Fantasia Festival: Stay Online (2023)

Director: Eva Strelnikova

Running Time: 109 Minutes

Starring: Yelyzaveta Zaitseva, Oleksandr Rudynskyi, Olesia Zhurakivska, Hordii Dziubynskyi, Roman Liakh

Using a laptop donated to the Ukrainian resistance, volunteer Katya (Yelyzaveta Zaitseva) tries helping fight the invasion however possible. Her efforts are poured into a destructive cycle intent on hurting those who caused such horrific devastation, as seen during an early video call when she connects with the mother of a Russian soldier. As the mother regurgitates hateful lies, Katya informs her of the Russian son's death by sharing pictures of his corpse.

Katya wishes to help more like her brother, Vitya (Oleksandr Rudynskyi), who fights for the resistance on the front-lines. She is encouraged to channel her energy into helping Ukrainians instead of breaking Russians, in a conversation which recalls Rose Tico's line from Star Wars: The Last Jedi about achieving victory through saving what they love. The opportunity arrives when she is contacted by Sava (Hordii Dziubynskyi), the superhero-obsessed son of the laptop's original owner. As Sava tries locating his parents, Katya decides to make a positive change by helping the young boy find them.

In the vein of Aneesh Chaganty's Searching, co-writer/director Eva Strelnikova employs the screenlife subgenre to tell the story by effectively conveying thrills and emotion through computer and phone screens. While GPS is terrifically used to build tension, the true masterstroke is how the technology reflects emotions, conveying hesitation in the use of a mouse, and anxiousness in how words are typed and retyped. This is best captured during a touching sequence as Katya dives into the laptops contents, discovering a family's loving memories and hopeful plans which were shattered by the invasion.

The humanity is never forgotten as the compelling mystery unfolds, with the impact of potential loss being felt just by a call not being answered. Strelnikova captures the feel of ordinary people thrust into a warzone, as Ukrainians try to not lose hope or their lives. The heroism of everyday people and the tragic loss of lives are brilliantly conveyed amidst such brutal conditions, leaving everybody else to just remain online. This allows them to understand what is happening, seek information, and vitally keep connected to the rest of the world.

As the first Ukranian feature-film shot since the Russian invasion began, Strelnikova makes a splash with her feature debut. As a necessary piece of protest art and a compelling screenlife thriller, this is an impressive work which feels rightfully vital as it delivers white-knuckled tension and heart-shattering emotion. While many news outlets have moved onto other stories in the limelight, this gives an urgency to the invasion.

Stay Online made its World Premiere at Fantasia Festival 2023