Sink or Swim

By Alisa Tritenko | Drama
A young woman tries to reunite with her son after her ex-husband takes him to Russia.

Kate is a young English woman in Russia trying to get custody of her young son Lev, who her ex-husband kidnapped at a young age. But navigating the tricky bureaucracy of her ex-husband's country is tricky. But at last, Kate finally has a court decision that allows her to pick up her child from school and reunite with him.

She leans on her lawyer to guide her through this unfamiliar world, but she soon realizes that everyone -- from her ex's lawyer to her legal counsel to even the police officers supervising the pick-up -- is in on a game whose rules keep changing. Kate must decipher the hidden power lines and messages before losing contact with her son altogether.

Directed by Alisa Tritenko from a script co-written with Gulnara Sapargalieva, this gripping short drama begins with a wide surveillance shot of a mother and child crossing a large public space, just as kidnappers swoop in and steal the child. We hear the panicked phone call of the young woman calling the police, who seems lackadaisical about what's just happened.

Kate's high stakes are immediately established, and the deft filmmaking and writing maintain this sense of tension throughout, as Kate waits at her son's school to see her child. The police are there, as are lawyers for both parties and a court psychologist. Even the officious teacher gets involved, refusing to hand over the child to Kate.

The excellent storytelling ably balances the interplay of the various agendas at work, even finding absurdist comedy in each bureaucratic party's self-involvement and cynicism. (The glamour shot on the psychologist's business card is a particularly wry detail and the police function as a kind of peanut gallery on the entire situation.)

But the film never forgets the wrenching emotional situation, thanks to actor Sophia Carlotta, who never wavers from the fear and uncertainty that characterizes being a foreigner and a mother in this situation. Her emotions escalate to panic as the situation devolves into a quagmire, but just when she realizes what's at work, it may be too late.

Powerful, compelling and fascinating in its high stakes and emotion, "Sink or Swim" bills itself as an absurdist comedy by its filmmaking team. And certainly, the story has overtones of Kafka, in its evocation of a seething bureaucracy that operates more on greed and self-interest of petty operators than fairness, reason or decency. Within this apparatus, a parent like Kate is helpless in the vagaries of "procedure," tossed around by hidden but more powerful interests, with no trustworthy lifeline to hold onto.

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