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Didor Five: A Grand Week Out Birgit Beumers

The fifth edition of the bi-annual International Film Festival Didor [http://didoriff.tj/] was held in Dushanbe from 16-20 October 2012. Organized by a very small team—Safar Khakdodov and Sadullo Rahimov for the program, assisted by Zulfiya and Shagarf for the logistics—this event takes a truly amazing scale.

 It goes to show what enthusiasm can do to make a festival work as a meeting place of people and cultures. A huge group of volunteers in green T-shirts with the logo of the Didor V were buzzing around the hotel lobby and the House of Cinema, always ready to help and to take you to all the places you would have liked to see in Dushanbe—except that there was hardly any time for that. Didor has been going for ten years now, and was conceived with the gentle support of Franz Frei and the Swiss Cooperation Office. The fest now proudly shows art-house cinema to sound and enthusiastic audiences in a city with only a few operating cinemas and where film production had almost come to a standstill following the civil war in the 1990s. It was only thanks to the Mahmalbaf Film House that some films were made, until the creation of True Noon (Qiyami roz, 2009) by Nosir Saidov, scripted by Safar Khakdodov, which —as the opener for Pusan IFF in 2009—put Tajik cinema back on the map, and its director recently at the head of the national film studio, Tajikfilm. Moreover, the festival held a parallel event in the city of Kurgan-tube, where audiences could see a selection of the festival films and award their own audience prize.

The festival screenings took place in the new House of Cinema, a complex—a little off-centre—with one big hall and two smaller halls, well equipped for the event. The international competition included short and full-length feature films from the region: from Mongolia, Afghanistan, and Iran; from Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan; from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, from Russia and, of course, from Tajikistan. The sidebars offered a selection of films from the American World Cinema Fond, a special program of Afghan films, an echo of the “Verzio” festival in Budapest, and a Tajik panorama.

The jury brought together some leading filmmakers of the region: the Afghan filmmaker Siddiq Barmak (Osama, 2003; The Opium War, 2008); George Ovashvili from Georgia (The Other Bank, 2009) and Elchin Musaoglu (The 40th Door, 2009) from Azerbaijan, Nosir Saidov, as well as the author of these lines.

Saidov has, as already said, just been appointed head of Tajikfilm. He is supportive of local filmmakers, has already done a lot of work on restoring the costume and props departments of the studio, and is looking towards Iran for co-production—a wise move, considering that the two countries share the same language, Farsi, and that the Iranian market therefore has immediate potential without worrying about subtitling. Yet in a country that has not made many films in recent years, and that has no film school but relies on Russian and Indian institutions to bring up a new generation of filmmakers—where do you start? The launch of a new encyclopedia of Tajik Cinema, edited and compiled by—yes, you guess right: Safar Khakdodov and Sadullo Rahimov, assisted by Galina El’baum with support, yes, from the Swiss Cooperation office and the Open Society Institute, Budapest—is a unique resource, published in Russian, that allows us to reference Tajik cinema in a much more informed manner.

The competition program took us all by surprise: there was not a single film that one would not have wanted to watch to the end. Both short and full-length films were of consistently good quality and the selectors should be congratulated on such a fine program. From Tajikistan, the competition included Telegram (2012) by Iskander Usmonov, based on a novel that apparently created more difficulties for the filmmaker than it helped as he tried to incorporate all the plotlines instead of focusing on one; his film therefore turned into a maybe over-ambitious experiment, yet it is visually convincing and contains some rather decent acting performances. The Wheel (Charkh, 2011) by Shakhzod Radjabov was the second Tajik film in competition: this one dwelt on the classical juxtaposition between tradition and progress, a theme that has featured frequently in films from the region, and in a sense this well-made the film brings no new dimension to this eternal dilemma. The short film The Chorister Girl by the student Rumi Shoazimov, in his third year at the Moscow Film Institute VGIK, shows his skill at adapting Chekhov’s short story and handling well the rural setting of this late-19th-century plot. The work with the actors is also noteworthy in this young man’s work, who had already presented his film Characters in the “Kinotavr. Shorts” earlier in 2012.

A rather puzzling palette of films came from Georgia, because the two Russian contributions to the competition are in fact also both made by Georgian filmmakers: The Sea of Desire (More zhelanie, 2010) by Shota Gamsonia, which has already toured the festival circuit extensively with its memorably day at the beach that offers an escape from the megapolis Moscow; and Another Sky (Drugoe nebo, 2010) by Georgian philosopher Dmitrii Mamuliia about the fate of a gastarbeiter family in Moscow. As entry from Georgia proper there was White. Salty (Marilivit Tetri, 2011), Keti Machavariani’s debut film which premiered in Karlovy Vary in 2012. The film could almost be read as a road movie, with a particularly impressive setting on the Georgian Black Sea coast. Machavariani portrays the young Nana (Nino Koridze), a seasonal waitress, who meets police officer Niko at work. He finds her attractive, but he has his own traumas and family problems to deal with: he has been wounded in the Abkhazian conflict and remains traumatized, and his elderly parents live in a temporary shelter. Nana also bonds with Sopo, a homeless girl who is constantly threatened by being taken into an orphanage. Nana has a dream: she wants to go to the place she has seen on a postcard: the calcareous salt terraces of the Turkish “cotton castle” Pamukkale. In a sense, the film diagnoses the trauma of the Abkhaz (or any other) conflict that leaves people uprooted and in search for postcard settings which are, doubtless, never an image of the true home but always an escape.

From Kyrgyzstan came two quite experimental films: Emil Atageldiev’s Moisei: The Sea Inside (Moisei. More vnutri), about the flow of time. The film combines sequence of associative images and encounters with an extravagant musical score that shows the hand of the director, a former pianist who graduated from the Gnesin School before choosing a second career path and completing the Higher Courses for Directors and Scriptwriters in Moscow. Second was a film by the painter Erkin Saliev, which is beautifully shot and resembles a fairy tale: Princess Nazyk. It is the story of small girl who spends summer with a guest who has rented a room from her family: an artist who comes to Lake Issyk Kul to paint. He is here not for the first time, but apparently had an affair with the family’s daughter and got her pregnant with precisely the little girl who now captures his attention: Aidai befriends him as he teaches her how to draw the lake, the birds and the mountains. The drawings and stories give the film an additional depth that makes the family drama secondary and moves the girl’s fantasy world to the forefront of attention.

The Kazakh-Japanese co-production First Rains of Spring (Pered grozoi, 2011) by Erlan Nurmukhambetov and Sano Shinju had already garnered attention at the Eurasia IFF in 2011, where it won the main prize. Set in the highlands of the Tien Shan, the film follows the death of the shaman grandmother Dergeley, who has wished to be buried in her native lands. Thus, the family leave their three children in charge of the herd and the house to make the long and difficult journey and drive up into the mountains to fulfill Dergeley’s last wish. As they are on their own, the children are put to the test: a father travelling through the steppe with his teenage daughter on a motorbike has an accident and the children have to take care of him and his daughter until the parents return. Once again, it is the simple lifestyle of a shepherd family and the presence of children that endows the film with a certain charm, while the plot of the Russian visitors who cannot quite grasp the customs of steppe life feels somewhat worn, albeit necessary for the dramatic twist. What seems to be problematic in a number of films is not so much the visual landscape, but the script.

From Armenia, the short film Loading my Life (Zagruzhaia zhizn’) by Harutyun Shatyan presented an interesting new direction in a cinema that is generally too preoccupied thematically with the genocide. Shatyan develops a contemporary story about a young man, who is diagnosed with diabetes and keeps a video diary of his experience, including the difficulty in obtaining insulin, thus touching on medical issues while also portraying his attempt to find a place in society.

From Azerbaijan came the short film The Lighthouse (Maiak) by Fariz Akhmedov about a young man who lives with his mother after the parents have split up. He is a drug addict and after yet another hospital admission his estranged father blames his ex-wife for the son’s condition and decides to wean him off drugs the hard way: he takes him to an island where he staffs the lighthouse, and where the two lead lives apart, without any hope of reconciliation or understanding. The Steppe Man (Stepniak/Çölçü) by Shamil Yaveroglu is a beautifully shot film about a young man who lives with his father in the steppe. Having learnt everything from his father, the young man remains in charge of a herd of camels when the father dies, carrying on his life in the way he was taught… until one day, on the way into the village, he helps a young woman who subsequently runs away from her boyfriend when the latter refuses to let her go through with her pregnancy. In a sense, we once again touch on the theme of tradition versus modern lifestyle, yet the story is embellished through fairy-tale themes and rich visual metaphors.

The Iranian film Hatred (Boghz, 2012) by Reza Dorimishian explored a theme relatively unknown to the distant observer: of migration to Turkey. Two young people, second generation émigrés, try to make ends meet as they fail to find their place in society, and commit a robbery, believing that money will give them freedom. The complex psychological drama is somewhat overplayed in a series of difficult situations that take them from bad to worse.

From Mongolia came The Scent of Water by Munkhzul Chuluunbat, an experienced filmmaker and producer: she worked as production manager on such projects as Jessica Woodworth and Peter Brosens’ Khadak (2006) and Viktor Kosakovsky’s ¡Vivan las Antipodas! (2011). Skillfully deploying a foreign actor, she settles the plot around the figure of John, an adventurer who takes a motorcycle trip through Mongolia and who is stranded when his bike breaks down. Two children look after him, curing his injury, feeding him in the family yurt and taking him on a journey to find water, until in the end their mother returns. Somewhat reminiscent of the plot of Nikita Mikhalkov’s Urga (1991), which saw a Russian truck-driver similarly stranded in the Mongolian steppe and taken in by a family with three small children, the story is somewhat predictable and worn, but the cinematography and the performance of the two children is amazing.

Finally, there was The Patience Stone (Syngue Sabour) by Atiq Rahimi, the Afghan filmmaker who lives in Paris. The film is based on his 2008 novel that had won the Prix Goncourt. Indeed, Rahimi had previously adapted his novel Earth and Ashes (Terre et cendres, 2003) for the screen, which participated in Un Certain Regard in Cannes in 2004. If the first was a kind of road movie, following the protagonist on a long journey, then this film involves an inner journey: the main character is a war hero, hit in the neck by a bullet that paralyzed him and leaves him in a coma, in care of his wife. As she nurses him, without any hope of recovery, she (Golshifteh Farahani) tells him the story of her marriage, viewing the events from her wedding onward from her, a female, perspective in a country where male narratives dominate: she effectively tells her story to a man who can neither respond nor hear, or at least that is what she presumes. As her story unfolds, it becomes clear that the façade of a loyal wife is far from the truth: she has committed adultery in order to conceive a child so as not to lose her impotent hero-husband. Gradually, the wife’s life transforms from a nurse and obedient servant in a male-dominated household into that of a woman who actually steers family and social life. This is a bold view adopted by a (male) writer and filmmaker, but one carefully developed, empowering women in their roles both in the family and in society. The role of the woman as victim of male domestic dominance is one that leads her to create an alternative life for herself and the children, without ever consciously making such a decision. The Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, who now lives in France (and who played the manipulative Sepideh in Ashgar Farhadi’s About Elly, 2009) performs an astounding tour de force. Rahimi is not only a powerful story-teller capable of adopting a female discourse for the heroine’s perspective on her life, but also a master of the visuals, filling an environment that contains only a minimal amount of objects and markers with meaning.

The five days in Dushanbe provided a “grand week out”—in a country that boasts beautiful natural landscapes and a rich culture, even if the jury got to see little of the nature spots. A grand week out also at a time when many Tajik gastarbeiter, who build the “new Moscow” as they work on construction sites, return home for the winter, making for a somewhat empty plane back to Moscow after the festival as opposed to the 200-odd male Tajik passengers who travelled out to Dushanbe with that one European, female passenger on the outward flight. And I’d happily join that crowd again in two years’ time! 

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