Aslan Galazov: The Swallows Have Arrived (Lastochki prileteli, 2007 )

reviewed by Julie Draskoczy © 2008

Aslan Galazov's first feature-length film, The Swallows Have Arrived, opens with the gentle hum of everyday sounds: dogs barking, church bells ringing, a baby crying. The bird's-eye shot of the camera scans the rooftops of Vladikavkaz (the film's locale and director Galazov's birthplace) and focuses on a milk truck setting up for business in the early morning. This landscape of quotidian regularity, however, is soon drastically interrupted—aurally, by the discordant sound of single piano notes, and visually, by the appearance of the film's main character, Konstantin, who lies crumpled on his bed in the fetal position. Konstantin, or Pik as his friends call him, is a heroin addict.

Pik defines himself as a liar. With a junky's logic, he even decides that lying is something noble; he is saving his friends and family from anguish. His dishonesty begins with breakfast, when he pretends to enjoy a normal human activity such as eating but can barely swallow. Pik's lies are not successful; he is entirely unable to partake in the “celebration of life” (prazdnik zhizni). With his sweaty brow and tired, anguished face, he seems completely out of place on the cheery, children-filled streets of Vladikavkaz. Other characters in the film sharply point out his mendaciousness and Pik is rejected at every turn: his mother asks him why he is killing himself, his friend Volodia's wife shoos him away angrily when he tries to visit, the tram's ticket collector calls him shameful for pretending to have a pass, and his friend Murik refuses to lend him money. Even fellow junky Gerasim, while high, acknowledges Pik's pretenses.

Despite his drug habit, Konstantin maintains his job as a university teacher of literature. He carries a tome of Charles Baudelaire in his briefcase and lectures on the symbolists (“decadents” in Russian) to a mostly disinterested body of students. This choice of academic subject matter is apt for the film. The predicament of the symbolist hero—whom Konstantin defines as “a double” attempting to contend with the multiplicity of worlds in modern reality—resonates with Pik's own life situation. The film's hero describes himself as divided, claiming that his “other” mocks him and will not allow him to pray. This split personality is embodied in the very name of the main character, Konstantin/Pik. Konstantin's status as a misunderstood outsider becomes even clearer in the lecture hall where he teaches—as he passionately describes the aesthetics of frailty and decay to his students, they pass notes, play cards, and engage in their own conversations. Just like the recurring bird's-eye view shots that recall the vantage point of the sparrows, Konstantin is outside, peering down into a world he cannot understand.

The symbolists, with their fragmented multiplicity of worlds, embody Konstantin's worldview as well as the director's philosophy. Galazov claims that in the post-modern world, where everything is endlessly repeated, it is hard to be original. Just as Konstantin asks how it can be possible to make sense of these fragmented worlds, so does Galazov pose the question of how a filmmaker can be successfully creative in the contemporary world. Galazov's answer is simplicity: by engaging in minimalism, it is possible to combat the overwhelming feeling of contemporary reality (“Kartina”). This is certainly what he attempts to do in the sparsely directed and simply shot Swallows. In addition, Galazov uses non-professional actors to reinforce a sense of authenticity. Irlan Khugaev, who plays Konstantin/Pik in the film, is himself a philologist from Vladikavkaz, with no training as an actor. Galazov convinced Khugaev to participate in the film despite his apprehension, and the results are quite successful. Khugaev's performance is believable, sympathetic, and sorrowful.

Religious allusions permeate the film. Pik can no longer pray because heroin has become his substitute god, and Pik tells a priest about his praying problem under the dark cover of night. When Konstantin discusses the differences between romantic and symbolist heroes in his lecture, he claims that only the soul of the poet remains the same. Pik likens being high to communion and his friend Chukcha compares heroin to holy water. Gerasim is “saintly” (sviatoi) because he has spent fifteen years in prison and has a supply of dope. When a sparrow seemingly flies into Chukcha's face, Pik calls it a godly sign. The sparrows themselves, with their celestial position, allude to a type of heavenly appraisal.

Another recurring element in the film is the ubiquitous presence of children. While religion is likened to heroin, children serve as a clear foil to the dark world of drug addiction. Children are carefree, honest, and active in the film: a young boy rides his bike while pointing out Pik's lies, a young boy and girl run excitedly up library steps, an adorable baby is admired on the tram, young adolescents play soccer, children amuse themselves in a park. Pik looks upon these scenes of light-hearted amusement with a wistful look in his eyes; as an outsider, he can no longer appreciate life's simple pleasures. The presence of children is accentuated aurally as well as visually, with the creaking of a playground's swing-set recurring throughout the film—the harsh metallic noise at once jarring and familiar. At night, Pik and his drug addict friends are chased out of a children's playground where Pik had had the urge to swing earlier in the day. As the watchman reminds them, it is, after all, a children's space.

In the world of a heroin addict, time is crucial. As Pik describes it, the time between fixes exists as an empty, painful void, and moments occur only in relationship to the next high. This explains the emphasis on time in the film: there are several close-up shots of Pik's watch, the cyclicity of time is emphasized by the regularity of morning and night routines, and the life cycle can be inferred by the flight of the swallows, which are the source of the film's title. Unbeknownst to the characters in the film, they have already flown to a warmer climate, but the return of the swallows at the end of the film perhaps indicates a more promising future.

Galazov claims that Swallows is not so much about drugs as it is about the modern world. He asserts that the heroin addict is the ultimate consumer; his consumption is absolutely necessary and it changes him into a different person. Galazov compares this phenomenon with the ultra-consumerist modern world, claiming that Pik is a contemporary hero and not so different from an enthusiastic shopper (“Kartina”). Unlike some of the most famous drug-themed films to come before it—Rashid Nugmanov's The Needle (Igla) and Savva Kulish's Tragedy in the Style of Rock (Tragedeia v stile rok), both from 1988, come to mind—Swallows attempts neither to glamorize drugs nor to demonize them; instead, it tries to arouse sympathy in the viewer for the suffering of an addict—a task it most certainly accomplishes.

Julie Draskoczy
University of Pittsburgh

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Works Cited

“Kartina Aslana Galazova Lastochki prileteli snova predstavliaet Rossiiu na mezhdunarodnom kinofestivale”.

The Swallows Have Arrived, Russia, 2007
Color, 90 minutes
Director: Aslan Galazov
Screenplay: Irlan Khugaev, Aslan Galazov
Cinematography: Tigran Kaitmazov
Music: Shirvani Chalaev
Editing: Ol'ga Shevchenko
Cast: Irlan Khugaev, Artur Khatagov, Viacheslav Guriev, Leila Tebloeva, Ellina Zakharova
Producer: Aslan Galazov
Production: Narti Muviz Film Company

Aslan Galazov: The Swallows Have Arrived (Lastochki prileteli, 2007 )

reviewed by Julie Draskoczy © 2008

Updated: 13 Jul 08