Perfect Strangers
By Julia Gunnison

Three Women
Dir. Maksym Melnyk, Germany/Ukraine, no distributor

Three Women played March 19 and 26 at First Look 2023 at Museum of the Moving Image.

Maksym Melnyk’s first meeting with Hanna Wudmaska was destiny. The director was roaming Stuzhytsia, one of the westernmost towns in the Ukrainian Carpathian Mountains, seeking a protagonist for a documentary about the village. When Hanna appeared on the hillside, walking with her cow, he knew he had found her. Hanna, however, required more convincing. The self-described “saddest woman alive,” Hanna does not consider herself an ideal film subject. What we see of her life on her small farm is often lonely and laborious: she reaps, threshes, mucks out, and tends to her animals, her primary companions following the deaths of her husband and sons. Shy and nervous about what the neighbors might think, Hanna recommends Melnyk follow “big, sturdy” women instead. But pulling the unexpected from unassuming places is central to Melnyk’s directorial approach. Straddling observational and participatory modes, Three Women focuses on Hanna, and two of her neighbors: Maria, Stuzhytsia’s one postal worker, and Nelya, a biologist researching at a national park. Through close perception and gentle provocation, Melnyk uncovers the vivid spirit of a sleepy mountain town.

The film’s depiction of Hanna transcends any potential clichés of the crusty, cute old lady character too often seen on screen. Hanna is stubborn, maternal, witty, and resignedly pessimistic; though plenty of moments play off these qualities for laughs, she is never the butt of the joke. Better are the scenes that surface Hanna’s interiority. She slips into pure poetry when remarking on the song of a cuckoo bird, whose soft, distant tones are pleasant in spring, but in summer “weigh heavily on the soul”—a poignant reflection on the ache of aging and the inescapable passage of time. On another occasion, Hanna describes a dream from the eve of her wedding: through a thick fog, she was climbing a hill, eating dark bread—an omen for sorrow. Hanna admits that the solitude of her older years has turned her a little gruff. But by passing along these confidences to the viewer, the film allows Hanna her emotional complexity, and demonstrates the vitality of her swirling thoughts.

Melnyk had set out to make a strictly observational documentary. On the ground in Stuzhytsia, he found it impossible to maintain the distance this approach required. When a foot of snow blankets an old woman’s yard, do you not shovel her path? When in gratitude, she serves you a heaping pile of hot dinner, do you not eat it? Three Women’s budget contained no line item for food; Hanna and other villagers’ generosity ensured that Melnyk and cinematographer Florian Baumgarten were always fed. Endearing as this is, it may also raise a concern about the boundary between author and subject—a boundary the film deems increasingly irrelevant as it progresses. By gradually incorporating himself into the film’s story, Melnyk emphasizes the give and take that both filmmaking and village life necessitate. Far from weighing the film down, exposing these transactions makes Three Women eminently more human. The haircuts, farm chores, birthday balloons, and beans that the filmmakers and Hanna exchange form the basis of a deep, loving connection. Life and art bleed together in ways that documentary, at its most reflexive, can so precisely capture. When Melnyk buys a piglet for Hanna on impulse, the intervention becomes a structuring device for the narrative; the pig fattens as the story develops, and its slaughter serves as a climax, cueing the final act.

Throughout their process, documentarians routinely confront questions about their right to a story or protagonist, and what entitles them to record and step in on a person’s life. Yet in Three Women, it is Hanna who poses this challenge to herself. Growing to love the two young men like sons, she struggles with a sense of imposture. As she reflects in one of the film’s final scenes, she did not breast-feed or raise them, so is she allowed these feelings? It’s a particularly affecting moment in a film that airs toward lightness, and which presents common questions about possession and interpersonal obligations in filmmaking from an unusual perspective.

Because the emotional weight and narrative energy of Hanna’s storyline dominate Three Women structurally, Maria and Nelya’s sections operate like two shorts nested inside a feature. The coalescence of their narratives is crucial, however, for developing a sense of place, and illustrating the history, possibilities, and limitations of life in this mountain village. Maria and Nelya conduct their work with scant resources, a symptom of the town’s failing economic fortunes, and the government’s disinterest in their endeavors. Nelya’s frustrations find a perfect metaphor in her beat-up car. Essential to her research, the car constantly breaks down, and an empty promise from the park for a new one never materializes. Maria, solely responsible for delivering the villagers’ pensions, contends with a looming anxiety that the post office will be closed altogether. Like many others in the village, she eventually chooses to leave Stuzhytsia and seek work abroad.

Filming for Three Women completed in 2019, during the period between Euromaidan and the 2022 Russian invasion. Stuzhytsia lies tantalizingly close to the Slovak and Polish borders, and the villagers’ imaginations often float off to the EU; Nelya wonders if a bear she’s tracking might hail from a member state, and Hanna fancies the balloons she releases to the sky are gaily heading westward. Yet the townspeople are ever conscious of a more figurative distance. Caught between the political pressures of east and west, and facing an uncertain future, Stuzhytsia grapples with a confused identity. As Hanna puts it, “I lack orientation for Ukraine.” The dearth of employment has caused a gender imbalance in the village, with many sons and husbands trekking across the border to find jobs. Melnyk’s focus on women and their labor is therefore not incidental; from farming, to praying, to partying, to counting ballots for the national elections, the town is what the women make it.

“I once heard of a village named Stuzhytsia, somewhere in the Carpathians,” Melnyk reports in the film’s opening voiceover. “I wanted to know who lives there.” This matter-of-fact establishing context has a “once upon a time” quality, with Stuzhytsia playing the role of “faraway land.” Originally from the Transcarpathian Oblast, Melnyk is nevertheless an outsider in the village. His vantage allows him to recognize the land’s mythical beauty. The countryside dazzles in every season, and the film treats the audience with images of blue, misty twilights; fecund, green meadows; and glowing kitchen windows shining out into cold, dark nights. If Stuzhytsia truly is a “dying village” like Maria claims, Three Women may indeed one day read like a fairy tale. In the meantime, this poor, overlooked town offers its share of small miracles: Nelya finally tracks down bear excrement, the holy grail of her research; Maria’s postal route becomes a drunken romp one night, thanks to some home distilled schnapps. And after eight years of indifference, Hanna deigns to celebrate Christmas, sharing the holiday with the two filmmakers who have brought her back to life.