Asif Rustamov: The House (Ev, Azerbaijan, 2007)

reviewed by Michelle Kuhn© 2008

The House is a story of love and betrayal. The solitary Anar meets and falls in love with Leila, who in the end turns out to be merely… a hired actress playing the part of his lover in order to trick him into selling his house. The house, a small single-family dwelling located in a prime Baku location aggressively pursued by developers for building what appears to be luxury apartment complexes, is the key element driving the film's narrative and connecting the polarities that form its main themes: past and present, traditional and contemporary way of life, solitude and communality.

The cinematography has an almost painterly aesthetic. The camera as well as the composition of individual shots is often static or nearly static. When the camera does move, it is usually in a slow pan, reproducing the movement of the snails Anar plucks from his parents' graves in the opening scene. The slow pacing, however, never seems tedious. The vibrant, saturated colors and rich textures of the mise-en-scène, recalling the work of Sergei Paradjanov, induce a synesthetic experience and provide much of the film's pleasure. One fast-paced scene towards the beginning of the film sets up the themes of Anar's isolation and grounding in tradition in contrast to the busy, changing life around him. It is made up of a series of shots taken from a moving streetcar. The film cuts between shots of Anar's face as he gazes upwards and his point-of-view shots—the tops of the tall buildings lining the streets of Baku's Old Town. The scene brings to mind similar compositions in Italian neo-realism, with which The House also shares a focus on everyday life and an atmosphere of depression and anxiety.

The action of this short film takes place in the weeks leading up to the Novruz celebration, which marks the spring equinox. Originating in ancient Persia, Novruz is a celebration of new beginnings. It is the beginning of the new year, starting with the new life of spring after the dead of winter, and the start of spring comes with the recognition of the fecundity of nature and fertility in general. Bonfire rituals are meant to heal and purify, thus allowing rebirth. Other rituals include thorough house cleanings, visits with dead and living family members and friends, gift giving, and the display of the semeni, or potted seedlings decorated with red ribbons. The semeni symbolize fertile nature, but ancient popular belief also vests in them magical properties, a feature contributing to the strange, mystical aura produced through Anar's transformation of his house into a greenhouse, and conversely to the demystification that takes place when Anar in succession is scammed into selling his house, Leila disappears, and men come to pick up the semeni Anar has grown by agreement with a friend.

The house is the film's central focus, but its meaning is malleable. The modest structure connotes different things for different characters and at different points in the story. Most significantly, the house is a link with the past. It is the only apparent stable constant for Anar, who has lost both parents and seems to lack meaningful relationships. The house is his haven: he lives there alone, fighting unemployment and a number of developers and contractors. For them, the house is merely a stumbling block on the route to a big payday. Later, Anar takes an opportunity to make some money from a friend and transforms his home into a greenhouse, utilizing all available space for the growing of semeni. At another crucial point in the film, the house becomes a vulnerability for Anar and even a weapon used against him. Finally, through its destruction, the house comes to signify rebirth and new beginnings. Visually, the tiny house, an everyday, nondescript relic of a bygone era and way of life, creates a sharp contrast to the city's other architecture. The juxtaposition with leftover Soviet ruins and monuments, pre-Soviet buildings, such as the Taza-Pir Mosque, and contemporary apartment complexes serves as a visual reminder of the series of transformations Baku has undergone and continues to undergo, and also give the viewer the opportunity to make the thematic connections of old—new and little man—big world. Pans across this cityscape emphasize the house's smallness and solitariness and, by extension, Anar's own feelings of isolation, his attachment to the old way of life, and his struggle with the new capitalist one.

Several images succinctly convey the theme of transformation of the traditional way of life through the incorporation of modern habits and trends. The modern way of life in the film is specifically capitalist, and it is perhaps most obvious through the architectural development central to the film. Like the city's skyline where old and new appear side by side, the capitalist practices taking place in the film tend to preserve tradition rather than obliterate it entirely, and that is for a simple reason: profit. Money-making potential dictates much of the action taking place in the film: Anar grows semeni for his friend because he cannot find employment in the field in which he is trained; a man with a cell phone stands on the corner waiting for passersby to buy some talk-time because that is ostensibly more profitable than other jobs he might take; Leila and Anar fall in love because Leila has been hired to play that role in his life. Anything and everything seems to be for sale, including ancient symbols, like semeni, and even human beings.

Cemetery visits make up the film's frame, opening the film, introducing Anar to the viewer, and acquainting Anar with his love interest, Leila; and, in the end, the return to his parents' graves takes place as part of a series of rituals associated with the Norvuz holiday. The second visit indicates a significant change. The dead parents continue to occupy a significant place for the living Anar, as does the dead past for the living present, but Anar has sold the house, thus severing his debilitating obsession with his loss. Rather than conveying a sense of nostalgia for the past, as Eugénie Zvonkine has suggested, [1] the film expresses a state of Freudian melancholia, [2] which is ultimately resolved through the film's conclusion, the Novruz celebration, which creates the opportunity for catharsis. The film evokes a past—Anar's parents, his small, single-unit house, the Communist era, the pre-Communist era, and ancient traditions and rituals—that is both personal (Anar's singular experience) and general (an experience that is not necessarily unique), but it does so in such a way as to highlight how the elements of the past continue to exist in present-day life, sometimes in an unhealthy way. Initially, Anar seems to experience sadness and isolation associated with loss, and the house serves both to remind him of his loss and to isolate him further from the life outside. At his final visit to his parents' graves on Novruz, Anar has reluctantly sold the house, taking the first step to his liberation from his unhealthy relationship to the past. As he leaves the cemetery, the camera pans to show others visiting the graves of deceased relatives, a gentle reminder that death, loss, and grief are common experiences, that the dead retain a place among the living, but also that life continues.

The film's conclusion ties all the loose thematic ends, finding the silver lining to the modern capitalist existence responsible for the scamming of Anar. Eisensteinian montage at the film's end suggests the house, aflame in the final shot, bears a connection to a fiery baptism Anar observes during his solitary Novruz stroll. An elderly woman performs a protection ritual for her grandson to preserve him from illness and grief. Anar, who kneels at the fire opposite the standing woman and baby, appears to share the child's baptism. The final cut from bonfire baptism to the small house consumed by flames seems to suggest that new life awaits Anar now that the house is destroyed. Capitalism run amok did him a favor.

Anar's struggle to make ends meet, preserve his house, and find meaningful connections with other people in the face of unemployment, isolation, and a refusal to keep up with the rapidly changing times makes for a compelling enough story. And the film's aesthetic creates more room for guilty pleasure, yet one cannot help but question the film's undeniable ethnographic aspect. The rich creative text is inextricably bound up in anthropological documentary. Commissioned by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the film is an advertisement for Azerbaijan, and its sales pitch hinges on showcasing the country's historical past and “native customs” as exotic eye candy for foreign audiences. [3] The film as a real world object is an investment, which is to say that its makers have an investment in the success of modern capitalist life, where tradition and culture are also for sale. It is a must-see for those interested in postcolonial theory. Whether The House as marketing-strategy is essentially exploitative or empowering is probably a question with endless answers, but it would be an oversight not to ask it.

Michelle Kuhn
University of Pittsburgh

Comment on this review via the Forum

Notes

1] “The idea of nostalgia is rendered in the film very finely and expressively with the help of a slow camera that is attentive to unimportant moments of life, which make up the hero's departing happiness: breakfast with his beloved, long walks, tenderness in the midst of an ever-changing space” (Zvonkine).

2] Rather than the idealized past that would be necessary for the experience of nostalgia, the past of the film is one that is not clearly articulated. It appears in various visual markers and is wrapped up in Anar's parents, ancient tradition, the socialist era, and Anar's own isolated and extremely introverted nature. For these reasons, melancholia seems better suited to describe Anar's—and the film's—relationship to the past.

3] The antiquity of Azeri culture is part of its attraction and a selling point for tourists. Another of its selling points is the naturally occurring fires produced when oil or gases are released from the ground at certain sites. Not so coincidentally, fire, which figures so prominently in the film's conclusion, is also the meaning of “azer,” the root of “Azerbaijan” and “Azeri.”

 


Works

Zvonkine, Eugénie. “‘On a Motorbike or a Horse?': The IV Eurasia International Film Festival 2007.” Kinokultura 19 (January 2008).


The House, Azerbaijan, 2007
Color, dvcam, 33 minutes
Director: Asif Rustamov
Script: Ramiz Fataliyev, Asif Rustamov
Cinematography: Adil Abbasov
Music: Xayyam Mirzazadeh
Cast: Rasim Jafarov, Terane Aliyeva
Producers: Aynur Mustafayeva, Ali Isa Jabbarov
Production: Dərviş Producer’s Center, commissioned by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Azerbaijan

Asif Rustamov: The House (Ev, Azerbaijan, 2007)

reviewed by Michelle Kuhn© 2008

Updated: