War is blood and bombs and politics, but not in Alina Gorlova’s fascinating, fraught documentary “This Rain Will Never Stop.” Elliptically following 20-year-old Andriy Suleiman, a student Red Cross worker who “left one war for another” when his family fled Hasukah, Syria for his mother’s hometown of Lysychansk, Ukraine, this defiantly oblique, uncannily composed film instead reduces actual conflict to a dully thunderous, far-off roar. “It was fine for a while, but for the past four days there has been gunfire again,” says a disembodied voice from home over Skype. In Gorlova’s black-and-white doc, war is spoken of the same way one might speak about inclement weather.
Divided into glitchy chapters, numbered One through Nine before resetting to Zero for the epilogue, the film intersperses quasi-experimental glowering landscapes and portraiture among the more obviously narrative-driven segments. And so the overarching story of Andriy’s physical journeys — around Ukraine supplying provisions to civilians, to Germany for his brother’s wedding, to Iraq for a moving reunion with his uncle and eventually back to the Syrian border, accompanying the body of a loved one — emerges only in fragments. But the disorientation that Gorlova’s pulverized, disrupted approach creates, sometimes even digitally degrading the transitions as though through atmospheric interference, is very much part of the project. Here, Andriy is less a protagonist than one example of a much more ambitious chaos theory of war, where a bullet fired in Syria can reroute the trajectories of a hundred lives, thousands of miles away.
Cinematographer Vyacheslav Tsvetkov (who also shot award-winning Sundance doc “The Earth Is Blue as an Orange”) is Gorlova’s key accomplice in complicating, deepening and darkly lyricizing the film. His stark, monochrome, elemental photography encompasses multitudes: textural closeups of hands massaging the bodies of maimed soldiers; charming sketches of a Ukrainian farmer cooing over his kid goats; poster-graphic wides of soldiers marching in unison; and, in the most frequent visual refrain, drifting overheads of barren, silt-covered mountains that look like a topographical survey of an alien planet.
Accompanied by Goran Gora and Serge Synthkey’s unearthly, spartan electronic score and arranged into nervous, flash-cut montages by editors Olha Zhurba, Simon Mozgovyi and Gorlova herself, the film verges on expressionist artwork at times, in which connections and allusions exist but are never underlined. Whether the overall picture is one of bleak fatalism at the loneliness of sundered lives shadowed by war, or admiration for human perseverance in spite of it, is largely left up to the viewer.
And so anyone looking for more direct political commentary on the ongoing wars in both regions may well be frustrated. Even the very specific cultural and generational quandaries that Andriy represents, between the Muslim, Kurdish traditions of his father and his mother’s Ukrainian heritage, and between the duties to home and ancestry and the potential of a more stable Western European future, are hinted at rather than minutely explored.
That’s one reason the film’s Berlin-set epilogue, in which the loose and joyful Pride parade ironically mirrors the stiff military displays of earlier, seems a little glib in context. Because mostly this is not the sort of walk-a-mile-in-my-shoes documentary designed to evoke empathy for one person’s individual plight. Instead, it’s a brave and uncompromisingly artistic attempt to outline the contours of a much larger, perhaps species-wide soul sickness: the psychological and philosophical displacement that war churns up in its wake.
The poetic title has its literal reference point: When Andriy first visits his uncle in Iraq, he hopes to continue into Syria, but the connecting bridge is flooded by heavy rain, and also by the pile-up of garbage acting as a dam beneath and because this stretch has apparently been used as a channel for excess waters from nearby areas. This confluence of nature, man and regional politics, beautifully illustrated in a crisp overhead that makes the submerged bridge look like a reef beneath the river’s angry, muddy flow, is a thoughtful metaphor for the impossible situation of the civilian stranded by the weather system of war, standing on one bank longing for the other, knowing it’s easily within reach, if only the rain would stop.