The Human Condition in a Nutshell

in 12th Golden Apricot Yerevan International Film Festival

by Stephen Locke

I have nothing against “Hollywood movies” – basically a misnomer for everything produced in the US film factories, no matter whether blockbuster or arthouse fare. I can marvel at the special effects, laugh at the brilliantly scripted quips, swoon at the melodramatic music, admire the beauty and skill of the actors and the craft of the best directors, writers, editors, production designers, etc., that a couple of hundred million dollars can buy. And it is easy to criticise “non-Hollywood films”, often made on a shoestring: the sometimes unfinished feeling, the less than perfect lighting and camerawork, the primitive subtitles, the unfamiliar vision of a society totally foreign to Western upbringing and experience. And yet what distinguishes and unites the ten films that were chosen for viewing by the FIPRESCI jury at the 12th Golden Apricot in Yerevan, Armenia, films from countries in that general region, is precisely their piercing, candid view of their own very different societies, their ability to invoke the whole history of their country in order to shed light on the current situation of the protagonists, and their creativity in catching the brief moment that decides the fate of their heroes, thus revealing the human condition in a nutshell.

Such moments are found, for example, in the Kyrgyz film The Move (Pereezd). The story is simple. In long, drawn-out takes the director Marat Sarulu captures the serenity of the river where a grandfather lives with his young granddaughter. Together they slowly row to the pumping station that regulates the water supply to a nearby village, a task the grandfather has probably carried out his whole life long. But his daughter, who lives in the city, worries about what will happen to her daughter if the grandfather dies or is incapacitated and pressures him to join her in the city. He agrees against his will and better judgement. And here the film focuses on a brief moment that reveals the past history and inevitable tragedy of the situation: the grandfather gathers his friends and neighbours together on a hillside by the river to bid them farewell forever, the people he has spent his whole life with. Each of them in turn has a few sparse words of love and friendship to say to him. And in this moment we immediately grasp the momentousness of his decision to move to the city, to leave behind a lifetime of peace and, yes, perhaps hardship and deprivation, to sell his little house and give away his boat, and we sense that he will regret it and that he and his granddaughter will be lost and alienated in the big city.

Such brief moments can also be found in the Turkish film Sivas, directed by Kaan Müjdeci. In a remote Anatolian village 11-year-old Aslan is bullied by the other kids and is afraid of the huge fighting sheepdog Bozo that belongs to Osman, the son of the village chief and Aslan’s rival for the affections of classmate Asye. When “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” is the be performed by the school kids, Osman of course gets to play the part of the prince, while Asye is to be his Snow White. Down-hearted, Aslan attends a local dogfight with his older brother and father. There Bozo almost kills a big white dog by the name of Sivas, who after the fight is thought to be dead and left behind by its owners. Here is the defining moment in the film: Aslan, no doubt identifying with the injured dog, sees that it is still alive. He stays behind when the others abandon the scene of the fight and follows the dog as it limps away to gather strength. He even takes off his coat in the bitter cold and lays it on Sivas so the dog won’t freeze. When Aslan is finally found and rescued by his brother, he is a changed boy. He has matured a bit, acquired a magnificent animal that will impress his schoolmates and hopefully Ayse, too, but at the same time he will have to learn the hard way that it will take more than a dog for him to find his place in this fierce society.

Another such moment is revealed in the multi-award-winning Georgian film Corn Island, directed by George Ovashvili. Here the rich sediment gathers annually in the Eguri River, forming small islands where crops can be planted in the springtime. An old farmer stakes his claim to such an island, and with the help of his adolescent granddaughter builds a little shed, plants corn and tends it as it grows. It so happens that the river separates Georgia from the breakaway republic of Abkhazia; at this time the two countries are at war with each other. Soldiers from the different sides periodically visit the little island to make sure the enemy has not secured a foothold there. One night an injured soldier, presumably from the Georgian side, takes refuge there. The grandfather takes care of him, although he is Abkhazian and doesn’t speak the soldier’s language. All seems to be going well until the attractive teenage girl begins to take an interest in the handsome soldier. At one point she playfully douses him with a bucket of water and he chases her through the cornfield and they laugh and splash around in the water. Suddenly the grandfather catches sight of them. In a moment the whole weight of the archaic society becomes tangible and the image of two playful young people from different sides reveals the absurdity of the war that rages around them. In the end it is the elements that take their revenge.

Stephen Locke