Tuesday, 3 June 2014
Larisa Sadilova: She - Она (2013)
Director: Larisa Sadilova
Cast: Nilufar Faizieva, Makhsum Abdullaev, Todzhiddin Khalikov, Rakhmat Khaidarov, Natal’ia Isaeva, Iurii Kiselev
Best feature film Window to Europe Film Festival, Vyborg, Vyborg (Russia), 2013
The opening shot of a passenger plane landing in a Moscow airport in Larisa Sadilova’s social drama She meaningfully evokes her film Nanny Required (Trebuetsia niania, 2005). In the latter, the unsettling noise of heavy aircraft traffic over a seemingly idyllic suburban estate of Russia’s new rich communicated the acute societal tensions generated by the mass migrations and profound social and economic shifts of the post-Soviet era. Nanny explored the consequences of the inequitable wealth and status redistribution for the moral state of Russian society and only cursorily touched on the accompanying mistreatment of non-Russians and their exclusion from the former Big Soviet Family. Legally defenseless and manipulatively maligned, a crew of Uzbek migrant workers in Nanny, the only ethical community in the film, inhabited a makeshift hut on the edge of the beautiful estate they helped to build. In She, Sadilova zooms in on Russia’s uneasy relationship with the nearly ten percent of its population that help power the country’s economy but whom society stereotypes as alien and threatening, and abuses for personal profit. While the new focus is on Russia’s ethnic and cultural other, in the director’s own admission, the film is as much about “them,” as it is about “us” (Khokhriakova). For Sadilova, whose spouse and one of the film’s producers, Rustam Akhadov is half-Tajik, the issue of intercultural tolerance rings particularly close to home. Hailing from the provincial Russian city of Briansk, Sadilova consistently explores wider Russian attitudes and problems, thereby bringing a refreshing outside perspective to the Moscow-centric cinema industry.
Sadilova aptly articulates her dual goal of humanizing migrants and interrogating the society’s moral standards in what she sees as “modern slave trade” (Khokhriakova) through a melodramatic love story of a seventeen-year-old Tajik girl, Maya (Nilufar Faizieva). Maya comes to Russia to escape an arranged marriage and reunite with her migrant-worker boyfriend, Khamid (Makhsum Abdullaev), but is soon abandoned there when Khamid returns to Tajikistan to marry a woman chosen for him by his parents. In true melodramatic fashion, the heroine remains silent for the major part of the plot because she speaks no Russian. The film foregrounds her perspective of a vulnerable innocent using it both to place the viewer in the migrants’ shoes, and to expose the degrading nature of the migrant slave industry that feeds multiple layers of corrupt officials and unscrupulous entrepreneurs on both sides. Sadilova’s emphasis on the truthfulness of the events that, according to her, happened in her own suburban settlement (albeit with a less optimistic ending), and her use of amateur actors, including migrants, to depict Tajik characters, add poignancy and authenticity to the story.
Despite the challenge as a director of not always being able to follow her actors’ spoken parts, Sadilova confidently gives voice to the migrants by filming nearly half of the film’s dialogue in Tajik; the voice-over Russian translation also belongs to a Tajik, producer Rustam Akhadov. The Tajik dialogue in the film, made transparent through translation, plays an important role in dispelling the myth of the migrants’ latent hostility toward Russians: Tajik characters use their native tongue not to “gossip unkindly” behind their hosts’ backs, as one of the Russian characters fears, but to talk about love, relationships, jobs, and other everyday issues, just like their Russian counterparts do. In the few cases when Tajik men switch to Tajik on purpose or when they deliberately mistranslate their Tajik comments to concerned Russians, they struggle to maintain their crumbling patriarchal authority within their small expat community. They therefore express the need for privacy in sorting out their own cultural matters, while at the same time feeling uneasy about openly enforcing their patriarchal rules in Russia’s more liberated society. The evolution of Maya’s perspective in the film reflects her metaphorical journey to consciousness of self, her native culture, and of Russia. Structurally, the film falls into two parts with roughly the first third taking place in a makeshift illegal migrant settlement outside Moscow. The director of photography Dmitrii Mishin compellingly conveys Maya’s initial perception of Moscow as a magical escape from the restrictive patriarchy back home through wide-eyed point of view shots of brightly illuminated auto tunnels and a majestic full moon shining over the city’s shimmering skyline as seen from the Moscow Ring Road. After the couple’s descent into the darkness of the migrant worker shantytown where they have to share a bunk bed in a tiny room housing three other men, Maya re-adjusts her expectations but manages to preserve her hopeful outlook. Driven, as she is, by her love for Khamid and his promise of a happy married life in Moscow, she tries to make the best of the situation. Maya’s point of view shots as she gazes curiously or pensively out of doors and windows to explore her dismal surroundings convey her rich emotional world. Akhmad Bakaev’s emotive music, incorporating native Tajik melodies and instruments, enhances the viewer’s empathy with the heroine whose feelings range from those of sadness (while observing rain falling on the shantytown’s large puddle littered with broken domestic items) to fascination with life’s promise (while watching a discarded plastic ball float in a polluted stream). The motifs of water and flowing accompany the heroine throughout the film as she carries water for the migrants’ outdoor shower and later cleans Russians’ homes. Maya’s association with water and cleansing forms a distinct counterpoint to the impure environment of Moscow’s outskirts, thus highlighting the migrants’ role in processing the city’s massive waste.
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