History Breaks In

in 63rd International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg

by Massimo Lechi

Director Elchin Musaoglu first heard of a woman named Nabat in 1991, right before the downfall of the Soviet Union. At that time, his native Azerbaijan was in turmoil and the pressing calls for independence and secession were leading the country to a bloody war. Nabat’s story, allegedly related by a friend, was a moving one and it had momentum: a lonely woman refuses to leave her land, completely disregarding bombings and massacres, stubbornly willing to protect her village in the heart of a distant valley. For Musaoglu, the woman appeared to be a symbol of Mother Courage, and her tale of pride struck him as a powerful allegory of resistance.

After many years, a long series of documentaries and his well-received first feature The 40th Door (40-ci qapi, 2009), Musaoglu finally decided to tackle the subject of Nabat, and with Elkhan Nabiyev, he wrote a screenplay based on her character. Nabat came out of a pared-down writing process: a few laconic conversations, long silences, a simple narrative structure, and accurate images. From the first sequence, this film reveals a unique and bold pictorial talent. It begins with Nabat (the superb Iranian actress Fatemeh Motamed Arya) walking from her farm to a nearby village and back. The camera moves slowly and smoothly, preceding the old woman who pants exhausted with two big bottles of milk under her arms. In the background are the Nagorno-Karabakh mountains. Here, Nabat leads a humble rural life. Her husband Iskender (Vidadi Aliyev) is sick and bedridden, nearly a ghost. Her son has died and her only portrait of him has been lost by the man who was hired to photographically enlarge it. The milk of the cow in the stable provides nourishment and a little money.  

But suddenly, history breaks in. The sounds of guns and explosions force the villagers to leave immediately: war is approaching. One morning we see Nabat, who has just buried Iskender, left alone with her sad memories and a cow which can no longer produce milk. She must face danger and violence, but her reactions are surprisingly heroic and delicate: night after night, she lights all the village’s oil lamps, in a desperate attempt to cover her people’s escape and avoid invasion. Starvation and sorrow will kill her under the snow.

Musaoglu is a brave storyteller with the sensitive eye of a painter. He knows perfectly well that in cinema, as in life, there is often no need for words: silence, gestures and banal actions can be used like colors or spots of truth on a canvas, revealing nuances which define not only a human and natural landscape but a whole world. In Nabat he tries to tell a universal story and depict universal themes through evocative images. He shows tenderness and horror, hope and despair, dream and reality, compassion and blind violence, all through beauty and purity. And ultimately he succeeds. Filming his elderly Azerbaijani heroine as she feeds a dying man and searches for the picture of her beloved son, washing herself in a zinc tub before her inevitable death, Musaoglu finds the drama in the victims of history, those humble men and women who are desperately attached to their land, their values, their memories, and their illusions of happiness and stability. Nabat’s story is the story of a woman whose entire life and past are threatened by an overwhelming power; all she can offer as resistance is the dignity of her commitment.

Nabat won this year’s FIPRESCI Prize for the “extraordinary depiction of the commited, compassionate and solitary resistance of an old woman during war time, and for the unique film language used by the director, with images poetically evolving from village landscapes to allegory.”

Edited by Lesley Chow