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  • Writer's pictureAlex Leptos

REVIEW: 'Greatland' (2020), a sci-fi feature by Dana Ziyasheva

Updated: Oct 17, 2021

In a pleasure-filled dystopia lorded over by a computer called Mother, a teenage boy escapes to save his childhood sweetheart from a deadly plague.

"I feel for the young generation. They live in a frenzied, over-politicised world where nothing is permanent, nothing is for sure. I wanted to re-assure those who are confused but don't dare to express it, that they are not alone. I do believe that love can be a driving force for a change. If we love someone, we should hold on to this person and to everything positive they bring in us, like Ulysses does in "Greatland." We should trust our intuition to guide us through the storm."

- Dana Ziyasheva (director)

Outside the Spotlight says: One of the best things about independent film is how ambitious it can be. Not tied down by studio restrictions and free to truly showcase ideas and speak how they want to unfiltered. Greatland is a wonderful example of that.

Undoubtedly the first thing that’ll strike you about Greatland is how colourful and saturated it all is and not just from its on-screen hues but the physical world itself. Decorated with glitter, tinsel and neon making it much more Lazy Town, The Fifth Element or reminiscent of the works of Testuya Nakashima rather than Blade Runner or Bioshock (the latter in a dystopian sense). Greatland has a very retro vibe in its approach to the future aided by the soundtrack by Matthew Chilleli making the whole thing seem like a carnival with everybody dressing accordingly. Additionally, some of the stylistic choices on the television broadcasts seem to take inspiration from East-Asian countries, from the theatrical mannerisms to the sound effects and little animated overlays.

Greatland itself is a dystopia that is the result of today's impending norms and is ruled over by a Big Brother-esque, propaganda spewing A.I voice known as "Mother." Director Dana Ziyasheva holds up a mirror and even pokes fun at PC, SJW and “woke” culture. The word “lady” is offensive, people are married to trees, parented by A.I and have animal children. The police are overly-effeminate pretty boys who forcefully enforce the extremist ideals and of course, nobody dares question any of it.

It’s Ulysses’ 15th birthday (Arman Darbo) and the film follows them (as we are told through Mother’s happy birthday message to her “non-binary bundle of joy”) as he navigates Greatland on this special occasion. His best friend is nicknamed “Ugly Duck” (Chloe Ray Warmoth) and is looked down upon because she was born out of actual procreative sex, which is now a thing of the past due to the pain it bears upon the birthmother.

Greatland has seen threat by some great plague known simply as “The Virus” which of course is a clear nod to something else of current times. This virus however, seems simply to be menstruation and Ugly Duck has contracted it. At the same time, there is an absurd election going on where the candidates have vastly different ideas, greatly dividing the people. Probably something to do with them being a dog and a cat.

5 women, including “Ugly Duck” are chosen as per tradition for females, to be part of one of two camps: “S.L.A.V.E” (which stands for support, love, appreciation, victory, empowerment) or a “felinest.” Unclear what exactly the latter, if anything, has to do with actual cats; I suppose it is some poke at feminism. "Ugly Duck" is ultimately sent away to "Repentance Island” after she is unable to be placed in either of those camps. Ulysses decides to go after his friend and childhood sweetheart, chasing her into unknown territories.

During his travels, Ulysses comes across a more present-time, “regular” seeming man who’s much more clued-up on worldly affairs which leads to some hilarious conversation, the discovery of swearing and Ulysses's accusations that the man is “evil” because his “bracelet” has gradations and says “Swiss Made”- apparently the most evil thing on Earth!

From this point, Greatland becomes more about the city and its underlying politics. Paired with the fundamentals of its society, Greatland is ultimately a little confusing and even somewhat difficult to consume. There are some very clear messages presented here but then there are also others that you look for that get a little lost. As it goes on, it starts to become increasingly absurd to try to pick up on everything that it’s trying to say.

The performances are great, with Chloe Ray Warmoth being the standout. The demeanour that is expected of the cast is one of overly-sassy and in Ulessys's case, also naïve to outside the walls of this dystopia. Arman Darbo gives a good performance but can also be forgiven when he seems a little awkward, given the bizarre setting and unorthodox nature of the characters within it. Also making appearances are Nick Moran (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part 1), Emmy winner Bill Oberst Jr (Criminal Minds) and Academy Award nominee Eric Roberts (Runaway Train).

Greatland is a film that is sure to divide people. Its political and social commentary will not be for everybody. Some people may love it for that reason, and others may very well find it too heavy-handed and hate it for the same. Of course, I urge you to watch it and form your own opinion. Even if Greatland becomes too ambitious for its own good, or if you're perhaps not so politically-minded, you may at least enjoy being transported into this Willy Wonka-decorated dystopia.

- About the director -

Born in 1972 in Kazakhstan, Dana is a writer, screenwriter and director residing in Los Angeles, California and a proud member of Women In Film L.A.
Having been trained as a TV journalist, she worked as a reporter in various media outlets and a liaison officer at the Press Office of Foreign Affairs of her home country. In 1993, she studied political science at the Central European University in Prague, Czech Republic.
From 1995 to 2015, Dana was a staff member of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Her work as Adviser for Communication and Information took her to 85 countries. She was stationed in Paris, Northern Iraq, Beijing and Costa Rica.
Her script “Dragon Angel” won the Best Project for Co-Production Award at the XV Shanghai Film Festival. A treasure-hunt that sends a French-American boy and his Chinese friends racing through China and down the history lane, “Dragon Angel” is a story of friendship and redemption.
In 2014, Dana wrote and directed her first feature film “Defenders of Life.” Set in a rainforest of Costa Rica, it tells the story of three generation of Ngäbe indigenous women. The film enjoyed 22 selections by film festivals and 10 wins including Best Foreign Film at the Burbank Film Festival, the Viva Latino Film Festival NYC and Mostra Amazona de Cine. It is currently available on Amazon Prime and Flix Premiere.
Her novel “Shock” was published in France in 2017. “Shock” follows a tragic destiny of a young French idealist turned mercenary and cannibal in the 90s.
In April 2018 Dana has completed production of her second feature film entitled “Greatland.” Shot entirely on location in Los Angeles with a 50-strong crew, “Greatland” is a crazy ride into the modern day American mindset. Besides her native Kazakh, Dana speaks English, French, Russian, fluent Spanish and survival Chinese.

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