Irka (Oksana Cherkashyna) and Tolik (Serhi Shadrin) live in the countryside near the Ukrainian village of Hrabove in Donetsk, 54 kilometers (33 miles) from the border with Russia. Irka is seven months pregnant with their first child and they are getting along pretty well as farmers. They have hopes and dreams of an increasingly better life. But, at the beginning of Klondike, their lives are literally shattered when a stray bomb explodes next to their house, blowing away one of their walls. Irka is particularly outraged because the bomb destroyed the stroller they had bought for their upcoming baby.
In the morning, Tolik’s childhood friend, Sanya (Oleh Shevchuk), stops by to apologize for the bombing, explaining that it was a blunder by his pro-Russian separatist friends, and he promises they will repair the damage. (They never do.) Sanya has taken the side of the pro-Russian separatists because he is sure they will win. He speaks to Tolik in Russian and Tolik replies in Ukrainian. He also “borrows” Tolik’s car to help the separatists.
Irka’s younger brother, Yaryk (Oleh Shcherbyna), comes from Kyiv to help. He is violently anti-Russian and accuses Tolik of being a traitor for supporting the Russians. Actually, Tolik is apolitical. He just wants to get on with a normal life, which for him means farming, drinking, having sex with his wife and watching football (soccer) on television. As for Irka, she hates the men for fighting, blaming all men on both sides, as well as her husband in the middle.
It is worth noting the history of Hrabove, a primarily Ukrainian-speaking village of 1000 people, with a long history of suffering because of its location. It was part of the Russian Empire until 1917 when it became part of independent Ukraine. The following year it was occupied by supporters of the anarchist Nestor Makhno, who freed the residents from government control. By 1922 it had been absorbed into the fledgling USSR. During World War II, Hrabove was taken over by Nazi Germany. The Soviet Union reestablished control in 1943, and it remained under Soviet control until Ukraine regained its independence in 1991.
But the incident that thrust Hrabove into the international spotlight happened on 17 July 2014 when pro-Russian separatists shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 people aboard, This incident plays a major role in Klondike.
A dead woman and a piece of the fuselage of the plane land on Irka and Tolik’s property. Soon workers arrive and part of their property is covered with dead bodies in body bags. Christians and Muslims arrive together to pray at the site. When Sanya finally returns Tolik and Irka’s car, they pick up a Dutch couple who have come out to look for their daughter, convinced that she may still be alive.
While all this is going on, Tolik keeps pleading with Irka for them to leave because the fighting is getting closer, and they should flee to a safer place before Irka goes into labor. Irka refuses, which turns out to be a really bad decision.
Writer-director Maryna Er Gorbach has said she made Klondike to call attention to the ongoing war in Donbas, which was being ignored by the outside world despite going on for eight years. Klondike premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on 21 January 2022, five weeks before Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops to invade Ukraine. Suddenly the story became horribly relevant to the outside world.
The last twenty minutes or so of Klondike are harrowing because the Russian and Chechen troops finally arrive and occupy Irka and Tolik’s farm, forcing Irka to cook for them even as she goes into labor. Their cruelty and brutality were terrible in 2014. Watching this, it is upsetting to be reminded that this same cruelty and barbarity were repeated a thousand times over when Putin’s troops invaded Ukraine in 2022.
Regarding the strange title, director Er Gorbach has given three reasons for choosing Klondike. Her favorite, which makes no sense, is that Klondike is a symbol of the Yukon Gold Rush and Donbas was an industrial center. Huh? Her second explanation, which does make sense, is that during the Klondike Gold Rush and in Donbas, outsiders arrived and disrupted the lives of the locals. Finally, Klondike is a computer game, in which the players create a farm.