Mountains and Heaven in Between / Mizh nebom ta horamy

 previously published on Cineuropa

The title of Dmytro Hreshko’s sophomore feature-length documentary, Mountains and Heaven in Between, suits the film’s location, the village of Kolochava in the Transcarpathian region in south-west Ukraine, tremendously well. Seen from above in the opening drone shot, all snowy, it certainly is a place of heavenly beauty. But as one of the film’s protagonists, a paramedic from a nearby town responding to a call from the village, says, “Beauty is a cruel mistress.” And that, too, is correct, as we shall see in the subsequent 70 minutes of the film’s running time.

Mountains and Heaven in Between premiered recently at the Krakow Film Festival as part of the programme of another festival, Docudays UA, which was hosted in the Polish city owing to the Russian attack on Ukraine. Sheffield DocFest has now hosted its international premiere.

Shot in the aforementioned location in the winter of 2020, which was marked by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the documentary studies the life of the village’s inhabitants and the interventions of a few ambulance crews. At first, the pandemic seems like a distant echo from the news reports, and in the village itself, it is only present as a nuisance (there are protocols to be followed) or as a joke for some of the inhabitants, who state that they regularly vaccinate themselves with vodka. The ambulance crews know the truth, but they do not get into arguments with their patients.

The reason for this is that they have some actual work to do that is not necessarily COVID-related, and usually, the motives for their interventions are the illnesses that the elderly people suffer from, like high blood pressure, heart problems, general weakness and injuries, or the consequences of alcohol consumption. They cannot deny medical help to those who call on them. Also, given that the road to the village is challenging and usually covered in snow during the winter, their job is particularly hard. But they do their best to keep their spirits up, even in the most bizarre of situations.

During this period of time, the villagers live their “old normal” lives, and get involved in events such as religious festivities, weddings and others that take place as planned. However, it is only a matter of time before the virus finds its way to this secluded village surrounded by mountains.

With news of the ongoing war nudging the pandemic out of the spotlight, Mountains and Heaven in Between might seem a bit dated, but it is still a well-made documentary that deserves our attention. Hreshko, who also served as the cinematographer, has a keen eye and a sympathetic ear, which suits his observational style really well and lets the characters breathe in their natural dynamics. Also, Mountains and Heaven in Between bears some similarities, topic- and style-wise, with his previous works, the feature-length documentary Snow Leopard of the Carpathians (2019), about mountain rescuers in the same region, and the short documentary Save Me, Doctor (2020), which kept its focus on an ambulance crew in Kyiv one New Year’s Eve. But despite this, it does not feel derivative at all.

The end result is an unexpectedly warm and astonishingly beautiful documentary, masterfully edited by Hreshko and Viktor Malyarenko, with a tension-inducing, folklore-themed soundtrack by the Hudaki Village Band and Wedding Detsa, which steers the viewers’ emotions in the desired directions. But one of its most significant achievements is its hopefulness, despite the gravity of the situation, and the knowledge of the tragedy that occurred after the pandemic.

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