Issue 31 (2011)
Iurii Feting: Bibinur (2009)
reviewed by Elena Monastireva-Ansdell © 2011
“Life for the Land”
Following a prominent thematic trend in Russian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and other post-Soviet national cinemas, Iurii Feting’s beautifully filmed parable from Tatarstan sets out to reaffirm Tatar traditional values, native spirituality and the love of the ancestral land. The land, its ancient traditions and the concern over their current state lie at the center of the visual and narrative fabric of the film. The parable genre helps articulate this message, but in so doing it impedes deeper psychological analysis.
The film’s title character, the eccentric old woman Bibinur whose Tatar name means “the mistress of light,” personifies the moral force of the land with which her hard but virtuous life, shown in flashbacks throughout the film, is so tightly interwoven. The flashbacks are motivated by the heroine’s prophetic dream at the beginning of the film: learning about her approaching demise, the woman revisits her past, while at the same time arranging for a better future for her land and the fellow-villagers she will leave behind.
In the new, capitalist reality of the 2000s the sacred land of their forefathers becomes the property of a wealthy Tatar businessman, a former villager now living abroad. His untimely death shortly after buying the land brings his sole heir, the western-raised youth Djikhangir to his ancestral village to sort out his assets. His father’s purchase of this strange, destitute and god-forsaken land is a riddle to Djikhangir who intends to sell the plot to eager Chinese entrepreneurs. He nevertheless decides to spend the time afforded by the negotiations to walk around the land and understand its secret appeal. Staying at Bibinur’s modest home for the night, he feels humbled by her simple life. The story of Bibinur’s selfless love for her adopted children, which he clairvoyantly sees in her fogged mirror framed by old family photos, resonates strongly in the soul of the youth who has had ample material goods but little parental affection. Sensing Djikhangir’s inner need to belong, Bibinur patiently guides him in discovering the land of his ancestors and its immense potential. She connects him not only with the land’s past but also its future: from a wise villager tending to a destroyed mosque Djikhangir learns that generations of his ancestors served as local mullahs; he later decides to gift “his” land to Bibinur’s teenage protégé, a troubled but earnest orphan who overcomes his lack of belief and puts his special talents to use by serving his people as a mullah.
Following in the wake of Ildar Iagafarov’s internationally acclaimed Kuktau (2004), Bibinur was seen by some critics as an encouraging sign of a new trend, the emergence of Tatarstan national cinema within the Russian national film industry. This sentiment certainly guided the organizers of the 32nd Moscow International Film Festival when they included Bibinur in the “Perspectives” competition (Infox.ru). Filmed by a Russian director and camera operator (Maksim Drozdov received the Golden Osella for his camerawork on Aleksei German Jr.’s Paper Soldier [Bumazhnyi soldat, 2008]), Bibinur nonetheless turns out to be an inherently Tatar film given its sources of funding, its grounding in Tatar culture and the abundant Tatar talent involved in making the film.
The film’s initial budget of a half-million dollars came from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation in 2006. Producer Svetlana Bukharaeva of the Tatar “Sabantuy” studio secured the additional half-million necessary for the completion of the film from Tatarstan’s cultural authorities. Tatar actors playing in the film come from professional and amateur theaters across Tatarstan, including those in Kazan, Naberezhnye Chelny, Nizhnekamsk and Almet’evsk. The film’s central heroine is convincingly played by such diversely chosen performers as Firdaus Akhtyamova (the old Bibinur), Tatarstan’s People’s Artist and an actress at the Tatar State Theater; Rezeda Khadiullina (the young Bibinur), a student at the Moscow State Service Institute and an actress at an amateur theater in Kazan; and Renata Minvaleeva (the little Bibinur), a preschooler from St. Petersburg. Ernest Timerkhanov, a Tatar actor at St. Petersburg Lensovet Theater, quite believably plays Djikhangir, while Vali-abyi, the old keeper of the destroyed mosque is charismatically portrayed by a local villager, Nasikh Fazyarakhmanov. Fluent knowledge of Tatar was one of the criteria in choosing actors. The film is shot almost exclusively in Tatar, with a stylized male voice-over added for Russian-speaking audiences. Filmed on location in a remote Tatar village of Algai, the film is based on works by renowned Tatar writer Ayaz Gilyazov, subsequently adapted for the screen by his son, the playwright and scriptwriter Mansur Gilyazov.
Premiering in October 2009 at the Fifth Golden Minbar Festival, a Kazan-based International Festival of Muslim Cinema, Bibinur was not part of the competition due to its late submission. A year later the film won the festival’s main prize just as Firdaus Akhtyamova garnered the title of the best female actress. The film was also well-received at the Eurasia International Film Festival in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where Rezeda Khadiullina prevailed in the category “New Name in Cinematography.” Bibinur was the only Russian entry in the “Perspectives” competition at the 32nd Moscow IFF.
Even though Bibinur generated a fair amount of praise in the Russian-language press, not all aspects of the film are equally compelling. Remarkable acting and vivid cinematography coexist with a simplistic and predictable plot that does little justice to Gilyazov’s original writings. The metaphoric possibilities of the parable genre, especially when compared to the literary original, are not fully realized. The film in fact appears to be circumscribed by its genre: several scenes that address the emotional theme of the search for one’s roots cry out for a deeper psychological analysis of the characters’ feelings, reactions and motivations. Other scenes that, by contrast, rely on heavily clichéd portrayals, seem to pull the film back into the realm of a rather simplistically conceived parable. This generic tension suggests that the director may have been subconsciously grasping for a more flexible genre of the contemporary drama to address the emotionally charged theme of understanding who we are in the globalizing world.
Drozdov’s skillful camerawork transports the viewer into the enchanted world of its virtuous heroine, a world defined in opposition to the inhospitable environment in which other characters lead a rather deficient existence. A deserted misty path winding through a blooming orchard shedding its snow-white petals leads little Bibinur to the majestic old willow that houses the souls of her deceased ancestors. Brilliant sunlight reflecting off shimmering leaves combines with the vibrant colors of her ancestors’ clothes to infuse the scene with a powerful life-force: though departed, Bibinur’s ancestors inform her identity and imbue her with a solid moral grounding. The sturdy tree trunk that Bibinur caringly whitewashes every year and the clear spring at its roots, provide a striking contrast to the oozing ankle-deep mud that covers village roads and, in turn, the villagers. Color also lights up the harsh reality of the otherwise black-and-white film in the scenes that take place in the ruins of the old mosque. Ever since the mosque was destroyed in the early Soviet years and villagers used the stones for their own construction needs, old Vali has been collecting the fragments and assembling them at the original site. Every time characters enter Vali’s sacred domain, the shot gradually transitions from black-and-white to pastel to brilliant color as if infusing those who cross the holy threshold with new life. Outside of these sacred spaces of ancestral memory and religious veneration, Bibinur’s humble home stands out as a special place in the village. The light mist that perpetually envelops Bibinur’s yard protectively swathes the magic apple trees planted by her late husband that are believed to possess curative powers. The theme of the family as a protective foundation is reflected in Bibinur’s misty old mirror: heavily decorated with family pictures around the perimeter, it provides the contemporary viewer with the flashbacks to the heroine’s difficult but wholesome past. It is in or around these special locations and objects that most meaningful exchanges between Bibinur, Djikhangir and the orphaned teenager Mansur take place. The full potential of these inherently psychological scenes, however, is consistently undercut by the psychological minimalism of the parable genre, as well as by recurring transitions to highly clichéd descriptions of the contemporary reality.
The villagers’ capitalist existence is presented in a harsh black-and-white color scheme; the village is mired in mud and besieged by capitalist hawks. The enterprising Chinese not only want to build a pork canning factory on this Muslim land, but also refuse to hire local workers, because Vietnamese laborers “eat less.” This level of caricature pervades other aspects of village life that are beyond the sacred realms inhabited by virtuous characters. If going to the mosque involves a gradual, contemplative change of mood and color, transitions to the muddy village scenes are consistently jarring and shocking in their vulgarity: green pastures and melodious chirping of Vali’s colorful song birds, give way to croaking crows and offensively loud advertising projected from a van promoting a sleazy dish network whose name translates as “Paradise on earth.” Perpetually stuck in the boggy road, the van gets a push from the eager villagers who seem not to mind getting splashed by the mud coming from its wheels. Feting’s Russian and Tatar businessmen, with the singular exception of Djikhangir, appear in similarly exaggerated and unbelievable terms: they are crude caricatures depicting unscrupulous deal brokers or dumb grunt gangsters completely incapable of any moral reflection or spiritual transformation.
Compelling in her devotion to her adopted children and to the orphaned Mansur and Djikhangir, Bibinur nonetheless can be exasperating in her overly extolled meekness and goodness. Her self-effacing motherly nature appears particularly clichéd when contrasted with the assertiveness and pragmatism of her adopted children’s urbanized aunt. The aunt, who comes to collect the children upon their mother’s death, is shown in a farcical, disparaging light, even though she is obviously a successful and powerful Leningrad woman. She wears a manlike suit, smokes cigarettes and hopelessly lacks mothering skills. She bosses her brother Gabdullah and other men around to the point of breaking a doorframe in the village sovet. Most shockingly, she plans on sending the children to a boarding school in Leningrad. In an obvious contrast to her sterile city-bred foil, Bibinur’s virginal body spontaneously produces breast milk to feed the orphaned children. Such jarring disparity between the two female characters, while reminiscent of the Veronika-Irina contrast in Cranes Are Flying (Letiat zhuravli, Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957) lacks its psychological and ideological complexity. Other female characters in the film also fail to approach the impossible ideal set by the title heroine: other than a compassionate post office clerk, most of the village women come across as quarrelsome, selfish and materialistic. It is almost ironic then, that Bibinur’s adopted children have all forgotten her in their pursuit of urban and western comforts, while her quarrelsome romantic rival’s daughter lives with her parents and expects a child. Bibinur’s adopted son now lives in the United States; he has not written or called his mother for years, and declines to talk to her when Djikhangir contacts him by mobile phone. After so many years of silence, the son’s unwillingness to engage (he offers only the lame excuse that he is driving and has to keep his eyes on the road), deprives the audience of any greater understanding of their relationship.
The failure of the plot to touch the viewer more profoundly is especially disappointing given that the original work by Ayaz Gilyazov, written in the spirit of village prose, provides deeply moving and subtly metaphorical inquiries into the moral and spiritual state of Tatar society in the early 1980s. In interviews with the filmmaker and producer there is much confusion about the original sources for the film, but out of the several works mentioned, the novel On a Friday Night (V piatnitsu vecherom, 1980) appears to have the most relevance for the film. However, even here the scriptwriter Mansur Gilyazov discards the original plot, reducing the novel’s complex symbolism and psychological depth to an easily digestible parable.
In the novel, the symbolism of Bibinur’s light-giving name and nature is meaningfully reinforced by other light and fire imagery. Perpetually short of money due to her small pension, Bibinur buys cheap matches at the village store as an admittance pass to this contemporary social hub. This incidental detail is later used to highlight the heroine’s romantic passion, spirituality, and ardent devotion to her adopted children. Early in the novel, Bibinur attends the funeral of the village chairman (notably named Djikhangir) whom she both respected and secretly loved. Having never experienced romantic passion before due to the necessity to devote her life to those in need, the old Bibinur belatedly finds the love of her life in a much younger man who has inspired her with his determination to improve village life and morals. After the funeral she uses her matches to light a campfire near a cemetery wall. Reflecting upon her unnoticed presence at the funeral, she wonders if it was her transparent, grief-stricken soul in the shape of a butterfly wing, and not her physical body, that followed her beloved to his final home. The imagery of a butterfly and an open flame central to the scene evokes Sufi poetry with its prominent trope of a moth burning in a candle in order to fuse with the Divine. If this peaceful and reflective scene conveys Bibinur’s longing to rejoin the Creator, then the novel’s final scene, also involving fire, is emotionally anguished and disturbing. On her way through the woods to save her estranged children, Bibinur is attacked by wild dogs. Climbing up a tree, she uses her matches to light up a branch to scare the dogs away. When the whole tree suddenly catches fire the badly injured Bibinur tries to extinguish the flames to prevent a forest fire, while the wild dogs lurk in the dark. Her lonely and painful demise brought about by her children’s moral failings highlights the tragedy of the materialistic and soulless society as a whole. Bibinur does not save her land and her people, but she does attempt to remain a loving mother to the children who failed her until her last breath.
This complex metaphysical subtext built upon fire imagery devolves in the film to a poorly conceived ploy used to prepare the heroine’s actions in the climactic scene. In Bibinur’s prophetic dream, the wise Vali gives her a box of matches with a Soviet emblem on the cover. Upon waking she takes the box to the old man who briefly comments that “matches mean fire, fire means death.” As if not trusting the viewer’s ability to make connections, Feting on not just one, but two occasions makes Bibinur fetch kerosene from her barn to light up damp wood in her stove. He additionally reminds the viewer about her possession of the matchbox by having her light Djikhangir’s cigarette after his bodyguards fail to do so with their fancy lighters. In one of the flashbacks, Bibinur’s husband refuses to wait while she fetches him matches thus foreboding his death on the assignment. As a result of these constant reminders, the audience comes well prepared for the climactic scene, in which Bibinur saves Djikhangir’s life by using kerosene to blow up a killer hired to shoot him. Tied up in her barn from which the killer takes aim, Bibinur opens the familiar valve and saturates the hay around her with kerosene thereby initiating the fatal explosion. The snow-like ashes caused by the conflagration produce a conversion in Mansur who earlier stated that only snow in the middle of the summer would make him believe in God. This incongruous plot twist takes Sufi fire imagery to an entirely different level.
Similar instances of crude imagery or needless repetition include excessive cuts to both the dish-TV van and the old willow. The story of the old mosque is also told one time too many just as the symbolism of Mansur’s final call to prayer from the ruins of the old mosque is needlessly spelled out when at the very end the film cuts to a contemporary city in which the now omnipresent satellite dishes project their message of Paradise on Earth to the oblivious masses. This latent distrust of his viewers’ ability to hear his metaphorical “call to prayer” locks Feting in the confines of the self-imposed genre thereby hindering his discussion of Tatar national identity at a deeper level.
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Afanas’eva, Natal’ia “Perspektivy tatarskogo eposa i pol’skogo istoricheskogo iumora.” Infox.ru, 21 June 2010.
Bibinur, Russia, 2009
98 minutes, black & white and color
Director: Iurii Feting
Scriptwriters: Mansur Gilyazov, Iurii Feting
Director of Photography: Maksim Drozdov
Composer: Radik Salimov
Producer: Svetlana Bukharaeva
Cast: Firdaus Akhtyamova, Ernest Timerkhanov, Ruslan Mustafin, Nasikh Fazyarakhmanov, Rezeda Khadiullina, Renata Minvaleeva, Nailya Gareeva
Production: Sabantuy Studio with the support of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation and Tatarkino of the Ministry of Culture of Tatarstan
Languages: Tartar, Russian
Iurii Feting: Bibinur (2009)
reviewed by Elena Monastireva-Ansdell © 2011