Issue 30 (2010)
Dmitrii Mamuliia: Another Sky (Drugoe nebo, 2010)
reviewed by Julie Draskoczy © 2010
Enjoy the Silence, Framed
Dmitrii Mamuliia’s debut feature, Another Sky, is a film of few words and striking shots. The narrative follows the journey of Ali, a Tajik shepherd turned migrant worker (gastarbeiter) who travels from his native land to the homogeneous indifference of an unspecified city in search of his wife. Despite its propensity to defy categorization (or perhaps precisely because of it), the film achieved considerable success in critical circles; it was the only Russian film to participate in the 45th International Film Festival at Karlovy Vary, where it received a special mention from the jury.
As the issue of migrant workers becomes increasingly visible and contentious in Russia today, the topic has also developed into a popular subject for recent Russian cinema. Other examples include Yusup Razykov’s Gastarbeiter (2010), a film that participated along with Another Sky in Kinotavr’s 2010 competition. Yet despite the demographic of the respective main characters, neither of these films represents a social critique on the matter of migrant labor. Instead, each shifts the focus from a search for work to a search for something much more valuable—in Razykov’s film, it is the main character’s quest to find his grandson, in Mamuliia’s, it is Ali’s search for his wife that spurs his move to the city. His pursuit is framed by two distinctive characteristics: silence and vision.
Ali is accompanied by his nine-year-old son in the voyage to locate his estranged wife, a task that seems increasingly formidable as the paucity of the main character’s resources becomes apparent: he does not speak Russian, his only evidence of his spouse is a worn photograph, and he is relegated to sifting through anonymous crowds in an overwhelming urban landscape. Although Ali might have found “another sky” in the city, the urban setting in the film often mirrors elements of the Tajik countryside. In both, life is arduous and work is the focal point of existence—Ali lugs dead animals across the desert and later shoulders heavy bags of cement in a factory warehouse; masses of sheep pictured in the opening shots of the film echo a cart of jangling bottles in an urban hospital; cars continuously pass Ali and his son on both a Tajik highway and a city bus.
In both country and city, death is ubiquitous. Ali must handle carcasses as a shepherd, moving and kicking dead animals off the side of a cliff in his native land. In his temporary home in the city death repeatedly confronts him, and each time he meets calamity silently. He utters not a word when he runs over a dog in the street, nor even when he faces the tragic death of his own son in a workshop accident. Death in the film is documentary—like the television in the background that continuously broadcasts the spreading swine flu—and unapologetic. The dog is abandoned, left to die in the street alone, and Ali’s bright-eyed son is reduced to objects left behind in a bag, his body just one among many in the hospital’s morgue.
Despite this visual twinning, Ali’s homeland appears only in the opening shots of the film, and the city plays a much more prominent role, almost becoming a full-blown character in the narrative. Typical and significant public spaces—train station, warehouse, police station, hospital, whorehouse, market, factory—help to highlight the characteristics of urban life while underscoring the tendency for people to become nameless, featureless objects in the enormity of a metropolis. Prostitutes are pictured headless and chosen like items off of a menu; patients suffer silently and alone in a local hospital; mentally handicapped children file through a sanitation clinic; and hordes of women pound away at sewing machines in a crowded factory. Even the television’s news—practically the only dialogue in the film—foreground tragedy, with broadcast topics ranging from the aforementioned swine flu to Somali pirates to revolutionary unrest in France. Yet the de-personalization of the city is balanced by the highly personal venture of looking for a single individual among the urban masses, and Ali is not without help along the way; various characters assist him in his search.
The visual framing and near wordlessness of the film augments its melancholic atmosphere. Perhaps one of the most distinctive features of Mamuliia’s film is the laconic nature of the main character, which at times seems inexplicable and nearly frustrating for the viewer. Even upon the miraculous and unexpected finding of his wife, Ali utters not a single word, instead lighting a cigarette and staring blankly towards the road before him. In Another Sky, the visual takes precedence over the verbal. The characters are defined by their personal gaze as well as by the way others look at them. This perhaps explains the predominance of frames—tangible evidence of the gaze of the other—in many of the shots. Ali and his son appear marked, bounded, and framed within the borders of the screen, creating a filmic mise-en-abîme. A rectangular photograph, the product of a camera’s gaze, is Ali’s sole finding aid in the search of his wife. Mamuliia, trained in philosophy, cites our mode of seeing as the central matter of life itself: what we choose to observe and what we choose to ignore. He attempts to make Ali a visual apparatus, a method of seeing for the viewer (Sycheva).
Silence and vision, in turn, were the primary characteristics the director sought when assembling the cast. Composed almost entirely of non-professional actors, Mamuliia wanted to create a film as close to reality as possible: the doctor is really a doctor, the archivist an archivist, the sanitation worker a sanitation worker. Mamuliia searched most extensively for Ali’s character, and eventually settled on the former construction worker Habib Boufares, who starred in the main part of Abdellatif Kechiche’s Couscous (La graine et le mulet, 2007) which won the Jury Prize at Venice in 2007. At first Boufares had no desire of appearing in the film, and Mamuliia went to Tunis in order to convince him to participate and was struck by the man’s terse nature. The two walked and sat together in silence, a silence that somehow “united” them (Vasil’eva). This, and Boufares’s absolute impenetrability—a quality the viewer feels quite distinctly—are what led Mamuliia to cast him in the leading role. Mitra Zakhedi, who plays Ali’s wife, was chosen for her vision. The only professional actor in the film, Mamuliia had to find a woman with just the right look even though she appears in the film for just a few scant moments, “her look was important—how she sees” (Vasil'eva). Images become stronger, more striking in the near wordlessness of the film, and the tendency to frame the characters on screen reminds the viewer of the inherent classifying function of the gaze. Not only does the camera create boundaries around characters, it also calls attention to its nature as a visual apparatus with dramatic de-focusing and re-focusing. When Ali glances at the photograph of his wife near the beginning of the film, her face becomes fuzzy, as if her long absence has made her physical features indistinct, unknowable. Similarly, after Ali has finally located his spouse, his own reflection becomes fuzzy—in contrast to his wife’s—as he peers into a roadside bathroom mirror. He may have found his wife, but he seems to have lost himself.
Given that the film’s narrative is dictated by a search, it is not surprising that vision would play such an important role. Mamuliia chooses the story because of its specific look, noting, “it is surprising, but there are things that you can see only when your glance is directed towards something else, things that don’t become apparent with head-on vision, but only from the side” (Sycheva). Ali, therefore, in the search for his wife found something quite different altogether—another sky.
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1] Although the urban scenes are shot in Moscow, the city is intentionally unnamed so as to give the impression of the anonymity and solitude of city life. This loneliness represents a type of vision, and the function of sight plays an essential role in Mamuliia’s film, “In this space where vision exists, there aren’t specific signs. When you see important things, their faces, there is no Kremlin, nor Big Ben, nor Eiffel Tower.” (Mamuliia in Chuviliaev)
Chuviliaev, Ivan. “Neponimanie—samyi vazhnyi zakon,” Interview with Dmitrii Mamuliia, Seans, 11 June 2010.
Sycheva, Alena. “Kartina mira, uvidennaia bez nameren’ia, mozhet byt’, I est’ podlinnaia kartina mira,” Interview with Dmitrii Mamuliia, ProfiCinema, 8 June 2010.
Vasil'eva, Zhanna. “Ieroglify liubvi,” Interview with Dmitrii Mamuliia, Rossiiskaia gazeta 12 July 2010.
Another Sky, Russia, 2010
Color, 86 minutes
Director: Dmitrii Mamuliia
Screenplay: Dmitrii Mamuliia, Leonid Sitov
Camera: Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev
Art Design: Liudmila Diupina
Music: Anna Muzychenko
Sound: Marina Nigmatulina
Costumes: Ekaterina Khimicheva
Editing: Dasha Danilova
Cast: Habib Boufares, Amirza Mukhamadi, Mitra Zakhedi
Producer: Arsen Gotlib
Dmitrii Mamuliia: Another Sky (Drugoe nebo, 2010)
reviewed by Julie Draskoczy © 2010