Greatland (2020, USA | France)
Director: Dana Ziyasheva
Writer: Dana Ziyasheva
Women in the crew: Susannah Lowber (production designer); Sarah Benedict and Jonneke Grisham (set decoration); Danielle Kaufman (set designer); Lucia Amura (assistant camera); Elisee Laurenfant (key grip); Lily Vi Pham and Latie Santore (first assistant camera); Tiffany Null (second assistant camera); Ashley McKinney (assistant edtor); Kyndal McLyn and Gabby Ondrejeck (costumer and assistant costumer)
This film was crowdfunded and included a mission statement about crew diversity: “The writer-director is a bold young Asian woman from Kazakhstan. Greatland cast and crew boasts artists and technicians from more than 10 different countries, 55% of women including a lead actress and 3 heads of department as well as a prominently featured LGBTQ+ community.”
Available to stream: Available to rent and purchase online
This review contains **SPOILERS**
As director/Mother/God of Greatland Dana Ziyasheva explains in her ‘Mother Addresses the Greatland’ video: ‘Greatland is a ‘dystopian world where work, technology, and books have all been terminated, where the gender wars are over, and the last obstacle towards immortality is an evil virus created by the evil nation. It’s the postmodern journey of a teenage boy who refuses to marry a tree and starts a revolution to rescue his childhood sweetheart’. All clear? Good. We are not running on the narrative labyrinth level of Jupiter Ascending (Wachowskis, 2016) here but it gets pretty close. But where the narrative complexity was part of the fun, the (possibly unintentional) game of Jupiter Ascending – in Greatland the story (and cohesive storytelling) is seemingly irrelevant. There’s plenty to think about when the credits roll, but does the messaging get lost in shock scenes and non-stop psychedelic imagery?
Greatland, AKA this blessed story of your future life, unpicks, plays with, and throws away different ideological perspectives and approaches extrapolated from our current (messed up) world. Like the ‘utopia’ presented by Comfort in The Bad Batch (Amirpour, 2016) the fun, the ‘freedom’, and the promises of inter-species love and equality (a Doberman [Jörg Doberman] and a Ragdoll cat [Cat Purry] run election campaigns that erupt in violence) is a veneer, a balm to soothe, control, and distract the masses.
I created Greatland because you are going to live in it
– Mother/God/Dana Ziyasheva
Feelings are a source of concern and considered old fashioned (termed Stone Age). Like the Soma in Brave New World (across original and adaptations), dialling for drugs in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (not part of the Blade Runner media adaptations), and mandatory suppressants in THX 1138 (Lucas, 1971) a full spectrum of naturally occurring emotional responses are to be avoided and controlled by a faceless monitor. Although in all of these examples the suppression or control of emotion is done by totalitarian regimes hidden behind the utopian ideals of a post-pain, post-hate, post-resistance future. Emerging in the pulp fictions of the 1960s mood control through drugs is an SF trope that is either presented as utopian, mind-expanding and spiritual, or dystopian as morals and what it is to be human are eroded away.
The meaning of what it is to be distinctly human has ebbed away in Greatland. Feelings, sex, natural childbirth, and gendered or racial or sexualities are banned. They are allowed only love, acceptance and positivity. When we meet the main character Ulysses (Armon Darbo) on his 15th birthday he is made the father of a bunny rabbit and betrothed to a birch tree (Mother’s ‘non-binary bundle of joy’). But Uylesses is seemingly happy, bickering away with Mother over his chores yet untroubled by the fact ‘she’ only communicates via smartwatch. Everyone has been kept in a state of childhood – no books, no swearing, no sex, no death. This birthday also comes with the realisation that Ulysses is in love (Stone Age feeling) with Ugly Duck (Chloe Ray Warmoth) who is exiled to Repentance Island by Mother in attempt to break up this boring/undesirable/uncontrollable cis-het-human pairing. Ulysses breaks his connection to Mother by smashing his smart-bracelet and runs away, ultimately pulling back the curtain to reveal the nefarious origins of Greatland.
The film is split into two acts in the two regions of this world of the future: Greatland and Repentance Island. Greatland is hedonistic and its representation reads as almost right-wing propaganda as it explodes the apparently ridiculous discussions around ‘woke’ identity politics where definitions and discussions have become so fraught and complex that all meaning is lost. The whole place practically screams ‘this is the future that Liberals want’. Once Ulysses breaks free of Mother and Greatland, he flees to the forbidden territory of Repentance Island and the film makes a little more sense. But by the second act you’re already so overwhelmed that it’s still pretty murky as you try to keep track of all the different roles* and rules.
Where Greatland is fully-realised meme lampooning left-wing identity politics, Repentance is an attempt to saitrise the right except it doesn’t really balance out. It is where the rich reside in luxury and control away from the madness of the world we (the left-wing audience?) have unintentionally created. It is revealed that Greatland is a sort of social experiment to enslave/monetise its citizens for the benefit of the Altruists (led by the Alpha Altruist [Eric Roberts]). It is easier to rule and exploit those who are distracted from what’s really going on – No, look over there!.
“Although initially you’re overwhelmed by “Glory to Greatland!” chanting hysteria and screaming colors, you can’t help but notice the crumbling infrastructure behind bright posters. There ought to be a different way forward than putting glow stickers on a festering wound.” – Dana Ziyasheva
This kawaii dystopia is a acid-candy-coated world of forced inclusivity that weaponses love to enforce conformity. Yet there is so much going on, all the time, in every second of every frame, constantly… that it’s hard to work out what world the filmmakers are trying to build. And perhaps that is the point? The noise of social media and culture wars between expertise and attention-grabbing opinions makes it practically impossible to really work out what is going on in our own present. Released amidst the chaos of COVID-19 lockdowns and the 2020 US election, this film reflects the barrage of information transmitted each day and the competing opinions that egregiously politicised a public health crisis and made America Great(s) again. Greatland pushes to the extremes of our current political climate but I’m not sure that it does enough to explain itself for the satire to stick.
What to watch next from Dana Ziyasheva:
Greatland is Ziyasheva’s second feature film. The Kazakhstan-born novelist and filmmaker is a former TV journalist, and a United National Diplomat with 20+ years of experience in more that 80 countries.
Defenders of Life (2015)
Frankie Stein (2021). ‘Guided vision: Get to know ‘Greatland’ director Dana Ziyasheva’ News Daily
‘Conversations with Dana Ziyasheva’ Voyager LA Magazine
*FYI, the roles (ish):
The Greats: immortal citizens of Greatland controlled/cared for by Mother who rules tyranically under the mask of all-encompassing fun, love and acceptance
The Optomists: an elite scantily-clad policing team swathed in rainbows, heart and copious amount of glitter who vaporise offenders into sequins on Mother’s orders
The Altruists: inventors of Greatland, residents of Repentance, controllers of Mother and the Greats led by the Alpha Altruists, advised by the Clerks