Documentaries that take me far away from my familiar surroundings thrill me. They widen my world and show me things I didn’t think possible. I also appreciate stories about women that uncover their strength as they deal with adversity and the appalling conditions that make it difficult for them to change their lives.
Life of Ivanna does both of those things. We meet her quietly eating cross-legged on the floor inside of what looks like a cabin. The lights glow and there is a sense of calm.
Then she opens the door and, in a reversal of the famous Wizard of Oz moment where Dorothy steps from dour Kansas into vibrant Oz, the amber glow gives way to an icy-white tableau of the Russian tundra.
And that’s the last we see of any serenity. Ivanna has five children living in the Russian Arctic in what is a cabin built on runners, so it can be moved to new locations. Ivanna tends to her rapidly depleting herd of reindeer, living as she was brought up in the Nenets First Nation, gathering water from below the ice, surviving on fish and staying connected to her community.
Raising five rambunctious children within the cabin’s cramped quarters is a challenge. The kids get along and often help out but it’s hard to keep track of them all. The camera catches glimpses of these not-yet teenagers, some of them barely past toddler-hood, playing with matches and knives. When Ivanna hollers, “Go play outside,” you can’t blame her for sending them out into the howling wind.
Interspersed with these sequences, Ivanna tells her story. She met Gena when he came to live with her family. She was 12 and he was 14. When she was flown into the state-run boarding school, she fantasized being a singer or dancer but she became pregnant at 16 and was compelled to marry Gena.
We don’t learn what happened to that relationship until, with her herd decimated and her money running, she brings her family back into the city where Gena lives. Ensuing scenes show him steadily drinking, working at nothing and threatening violence. The charismatic, chain-smoking Ivanna has no problem expressing her views and appears to have the upper hand–until she doesn’t.
Serrano shot Life of Ivanna over a four-year period and during that time, his subjects seem to have forgotten there is a camera ready to capture every moment. Ivanna’s eldest girl dances suggestively in front of a mirror while her siblings mock her. Ivana’s middle son, already well-schooled by his father, baits his mother, several times calling her a cunt.
And Serrano has the ability to create anxiety via images of the family’s everyday life. In the north, a cat sniffs at the fish lying on the counter; a harrowing sequence shows five neighbours helping Ivanna shift the position of her cabin as the gales rage; when Ivanna reunites with Gena, she’s constantly shaking him off her body as the kids watch.
But the charismatic, chain-smoking Ivanna forges on in this sad portrait of a woman wholly trapped in her difficult life.
Life of Ivanna premieres at Hot Docs 2021.