Issue 35 (2012)
Igor’ Voloshin: Bedouin (Beduin, 2011)
reviewed by Volha Isakava © 2012
Bedouin is a heart-wrenching drama that follows the plight of a mother attempting to save her twelve-year-old daughter from cancer. Due to the need to raise money, the heroine Rita, played by Ol’ga Simonova, leaves her native Ukraine to go to Saint Petersburg, where she becomes a surrogate mother for a gay couple, before embroiling herself in the criminal underworld. Her attempts fail and in a final act of desperation she takes her daughter, Nastia (Serafima Migai), to Jordan to live with the Bedouins, whose unconventional medicine of mixed camel milk and urine becomes her last hope. The film is a tour-de-force of desperation as we follow the heroine in her journey. It seems that many mainstream Russian films look at today's urban life as tech-savvy, connected, glamorous and comfortable, examples include the genre blockbusters Hooked (Na igre, dir. Pavel Sanaev, 2009), the comedy Lovey-Dovey (Liubov'-morkov', dir. Strizhenov, 2007), or the so-called youth film Heat (Zhara, dir. Rezo Gigineishvili, 2006). In contrast, Bedouin's use of technology implies grief and despair, as we see Rita talk to her sick daughter via low-tech videochat. Bedouin is also focused on the “lower depths,” showcasing the gritty realism of life amidst marginalized lower classes in the contemporary metropolis. The film is populated with dock workers, small-time gangsters, illegal immigrants and struggling lower-class professionals, like Rita herself or Rita’s only friend, Zina (Anna Mikhalkova), the train attendant. Their struggle for survival is filmed against the background of shabby cafes that serve as a home for immigrant families; dockyards, where blue-collar workers negotiate with the Chinese mafia; uniform suburban housing projects; and unkempt underground crosswalks.
In its focus on the dangerous and undignified life of the lower classes, Bedouin is similar to other contemporary films that deal with social issues, such as The Spot (Tochka, 2006) by Iurii Moroz about the lives of street prostitutes. Bedouin weaves quite a few controversial social issues and critique into one story, which progresses from bad to worse. The controversial issues in Russia today, such as surrogate motherhood and gay parenting, are accompanied by the exposure of familiar social ills: the gang violence that plagues working-class neighborhoods and the failing health care system that extorts money from patients. In its bleak vision of society and human relations, the film harks back to the perestroika era social dramas that also emphasized the plight of the “little man” crushed by an inhumane social system. It also reminds of perestroika chernukha films, in which the insurmountable hardships often led to almost phantasmagorical unraveling of events that crushed the struggling heroes. Similarly, the plot of Bedouin starts as Rita secures herself a surrogate motherhood deal to raise money. Lonely and isolated, always barraged by bad news from home, she forms an ambiguous relationship with her neighbor Zhenia (Mikhail Evlanov), a sailor with mafia connections. When the biological parents stand her up on one of the payments, she is willing to plunge herself into the porn business as advised by her lover, who with a change of heart promises to give her the money and punish "the gays." He wrecks their car, resulting in a fatal accident, which leaves Rita with a baby but without payment. The car accident is a diablo-ex-machina device—an arbitrary cruel chance that plunges the heroine to a new abyss of despair. Shortly afterwards, she finds out that all traditional medical procedures have failed for Nastia. As if that was not enough, the neighbor brings a violent gang shooting into Rita’s home, and at some point she is forced to shoot a Chinese Mafioso with a harpoon, delivering an emotional monologue that this is not what her life is supposed to be. Such a crescendo of violence and misfortune was very typical for perestroika-era dramas which paradoxically combined gritty social realism with a dark fatalism that vanquished any hope for the characters, often via random violent occurrences. As the unfortunate turns of events start to get bloodier and more incoherent, it does not seem like a stretch that Rita packs herself and Nastia up and leaves for Jordan on a whim.
In addition to social injustice exposed in the film, Rita’s desperate attempts to find money and sympathy almost always backfire, displaying an astonishing callousness of human relations, casting a deeply pessimistic look on both contemporary Russian society and human nature. Rita is treated without a shred of sympathy by either the biological parents or medical professionals in Petersburg; the man she formed an attachment to suggests that she work in a porn film; in Jordan she is initially robbed by the very people she entrusted to help her. Consequently, themes of isolation and indifference run prominently throughout the film, underscored by visual motifs. Bedouin uses cold blue and green tones to convey this isolation in a variety of spaces, such as when we see Rita vulnerable and exposed during gynecological procedures, or when she makes her way around her run-down apartment building. Rita is often featured alone, isolated in the shot, or in an extreme close-up that dwells on her worn-out face. Rita's futile effort to fight for her daughter is underscored by visual metaphors of industrial or mechanical nature, amplified by the eerie electronic soundtrack of the film. She is repeatedly shown alongside docked ships or trains that tower over her in a low-angle shot, making her seem small and fragile. She is poked and penetrated by various instruments in a long medical procedure sequence. In her apartment, Rita perpetually stares at a washing machine or an electric heater, a substitute for human interaction and compassion.
Despite her dire circumstances, Rita shows a lot of grit and defies the controlling and humiliating situation she finds herself in by personal transgressions that symbolically return control of her body to her: she defiantly smokes, drinks and has a brief sexual encounter. She is determined to do whatever it takes to save her daughter and rarely shows signs of grief and despair, breaking into tears and sobbing only when circumstances completely crush her. Her defiance points to the larger theme of transgression and marginality that the film considers. The margins of the metropolis that Rita finds herself at are represented by the people of transgressive and “exotic” identities. The gay couple is one such transgression. In addition, the younger gay partner is from Central Asia, and is publicly disparaged for his non-Russian ethnicity by the other partner, a Russian businessman, tellingly named Ivan, who controls the young man as much as he controls Rita. The docks seem to be overrun by the Chinese Mafia, and the local cafe owned by immigrants from the Caucasus streams Chinese popular music. Eventually it is the Caucasian and Chinese gangs that clash at Rita’s apartment. Rita herself is a stranger in a Russian metropolis, coming presumably from a small Ukrainian town. The non-Russian population that exists on the margins of the metropolis geographically and on the margins of “normal life” metaphorically, is exoticized in the film: we are repeatedly exposed to foreign language, music or dance. At the same time this marginal existence encompasses the entire world of the film—it becomes a new normalcy that Rita begins to accept for herself and her family. It could be argued that the core social critique of the film lies in this assumption of the radical otherness and marginalization that one suffers when they are pushed to the brink by social injustice in contemporary Russia.
Pushed to the margins, delegated a transgressive status of the “other”—Rita embraces it in the final stretch of the film, when she decides to take Nastia to Jordan. The ending of the film is shot on location in the desert (Al’perina). Rita does not seem to suffer from the complete change of location, language, dress-code, but on the contrary, seems well-integrated and at peace with her new completely foreign identity. We learn that eventually Nastia dies in the Bedouin village and Rita gives birth to a boy, named by Nastia “Bedouin.” The film shows the circumcision ritual (documentary footage, according to the director) that the boy undergoes, possibly suggesting that Rita has found peace, a home and new identity in the Muslim community of the Bedouins. The name of the son giving the film its title signifies the importance of this transformation. The last sequence of Bedouin shows Rita, watching the video of Nastia, as she talks about seeing the world upside down as the necessary condition to really see things as they are. Rita contorts her body to move upside down and after we have our last look at her smiling face we see a slow turn of the camera to show the upside down desert from Rita’s point of view. One could argue that Rita has reconciled herself with her “otherness” and accepted the inverted worldview. The real upside-down world, however, is not what happened to her in Jordan, but what happened to her in Petersburg, the impossible contortions that she put herself through to save her daughter. Similarly, sick Nastia imagines a Twilight inspired narrative that she would be saved by vampire's blood, as the means to embrace a reality that makes more sense to her than the reality of post-Soviet hospitals. Amidst the Jordanian desert, after the death of her daughter and the birth of her Muslim son, we see Rita with a wide happy smile, maybe for the first time in the film. Rita's relief comes with her free fall from the impossible task of surviving as the “other” at home to the blissful existence as an alien entity in a foreign land. Perhaps, Bedouin suggests that it is easier to escape when you already exist on the margins, when the upside-down world becomes a relief from the real world you inhabit.
University of Victoria, Canada
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Susanna Al’perina, “Verbliuzh’e moloko,” interview with Igor’ Voloshin, Rossiiskaia gazeta, 30 June 2011.
Bedouin, Russia 2011
96 minutes, color
Director: Igor’ Voloshin
Producer: Igor’ Voloshin, Aleksandr Orlov, Irina Pavlova
Script: Igor’ Voloshin
Cinematography: Aleksei Rodionov
Cast: Ol’ga Simonova, Serafima Migai, Mikhail Evlanov, Remigius Sabulis, Dorji Galsanov, Anna Mikhalkova, Dinara Drukarova, Sergei Svetlakov
Igor’ Voloshin: Bedouin (Beduin, 2011)
reviewed by Volha Isakava © 2012