
Oreck filmed in gorgeous black and white on location in St. Petersburgh at the N.I. Vavilov Institute of Plant Genetic Resources. It is not a reenactment, rather it is a dramatic retelling of the story. Part speculation. Part history.
You may wonder why such a fuss is made about the seeds. Then you start to think about it. Imagine what would have happened if they would have used the seed bank during their immediate time instead of waiting for peace to plant and produce more seeds as well as food. How the sacrifice undertaken by these scientist still has a ripple effect today. A seemingly small deed which in actuality has huge consequences.
The film also makes you think about humanity and how it can be stripped away. This leads to different behaviour by different people. Some crumble while others shine. Some resort to cannibalism while others hide seeds thinking only of the greater good despite their hunger.
Oreck does not spoonfeed the viewer. Most of what you take away from it has to be developed by you. Work has to be put in, but the payoff is worth it. It also means that different people will see it in a different way. Everyone will interpret what they have seen differently. Focus on the aspect(s) which is/are important to them.