Issue 23 (2009)

Temir Birnazarov: Route of Hope (Neizvestnyi marshrut, Kyrgyzstan, 2008)

reviewed by Thomas Welsford © 2009

The opening minute to Route of Hope is terrific. The film starts with a crane shot of a crumbling provincial bus station, barely visible through the evening fog, and the disembodied voice of Umut (Zamir Duyshobaev), our protagonist, as we eavesdrop on a telephone call to his uncle. As the camera slowly descends to earth through depths of murk, we glean from the conversation that Umut has been away studying in Europe for fourteen years, and is only now returning to the remote village where he was raised. Continuing this single shot, the camera now glides away from the station building to reveal a battered yellow bus, standing alone like an island amidst the swirling mist. With a rumble of foreboding, the viewer intuits that this is not going to be a simple journey home.

The viewer intuits correctly. Umut's journey home does indeed prove to be difficult. Unfortunately, it also proves to be rather uninteresting.

From the foggy exterior, we now cut to the inside of the bus, where Umut's fellow-passengers are gathering in readiness for departure. These are our cast, and they are a varied lot of Kyrgyzstanis. At the front, to the right, there sit a young mother nursing her child and an older stall-keeper. Behind them, a bleach-dyed young hipster listens to tinny hip-hop through his earphones, and further back a balding schoolteacher sits with his young son, who clutches an inflatable globe; perched at the back, meanwhile, next to where Umut will take his seat, a young man happily clutches a wad of Christian missionary tracts. On the other side of the aisle from the mother and stall-keeper, a luridly lipsticked girl chews gum and hitches up her miniskirt, and behind her there is an amiable layabout trying to sleep off his hangover. Behind the drunkard an elderly military veteran grasps his walking stick, while right at the front of the vehicle, next to the driver's booth, a man in spotless white flicks dust off his suit.

New arrivals turn up. An elderly woman clambers into the bus with an aggrieved rooster in a cardboard box, and a portly, cravatted Casanova appears with what is evidently the latest in a line of romantic conquests. A felt-capped man gets in with his recent purchase, a second-hand accordion which will provide much of our soundtrack for the next hour and a half, and he is followed by two further arrivals, a bearded mullah and a wiry twenty-something in jeans and a USA baseball cap. Only now, with the bus heaving and finally ready to depart, does the driver appear. He is evidently an entrepreneur: lordly behind dark glasses, and dressed like a Cuban Mafioso, he struts up the bus arbitrarily, declaring how much each passenger must pay for his or her journey. As a figure of authority, the driver does not inspire confidence.

And indeed the journey quickly goes wrong. Strange things are afoot in the mist. The travelers find that their road home has been blocked by an impromptu Russo-American war game, and it transpires that what the driver is claiming to be an alternative route actually consists of his simply driving around in circles. Tensions emerge between the passengers: the headscarfed women disapprove of the lipsticked girl's easy morals, the mullah condemns what he regards as the Christian missionary's apostasy, and the military veteran and baseball-capped youngster come to blows over the relative merits of communism and the free market. Relations also deteriorate between the passengers and the driver, first when he appears to hit a passer-by and then more particularly when he demands further payment as a precondition for getting everyone to their destination. When it emerges that the driver has furthermore been swigging booze throughout the journey, the passengers stage an uprising and eject him from the bus. With the deposed driver having maliciously smashed the vehicle's headlights, however, it remains far from clear whether the fractious passengers have derived any benefit from their uprising. After all, it is dark outside, and they still have to get home.

For much of the rest of the film, a debate thus presents itself. What course of action should the stranded passengers pursue? Or, to put it a little more pertinently: from the various courses of action, proposed by their bickering number, which is most suitable for common agreement? Out of the passenger body, certain individuals offer their own candidature for caretaker authority, with the Casanova, the teacher and the man in spotless white all putting themselves forward for consensual approval. The claims to authority of these first two individuals are quickly impugned. A neighbor lets slip that the aging romantic has transgressed Islamic law by already marrying twice more than the permitted four times, and the aggrieved Casanova in turn scuppers the ever-so respectable schoolmaster by revealing that this latter was once imprisoned for drugs offences.

After a chaotic vote in the light of these mutual recriminations, the man in spotless white is entrusted with the keys to the vehicle. He is the one claimant commonly held to be beyond reproach, having earlier in the journey won admiration by finding and handing back a fellow passenger's mislaid wallet. The viewer may, however, question the basis for such admiration, having previously seen the man in spotless white purloin the very wallet that he later so decorously returns. Any doubts as to his qualifications for authority are confirmed soon afterwards, when he accidentally drives the blacked-out vehicle right to the edge of a precipice: far from getting his hapless passengers safely home, the man in spotless white has managed to leave them teetering on the verge of oblivion.

It is now, and only now, that Umut comes to the fore. As his terrified fellow-passengers panic and wail, quietly authoritative Umut draws upon fourteen years of British education to observe that the vehicle is significantly less likely to topple into the ravine if they all slowly move towards the back. Having thus silenced the company of travelers, Umut promptly takes charge of the effort first to stabilize the undercarriage and then to push the bus back onto firm ground. Toiling in the torrential rain that has finally washed away the fog, Umut and his fellow passengers manage to right the vehicle.

Exhausted in the wake of their endeavors, the sodden passengers collapse beside one another, everyone having put aside his or her petty hostilities: the tear-away girl smiles with the once-disapproving veteran, the mullah sits shoulder to shoulder with the missionary, and the stall-keeper takes the other woman's baby to her breast. Setting light to a brushwood torch, Umut now runs out as a beacon in front of the bus, guiding it on its way as it finally rumbles home to its destination. Thus Umut's name, we realize, and thus the film's title: Umut is the Kyrgyz for hope.

This is the story. The problem with the film, as may already be clear, is that the storyline is so freighted with symbolic weight as to be dramatically inert. There is nothing intrinsically wrong, of course, with symbolism. Parables are fine, so long as they do not scupper their own narrative vehicles. Unfortunately, the parable contained in Route of Hope is desperately literalistic: Birnazarov appears more concerned to make points about Kyrgyzstan's present political predicament than he is to tell a story. Birnazarov may very well be an able political communicator, but on this showing he is not a particularly good film-maker.

In Route of Hope, heavily-semaphored parallels abound. To watch the film is to engage in a parlor game. The bus driver, perhaps recalling Kyrgyzstan's ousted former president Askar Akayev? The passenger revolt, maybe alluding to the Tulip Revolution of spring 2005? The compromised man in white feasibly gesturing towards the disappointing presidential performance of post-revolutionary incumbent Kurmanbek Bakiev? Is Umut's ascension to the fore an (rather peculiar) appeal for salvation in the form of some western-educated Saakashvili figure?

To propose such echoes may be diverting for a moment or two, but it scarcely maintains viewer interest over ninety minutes of meandering action. And the action most certainly does meander. In his concern to maintain a taut equivalential thread between filmic scenario and the political events therein, Birnazarov fails to afford much of his storyline any kind of free-standing dramatic weight.

This is most painfully true of the fifteen minutes or so following the driver's expulsion, during which our artfully variegated embodiments of Kyrgyzstani social diversity decide what to do next. Yes, we may grasp the symbolic meaning of what the passengers are doing in weighing up people's rival claims for caretaker authority over the bus, but what are they actually up to? To answer that they are arguing as to who should drive the blinded vehicle home through the dark simply begs a further question: why they should even need to drive the vehicle home through the dark, when they might just wait until morning.

If the director had actually conceived of his characters as something more than shorthand for particular social categories, of course, he might have delineated a range of private reasons why individuals should actually require that the journey thus proceed. Without such investment, however, we are left doubting the dramatic premise of what merely amounts to a faintly absurdist balloon debate—and a pretty toothless one at that. Birnazarov's scenario provides for the programmatic collision of capitalist against communist and Christian missionary against Islamic mullah, but it allows little scope for airing any of the more salient tensions presently afflicting Kyrgyzstani society: the film's dramatic microcosm makes no acknowledgement of the unease between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek, for instance, or between Bishkeki and Oshi. The real debates in twenty-first-century Kyrgyzstan remain here wholly unaddressed.

Dramaturgical problems also haunt the depiction of why individual passengers are jockeying for authority in the first place. We may catch, for instance, something of Birnazarov's presumed satirical intent in depicting how the man in spotless white shamelessly fabricates his reputation for virtue: but what does the character himself actually hope to gain by asserting his claim to the driver's seat? Money, sex, social renown—anything could be at stake in this process of contestation: but from his Parnassian perspective Birnazarov neglects to evoke what the stake might actually be.

It is only towards the very end of the film, therefore, when the bus is swaying over the edge of the precipice, that the director is able to contrive an internally coherent rationale for the passengers' surrender to internecine conflict. The notion of the suspended bus is tremendously powerful, of course: leaving aside obvious echoes of The Italian Job (dir. Peter Collinson, UK, 1969), one thinks of something like the incident with the un-tethered hot air balloon at the start to Ian McEwan's novel Enduring Love (1997), with its similar premise that any individual's salvation—jumping out of the vehicle, jumping out of the balloon—must be at the zero-sum cost to his or her fellow-passengers' safety. By situating the interests of the individual at direct loggerheads with the interests of the group, this late sequence is by far the most dramatically engaging in the film, and the viewer rather wishes that the episode might have been afforded a greater share of the movie's running length.

The image of the teetering bus supplies what Route of Hope has hitherto singularly lacked: a sense of the potential jeopardy in which our protagonists find themselves. A more extended sense of potential jeopardy would have benefited the film immensely. Indeed, one wonders whether Birnazarov might not have done well to formalize such a sense by situating the film firmly within that horror genre so tantalizingly alluded to at the outset with the promise of darkness and fog. This is not to be facetious. As demonstrated by such works as George A. Romero's ongoing Night of the Living Dead sequence (US, 1968-), John Carpenter's The Thing (US, 1982) or, most recently, Frank Darabont's The Mist (US, 2007), horror films can often be remarkably acute in anatomizing those strained group dynamics which Birnazarov attempts to depict.

This may well be because the generic conventions of horror permit the evocation in its purest form of an existential threat against whose backdrop human individuals must struggle to adopt an appropriate, common line of defense. Appropriating elements of the horror genre—evoking a sense of unseen things in the night, for instance—might have helped Birnazarov provide his characters with the dramatic motivation for fighting so determinedly for their favored courses of action. Such generic borrowing would not necessarily have weakened the intended symbolic impact of Birnazarov's story: Romero's mall-set Dawn of the Dead (Italy/US, 1978) reads as a rumination on American consumerism, after all, and Eli Roth's Hostel films (US, 2005, 2007) stand as a forcefully toxic response to the atrocities at Abu Ghraib. Presented, as here, with a parable more hectoring than incisive, this particular reviewer regrets and not for the first time—the reluctance of all too many Central Asian film-makers to embrace the liberating possibilities of cinematic genre.

The performances in the film are good. Much of the camerawork is impressively poised. The production design ably evokes the look, the texture, even the goaty smell of a crammed Kyrgyzstani regional bus—though, for obvious reasons, the production designer permits himself one major solecism: throughout the course of the film, the interior of the bus remains ablaze with electric light. In real life, of course, the light bulbs would long have gone, and all this would be happening in darkness.

Thomas Welsford
All Souls College, Oxford University

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Route of Hope, Kyrgyzstan, 2008
Colour, 99 minutes
Director and scriptwriter: Temir Birnazarov
Cinematography: Kabyljan Hamidov
Art Director: Bayish Ismanov
Music: Asylbek Ozubekov and Bakyt Aytbosunov
Cast: Zamir Duyshobaev, Duyshon Baydobetv, Egemberdi Chalambaev, Kumondor Abylov, Ilim Kalmuratov, Jyparisa Kochorbaeva, Kiyal Kulmambetova, Asankul Osmonov, Bakyt Mukul, Jyldyz Segizbaeva
Production: Kyrgyzfilm

Temir Birnazarov: Route of Hope (Neizvestnyi marshrut, Kyrgyzstan, 2008)

reviewed by Thomas Welsford © 2009

Updated: 07 Jan 09