Polish Cinema: Beyond the Steppes (Vanja d'Alcantara, 2010, Belgium)

    Beyond the Steppes (2010) is the debut feature of director Vanja d'Alcantara. Dedicated to her grandmother Halina, the film tells the story of a woman named Nina (Agnieszka Grochowska) who, at the beginning of World War II, is deported to a sovkhoz under Russian control in the steppes of Central Asia. This was the fate of many women when Poland was divided at the beginning of the war. There she is forced to engage in hard labor, and her son suddenly becomes ill. To cure them, she embarks on a dangerous journey with a group of Kazakh nomads to find medicine. 

    Nina is played with sensitivity by Agnieszka Grochowska, a Polish actress who has had an extensive career, including an appearance in Agnieszka Holland's noted 2011 film In Darkness. She at times resembles Juliette Binoche. The other characters in the film are less well-defined, including Nina's Polish friend at the camp Jadwiga (Aleksandra Justa), and her husband Roman (Borys Szyc, most famous for his recent appearance in Pawlikowski's Cold War). The most sympathetic characters in the film outside of Nina are the Kazakh nomads who accompany her on her journey to find medicine. At the film's midpoint, it becomes something of a western, with Nina's journey along the Central Asian steppe feeling like something out of a John Ford.

    d'Alcantara's debut feature, while not perfect, is commendable for telling an often unheard-of story of the Polish experience during the Second World War. While her budget is limited, she makes the best of what she has. This is manifested in the film's beautiful cinematography, which captures the extensive vistas of the steppe - whether covered in grass, or snow. Notably, d'Alcantara's follow-up Kokoro (2016) also takes place outside her native Belgium - this time she filmed in Japan. We are curious to see her follow-up.



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