Issue 28 (2010)

Khamidulla Khasanov’s The Rider (Chavandoz / Naezdnik 2007)

reviewed by David MacFadyen © 2010

The most direct and informative way to approach to this swift-moving drama is through the pithy phrasing of Khamidulla Khasanov’s PR blurbs.

Since ancient times there has been a tradition in the spacious lands of the Great Turan [i.e., Central Asia]: the people’s sport of kupkari or “goat-thrashing.” This game is played in order to honor the birth of a man’s son. Over and above the skills of horse-riding, dexterity, and bravery, the competition was also used in the past to instill in warriors a desire for victory. That desire would help to foster a readiness in young men to defend their country.
Beshim and Tashmurad were the best riders in their region. Nobody could beat them at kupkari. The two men had once been friends, yet they fell in love with the same girl, called Saodat. She chose Tashmurad, and so a longstanding friendship came to an end. Since that time, each game of kupkari had become a breathtaking duel of two irreconcilable rivals. At stake in these battles was not only an official prize, but also the rider’s honor. Perhaps even his life…

Before going further, it should be pointed out that the goat being “thrashed” in these proceedings is not alive. The game of kupkari is played with an unskinned, headless carcass; the same term often appears in the Central Asian press, for example, whenever a major power struggle is being played out in the world of finance or politics.

riderAccording to local traditions, the tension built up en route to these testosterone-fueled clashes does not develop quickly. A game of kupkari can take a week to prepare, primarily in order to ready the horses and collect money needed for a decent prize. As the horses gather swiftly around the carcass to see which rider can lean down from the saddle and grab the dead animal, all competitors try to beat each other away from the booty with short leather whips. Matchmakers will often visit these competitions, sizing up the better, braver suitors for their female clients. Much, in other words, is at stake, including—perhaps—the professional reputation of Khasanov, here in his directorial debut.

The story he has chosen pits two narrative trajectories against one another: the goal-driven progress of competition (shown as kupkari or the love triangle) and the cyclical workings of tradition (as the ever-repeated sporting contests or generational responsibilities of fatherhood). This interface of the linear and cyclical is shown in striking terms over the first few minutes of the film; in a series of rapidly edited scenes, each lasting no more than a few seconds, we watch fragments of Tashmurad’s troubled dreams. In this anxious repetition or reappearance of his thoughts from the recent past, involving horses, his wife, and his family, we basically see the entire movie foreshadowed. The linear and the cyclical are, somehow, going to be presented as one and the same.

Put differently, the past and the future are not viewed as independent of one another. This clash between forward-looking self-definition and invariable destiny is, not surprisingly, developed on the playing field, too. “Today is my day,” claims a horseman. “What about honor and a clean consciousness?” says another. The first remark declares faith in destiny; the second hopes for freely-chosen decency; the common ground between them would appear to be nonexistent. And so, even at this early stage, we perceive the basic dramatic conflict that will structure the movie as a whole.

riderThe hero’s most pressing problem at home is that his wife has given birth to five daughters. Not long after the film begins, she then gives birth to a sixth. Tashmurad is constantly robbed, supposedly by fate, of a son and a kupkari game in his honor. He treats his daughters well, and indeed we see him bringing them sweets, but compared to the promise of a son, these minor family rituals seem both petty and sadly divorced from tradition. Increasingly unable to face the fact he is a father to “nothing but” girls, Tashmurad even disappears behind his horse as Saodat gives birth to daughter number six. The horses’s substantial frame is not being used as a tool of sporting prowess, but as a hiding place. Tashmurad cannot face his domestic reality.

Although he is told that “Allah will grant you a boy,” the hero repeats to himself with increasing insistence: “What kind of rider, though, am I without a son?” The kupkari competitions are designed to teach martial skills to the next generation, yet why should Tashmurad even bother competing if he is merely the stunted branch of a withering family tree? Gradually we discover that the most pragmatic and pressing reason for the need to care (placing aside vanity and even tradition) is that when he grows old and infirm, the family as a unit will need a younger, fitter male presence. From another family member we hear, quite justifiably, that “a son is a father’s support.” Choices will need to be made.

At the film’s outset, even in the few seconds before the aforementioned fragmented dream sequence, we are offered a long, almost nomadic establishing shot as the camera pans across the mountainsides. The more the camera travels, the more it emphasizes the immobility of the landscape. Somewhere outside the home, an unchanging verity resides. Slowly Tashmurad, himself fluctuating between the proud isolation of selfhood and a calm acceptance of fate, comes to find a similar truth within that paysage. Amid talk of Allah’s (eventual, future) blessings, the hero is told of a magic mountain spring. If he travels to it, Allah will indeed grant him a son. Again we are prompted towards the view that the “inevitable” must somehow be freely accepted; from this point onwards, the degree of narrative tension falls considerably and allegory begins to sideline adventure with considerable speed.

riderLittle by little the hero acquiesces to his family role after visiting the spring, all while suffering increasingly traumatic flashbacks to the same issues of a fallen horse, a lost friend, and the fading passion of an early love affair. Towards the end of the feature Tashmurad is driven, almost against his will, to enter one final kupkari competition. He wins. This victory allows him to offer a hand of reconciliation to his old friend Beshim—after beating him. For some reason, Beshim does not object. Having “honestly won first prize,” Tashmurad returns home to learn that his wife has finally given birth to a son. The heavens, it seems, are not keen on “realizing destiny” unless a modicum of effort is made by the individual in question. At a time, however, when the film’s central allegory seems to be both predictable and dry in tone, a surprise or two is still in store.

In some sense, Khasanov’s career could not be more institutionally proper, with a filmmaking education from Tashkent’s finest schools and, in the late 1970s, cinematography credentials garnered at Moscow’s VGIK (All-Russian State Institute of Cinematography). From a technical, rather than directorial standpoint, he has worked on 31 state-funded features since 1982, seven of which have won festival awards around Central Asia and Russia. And yet here, in this latest paean to patriarchal, traditional, and “domestic” values (in several senses), the director appears to be adopting a slightly subversive stance.

This film, as mentioned, draws a clear and direct parallel between the immobility of a grand, mountainous landscape, the culture of a settled people, and the fixed values of various “familial” practices, be they local or national. For most of the film, these values are directly associated with male members of the family. And indeed, the hero is blessed with the son he desperately desires. That boy fulfills all the paternal—and implicitly patriotic—wishes of Tashmurad; his son will extend the tradition of the kupkari, and therefore the readiness of the nation, too.

Nonetheless, en route to these wish fulfillments, Tashmurad also comes to see the equal value of his daughters. This narrative counterbalance comes to Uzbek moviegoers at a time when rumors are ripe that the nation’s government has told hospital staff to surgically sterilize women—and thus reduce the nation’s birthrate. Uzbekistan has the highest population of any country in Central Asia, almost one third of which is less than fourteen years old.  Hysterectomies are currently being offered to women as “effective” forms of contraception. Not surprisingly, many patients develop enormous medical problems as a result and cannot conceive; these same women are often abandoned by their husbands.

riderDespite, therefore, the bold—if not blindingly obvious—use of kupkari as an extended metaphor for patriarchal norms and jingoistic custom, it seems reasonable to suggest that the local resonance of this film will be felt in the domestic subplot, rather than with Tashmurad on the playing field. The real “goat-thrashing,” therefore—no matter how unflattering the parallel—may be taking place in distant homesteads. The remnants of Uzbek family life are up for grabs, caught in a tug-of-war between traditional gender bias and clandestine health policies.

Late in the film, Saodat explains to Tashmurad how guilty she feels for giving birth to “nothing but” daughters. Her husband answers: “You’re wrong Saodat. You’re wrong. Did I ever blame you for anything? I love you, and I love our daughters. You are all the most precious things I have in my life.” Only after this admission—and a touching scene between the father and his girls—does the narrative move towards a victorious sporting contest, the rebuilding of a friendship with Beshim, and the birth of a son. If we accept this role of allegory in order to establish a (strange) relationship between public admission and actuality, between private decisions and destiny, then Khasanov, for all his patriarchal, time-honored aesthetic, is sending a very powerful and contrary message to some of his most important viewers.

David MacFadyen
UCLA

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The Rider (Uzbekistan, 2007)
87 minutes, color
Director: Khamidulla Khasanov
Scriptwriter: Gafur Shermukhammad
Cinematography: Damir Giyasov, Khairulla Khasanov
Composer: Sardor Irgashev
Cast: Boir Kholmirzayev, Tokhir Saidov, Yuldus Khamidova, Khamidulla Khasanov
Production: Uzbekkino, Hasan-Films
DVD release: RUSCICO

Khamidulla Khasanov’s The Rider (Chavandoz / Naezdnik 2007)

reviewed by David MacFadyen © 2010

Updated: 25 Mar 10