Aiub Shakhobiddinov: The Yurt (O'tov / Iurta, 2007)

reviewed by Seth Graham© 2008

Winner of prizes at the Kinoshok film festival in Anapa (Russia) and the Stars of Shaken festival in Almaty (Kazakhstan) in 2007, The Yurt is a “psychological fable” that takes place in a remote Uzbek mountain setting in the 1980s (“Uzbekskii fil'm na Kinoshoke”). The first few shots—scenes of local fauna and other features that a teenage boy sees through his binoculars—are something of a metaphorical overture, a sampling of the themes and events that will define the rest of the film: first is a ewe nursing her lamb, foreshadowing the filmmakers' exploration of generational dynamics; then a Sisyphean turtle struggling to scale a steep dirt incline, suggesting the difficulty of escaping one's environment; then a colony of ants that is perhaps a reminder of the urban/rural divide so central to the Soviet experience; and finally a truck with a loudspeaker spewing Soviet propaganda, tellingly receding into the distance as both a symbol of the setting's remoteness and an enticement to the boy to follow the truck to civilization.

The theme of fathers and sons is central from the beginning of the narrative. The boy's widower father is a harsh but devoted parent who desperately wants to keep his son isolated from everything Soviet, which he views as a toxic influence due to his own father's arrest as an enemy of the people during the Terror, and his grandfather's purging as a kulak before that. To the father, the titular yurt (actually, two yurts) where the two-member family lives is a site of internal emigration and refuge; to the son, it is increasingly a prison from which he longs to escape into the world. In contrast to his father, who uses the light produced by a small generator to read the Koran, the boy secretly reads a stashed copy of Rabotnitsa (Worker Woman) late at night, which his father burns upon discovering. He improbably encounters an English-speaking student tourist named “John,” who takes his photo and gives it to him, along with photos of the rest of the tourist group. The boy adds the Polaroids to his small shelf of treasures, which include a dollar bill and Soviet history journals. A female classmate who is in love with him shows up to give him a last chance to declare his love in return before she marries a wealthier suitor (his fear of leaving gets the best of him, and he hesitates) and to urge him to use his “gold medal” diploma to go to college. His plan to take the girl's advice is thwarted when his father throws his diploma onto the fire, as he did with the illicit magazine.

The boy's chance to escape finally arrives in the form of a draft notice, and he goes off to fight in Afghanistan, ignoring his father's warning that “there's nothing out there! It's all lies!” While he is gone, the father first buries the television which had been the son's final lure into the world beyond the yurt, then gradually and unexpectedly begins to build a new family. He marries and has a daughter with a local mute woman, who, like himself with his hermit-like eccentricities, is regarded as somewhat crazy. His prodigal son returns twice, once after Afghanistan, showing the full psychological trauma of that experience, and the second time years later, after having become a drug addict in the increasingly open urban society of the late-1980s Soviet Union. Despite this further evidence to the father that his family is cursed by history, the film ends on a solidly upbeat note and manages to do so plausibly, without excess sentiment and without the unreflective depiction of rural traditions and chronotopes as a utopian form of salvation.

Seth Graham
University College London

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Works

Uzbekskii fil'm na Kinoshoke.” Press-UZ. info (31 October 2007).


The Yurt, Uzbekistan, 2007
Color, 75 minutes
Director: Aiub Shakhobiddinov
Screenplay: Elkin Tuichiev
Cinematography: Azizbek Arzikulov
Art Direction: Ravshan Narbaev
Cast: Nazim Tuliakhodzhaev, Rano Shodieva, E. Kokeev
Production: Uzbekkino

Aiub Shakhobiddinov: The Yurt (O'tov / Iurta, 2007)

reviewed by Seth Graham© 2008

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