Echoes of the Ukraine War Haunt the Moldovan Tragicomedy ‘Carbon,’ About a Post-Soviet Conflict Lost to History

In the fall of 1990, in the dying days of the Soviet Union, fighting broke out in the breakaway republic of Transnistria between Russian-backed separatists and forces loyal to the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic, a territory on the cusp of its own successful campaign of independence from Moscow.

The Transnistria War hardly registers as more than a footnote in most world history books, but it was nevertheless a formative moment in the making of Moldova, a small nation carved from the flank of Eastern Romania and nestled against the western border of Ukraine.

When Moldovan filmmaker Ion Borş was growing up in Chisinau, the capital of the former Soviet republic, he heard stories about the conflict from his father, a veteran of Transnistria. The tales — no doubt embellished for his audience — were “tragic but also comical,” says Borş, driving home the absurdity of a war that likely looks even more confounding to its participants more than 30 years later.

“I thought my father was the exception,” admits the director, speaking to Variety at the Transilvania Film Festival, where his debut film, “Carbon,” a tragicomedy set against the backdrop of that decades-old dust-up, plays in competition. As he spoke with other Moldovans about their memories of the independence years, however, he found their stories likewise laced with irony and self-deprecating humor, upending his plan to make a “classic drama” about that period — a heart-render “with a lot of crying, like ‘Titanic,’” as he describes it.

It’s perhaps a natural reaction to an event whose tragic dimensions — more than 1,000 combatants and civilians are thought to have lost their lives — have largely diminished with the passage of time. “The Moldovan people, in the 30 years since their independence, they’ve gone through so much pain and so many political conflicts that at this point they don’t even pity themselves,” says Borş. “They just treat everything with a laugh.”

Not many tears are shed in “Carbon,” which world premiered last year in the New Directors strand at the San Sebastian Film Festival, but the movie’s absurd premise — which sees a young village slacker and his Afghan War veteran buddy sent on a wild-goose chase to determine the identity of a burnt corpse — nevertheless has a real human drama buried beneath the surface. While most wars are drawn up by politicians and generals far removed from the front lines, Borş reminds us, there is a human cost that inevitably must be paid by those ordinary souls fighting on the field of battle.

Borș was born in May 1990, little more than a year before Moldova declared its independence and two years before its statehood was officially recognized after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was a turbulent period of post-Cold War realignment, with many in the Soviet sphere grappling with questions of identity and self-determination in the wake of their newfound nationhood.

From the beginning, Moldovans seemed painfully aware of their place in the new geopolitical landscape, a fate the war veteran, Vasea (Ion Vântu), underscores when he reminds his young sidekick, Dima (Dumitru Roman), that the country is largely at the mercy of decisions being made in Moscow and Washington, D.C.

That sinking realization, says Borș, is still a core conviction for many of his countrymen. “For the past two centuries, we’ve been through multiple occupations — by Russia, by Romania. There were deportations,” he says. “This is why the population in Moldova is so divided. Everybody wants a savior. Some people think that Russia is going to save them. Some people think the E.U. is going to save them. Others think the Americans are going to save them.

“It’s all kind of bullshit,” he continues. “It’s like you’re expecting the second coming of Christ. And that doesn’t allow the Moldovan people to build their own future.”

Nor does it allow them to fully come to terms with their past. “Carbon” turns on a scheme by Dima to enlist in the war effort, a decision made not out of some patriotic impulse, but so the young layabout can claim one of the new apartments promised to veterans by an ambitious local politico. His and Vasea’s Quixotic quest to identify the charred remains they discovered — and to give the body a proper burial — mirrors Dima’s gradual recognition of his own duty to preserve and honor the memory of Moldova’s war dead.

Borș shot “Carbon” before the start of the Ukraine war and was in post-production when Russia launched its full-scale invasion last February. The brutal scale of the attack on Moldova’s eastern neighbor gave the director pause. “I thought, ‘Is it alright to show it how we made it, in these circumstances?’” he says. The Transnistria War, after all, ended in July 1992, while the barbarity of the Ukraine conflict continues to play out in real time. “People have a bit of distance from [Transnistria]. If I were to start the film nowadays, I wouldn’t even touch the subject [of war].”

These are anxious times in Moldova, where few doubt that the small nation’s fate hangs in the balance of the outcome in Ukraine. Since the start of the invasion, the Kremlin has often suggested that Russian tanks would have rolled on to Chisinau had they successfully overrun Kyiv.

Yet according to a recent poll, one in three Moldovans is in favor of Russian president Vladimir Putin. “The propaganda in ’90s Moldova was so effective, and nowadays, it’s become even more accentuated,” Borș says. “It’s a bit scary. But at the same time, it’s like an alarm. It’s a reason for me to try to make a change, to think more critically about all these things, to not let ourselves be influenced by propaganda — whether it comes from the East or the West — and just develop our critical thought a bit more.”

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