Yolqin To'ychiyev: The Spring (Chashma, 2006)

reviewed by David MacFadyen© 2007

On the eve of her wedding, a typical Uzbek bride takes a festive meal to her aunt’s home. She must then perform the traditional rite of washing her face in a mountain spring, so she’ll be clean upon entering her new life. On the way to her aunt, the girl encounters many of the local villagers. These ordinary people, all of them usually kind-hearted and calm, suddenly start airing some deep-rooted family problems, their personal melodramas, their hypocrisy, lies… and happiness, too. In short they give voice to a life overflowing with passion.

Promotional text for Russian festival programs, June 2006

Hey, people! Fellow Uzbeks! I just wanted to share my happiness… Our filmmaker Yolqin To'ychiyev won [in Moscow]!… I’d recommend this movie to anyone who cares about problems back home.

Comment posted on Uzbek émigré forum, July 2006

The Moscow Film Festival: “Where Exactly Is Tashkent?”

This admirably brief feature, a mere 70 minutes, comes to our attention because of accolades received far from home. It won the Perspectives prize at the 2006 Moscow International Film Festival, together with $10,000 and an equivalent number of meters in Kodak stock. Kirill Razlogov, formerly the program director at the festival, outlined the raison d’être of the prize as follows: “It focuses on experimental, exploratory works, which sometimes don’t conform to traditional scholarly notions and views, or to the traditional preferences of an audience, either. While last year we accepted only the first or second works of young directors, this year we included movies by older directors, too―if they indeed embodied some kind of creative exploration, or broke through the formal boundaries of genre and style.” [1]

Strictly speaking, The Spring is To'ychiyev’s fourth project, if we consider a short of 1999 and a longer, collaborative project four years later, Tulips in the Snow (Qor Quynida Lola, 2003). Razlogov was working, no doubt, on the logic that To'ychiyev’s “debut” was the 2004 feature The Teenager (Orzu Ortida), which did indeed make a more discernable splash. It enjoyed both the praise of the French press and a subsequent limited run in Parisian theaters.

Uzbek news agencies reported the success of The Spring with insistence,[2] which led to some awkward questions after the awards ceremony in Russia. To'ychiyev had earlier dismissed any idea that state pressures from the Uzbek government had resulted in an unoriginal film cocooned within the safe limits of folklore or tradition: “I saw what I saw, as if through a woman’s eyes… which is a lot more interesting than [any modern-day] perception through the eyes of a man.”[3] Accused, nonetheless, of filtering a nationalist aesthetic through his allegedly apolitical, doe-eyed lyricism, To'ychiyev added at the press conference that “when it comes to matters of artistic control and state-run cinema, then of course certain questions will arise… The main thing is that the State and an artist understand one another, and as for ‘pressure,’ I’ve never felt any. I, for one, filmed what I wanted to; everything I wanted to say ended up on film.” [4]

This, in essence, is the key dilemma surrounding the movie. It wins a prize for “breaking through” the bounds of traditional representation, but is immediately criticized for languishing within the boundaries of timeworn stereotypes, those of Soviet provenance. As we can see from the program synopsis above, The Spring indeed draws upon a deeply conventional subject matter, and yet, as the Russian periodical The Mirror (Zerkalo) said, the film is only “kinda” (kak by) faithful to that conventionality. [5]

The media’s prodding paid off. To'ychiyev admitted his desire to recall and rework the lyrical traditions of 1970s Uzbek cinema, in particular the idea that “life’s real ‘spring’ [or source] is hope.” This decade of purported optimism had shown an exacting respect for custom and its stately structures. Asian scholars of the 1970s would frequently assert, in fact, that the more the past is respected and reflected in filmmaking, the greater the artist, for “even the most talented innovator does not begin from ‘zero.’” [6]

Several Russian publications in the capital came to To'ychiyev’s defense. They promised to outline “innovative” elements of The Spring, despite both censorship and/or the weight of the past, yet these claims merely suggested how the director had borrowed from Truffaut and Malle. [7] Moscow, having seen the Parisian respect for To'ychiyev’s Teenager, presumed the cultural borrowing it knows best and/or wished to presume; even if the Russian press was not staring so lovingly at France, To'ychiyev has long had Moscow within his purview. Born in 1977 and a graduate of Tashkent’s State Art Institute, he furthered his studies in the Russian capital after 2000, leading to the success of Tulips in the Snow at Kinoshock, his first real award outside of Central Asia.

Czech director Petr Zelenka, when awarding the Perspectives prize, even made the blunder of describing Chashma as a film from Russia, albeit from a remote corner.[8] Zelenka’s misplacement is a consequence of Moscow’s overbearing shadow, its educational stewardship, cultural longing, or belated championing of a film blessed by Parisian kudos.

Having outlined the prosecution, defense, and any resulting geographical confusion, I should―prior to an analysis of the film itself―say a little more about these constituent elements: about a Muscovite endorsement and its Brezhnevian aesthetic, all with a quick nod to the nouvelle vague.

Talk of Uzbek and French Influence

To'ychiyev’s explicit intent to redo a 1970s lyricism plays directly into the homogenizing of a once-imperial space. Our Uzbek heroine, after all, returns to Central Asia after three productive years of study in France, yet she is unable to choose between Paris and her native village. In order to underscore the equal validity of things native (of the spring or source), France has to be rejected. To'ychiyev’s film does so diplomatically. He evokes Brezhnevian cinematic traditions that once “complemented the international policies of détente.” They allowed official culture to assert that it was “‘fostering international understanding,’ but at the same time, to ensure that progressive views of the iniquities of capitalism also prevailed.” [9]

This lesson is imparted through the heartfelt dithering of a single heroine or seen through the “eyes of a woman,” which is also very much a Central Asian propaedeutic tool of the 1970s. During that decade the lyrical traditions of lone, female singers were frequently co-opted into politicized practice, such that the socializing intent of an ancient love song could do double-duty among an impassioned workforce. In Uzbek scholarship of the time, these homespun lyrics were often forced into a goal-driven agenda whilst “vibrantly emphasizing multiple or multifaceted manifestations of life.” Gender-specific lyricism in the region is often tied to musical traditions even today; thirty years ago themes of construction were strapped onto older, familiar and popular melodies, while composers made sure that the rhythm, “character, and emotional tone” of the new text matched the older music. Novel marches and anthems dedicated to rebuilding Uzbekistan enjoyed the greatest official endorsement, though more popular texts were praised for their “sincerity, a general light tone, and a national specificity.” They gave voice to these emphases through “Uzbek melodies and rhythms, together with the orchestral or harmonic elements of modern light entertainment.” [10] Variety and singularity went hand in hand, fashioning the interpretative framework in which To'ychiyev’s film operates today.

So what of the French influences? The most popular touchstones are Louis Malle’s Frantic (Ascenseur pour l’Échafaud, 1958) and François Truffaut’s The Four Hundred Blows (Quatre Cents Coups, 1959). Some of these parallels, cultural day-dreaming aside, are actually pertinent. Malle’s experimentation, for example, with the restrictions of a time-honored genre recalls To'ychiyev’s reworking of folkloric minimalism. Similarly, the persistent, hushed close-ups of our heroine, played by TV star Nigora Karimboyeva, have been credibly likened to both the luminous features―and suggestive gait―of Jeanne Moreau.

These two French comparisons form an interesting combination of innocence and worldliness, qualities that also constitute Karimboyeva’s inability to choose between travel and home, novelty and familiarity. Truffaut, however, leaves his hero, Antoine, stranded in the final frames between land and sea, terra firma and emptiness; To'ychiyev solves that predicament with the certainty of a fairytale. The film’s opening, in particular, echoes its conclusion. We are told of a young dervish, who upon asking a sage for the meaning of life, is slapped hard across the face… and simply shown the door. The dervish travels the road outside until he acquires sufficient wisdom to slap his own pupil and dispatch him, too. This goes on forever. Truffuat’s hero finds philosophical insight and refuge in the antique stories of Balzac; To'ychiyev’s heroine finds them in a much older narrative and a more intense, self-duplicating retrospection, where movement backwards becomes a closed circle.

The Film Itself: A Choice between France or “Home and Parents”

As this discrepancy between retrospection and repetition suggests, The Spring does not entirely justify the New Wave parallels despite, for example, foregrounding shoulder-mounted camerawork (and thus making an artistic plus from an enduring fiscal minus). In addition, as noted, its heroine and her biography do come home, unlike Antoine. This possibility of nostalgic return is clear even from the opening shots, when a length of ikat silk is held up in front of half the screen. Tradition determines half of what we can see, creating an idyll or even a sticking-point; this atmosphere is underscored by heavily-filtered shots of a sun-dappled lake soon after the credits. The opposing motif, that of tradition’s exodus or waning, is less visible than sonic; on many occasions a train rumbles by in the background, representing the loss of any homeland to transience.

The heroine remains very much outside life in her “new” environment, a gazing innocent who watches the troubled sale of a cow by bumbling, if not dishonest traders. It is interesting to note that it is only during their dubious shoptalk that we hear anything resembling a regular usage of Russian. With unsteady, handheld camerawork we move away from these influences, through more lengths of suspended ikat into a hidden courtyard filled with children, mothers, and grandmothers. Karimboyeva tentatively wraps some silk around her waist; this is the domestic embrace she was slowly losing in France, despite having met her Uzbek groom there. In accordance with these narratives of indecision, choice, and travel, many of her key encounters will take place on shaky village bridges.

On visiting a wistful male admirer―an unhappily married policeman―she is filmed on several occasions close to a “Wanted” poster, covered with the faces of those sought by the local authorities; the heroine is very much a woman in demand, the missing piece in a social jigsaw puzzle. The policeman’s wife is then shown at the funeral of her true love, and for the first time the camera pans both slowly and surely along the nature morte of a long, stucco wall to a dying tree and then to the wife dressed in black. Karimboyeva may reenter her native courtyards hesitantly, but death (the one inevitable “homecoming”) has a terrible grace to it, a slow slither across the landscape, just like the distant train.

Some of these oppositions may seem a tad clinical, and one downside of the film’s brevity is that is forces characters to define their social failings swiftly and usually verbally. Any work on bridging these gaps is done, as a result, quietly. Over and above the replaced voices of ADR (automatic dialog replacement), very few sounds are evident, save those of symbolic import: footsteps, trains, and birds. Left in this increasingly silent space, where toy trains go round and round the dining room table of a neighbor, Karimboyeva finally gets on a real train and travels to the very edge of the district, to her aunt. She is now so far from society that the even the village “looks like an anthill.” Asked perhaps ten times throughout the film whether she has been crying, our protagonist has reached the cheerless point where a decision must be made.

She goes alone to the pristine spring of the film’s title, where she cries from self-pity until her groom (who was supposed to meet her at the movie’s outset) finally calls on a cellphone. With happy discussion of their forthcoming nuptials, he saves her from misery. She has come home and rejoined a common unit. A handful of objects gathered from all her visits, symbols of a customary social sphere, are placed in the stream, so that they, just like the young dervish of the film’s epigraph, may now travel their own roads or waterways.

In the closing scene, unlike Truffaut’s hero, Karimboyeva considers the winding patterns of a mountain path; a young boy, previously jealous of her engagement, now calls out to say he has found a wayward lamb. Another length of ikat silk is held in front of the lens, once again filtering half of our vision. A balance of epilogue and epigraph, past and present, is maintained―all with love for the lyrical traditions of the 1970s, for the harmonies of détente that merge not only people, but places, too. They lead a Czech director to think that the Asian train of the opening credits has arrived from Russia―and in many ways, he’s right.

David MacFadyen
University of California, Los Angeles


1] Razlogov’s opening address for the 27th Moscow International Film Festival.

2] See, for example, the State Department’s communiqué of 7 July 2006, hosted by the Information Agency Zhakhon: “Uzbek Director’s The Spring Secures Prize at Moscow Film Festival.”

3] “Uzbekskii fil'm Chashma udostoen priza Perspektivy MMKF,” Svoboda News (3 July 2006).

4] “Priz Perspektivy na MMKF poluchil ‘iskrennii fil'm, sdelannyi ne v Moskve,’” Gazeta.uz (5 July 2006).

5] “Liubi ili umri! Moskva poperek Berlina i Kanna,” Zerkalo (8-14 July 2006).

6] Teshabaev, Dzh. Schast'e mastera (Tashkent: GG, 1975): 39.

7] This was stated most overtly in the journal Afisha (Moscow edition).

8] Festival coverage in Kul'tura (6-12 July 2006).

9] Introduction to Stephen Hutchings and Anat Vernitski, eds., Screening the Word: Russian and Soviet Film Adaptations of Literature (London: Routledge-Curzon, 2004): 19-20.

10] Ianov-Ianovskaia, N., “Khory akapella.” Istoriia uzbekskoi sovetskoi muzyki. Vol. 2. Tashkent: GG, 1973. 12.

Chashma, Uzbekistan, 2006
Color, 70 minutes
Director: Yolqin To'ychiyev
Scriptwriter: Yolqin To'ychiyev
Editor: Ulug'bek Abdusoatov
Cinematography: Abduvohid G'aniyev and Sulton Mirzaahmedov
Set Design: Akmal Saidov and Olga Matveyeva
Set Direction: Farhod Xudoyberdiyev
Sound: Malik Abdurahmonov
Costumes: Elsevar Is'hoqova
Cast: Rustam Murodov, Shodiya To'xtayeva, Ergash Mo'minov, Xayrullo Sa'diyev, and others.
Production: 5-studiya

Yolqin To'ychiyev: The Spring (Chashma, 2006)

reviewed by David MacFadyen© 2007

Updated: 07 Jan 07