Issue 37 (2012)

Aktan Arym Kubat: Paradise for Mum (Mamin rai, 2011)

reviewed by Viera Langerova © 2012

A Wish on the Tracks

Aktan Arym Kubat’s films have always been oriented toward indigenous Kyrgyz culture. They are full of visual beauty, giving us a whiff of life in the villages where not much changed, even during Soviet times. This steppe space with its nomadic way of life has always had all the assets of Central Asian exoticism: yurts, herds of stock, ancient rituals surviving all attempts of modernization.

mamin raiBut the exoticism of the steppe would not be enough to make good films, loved by audiences all around the world. Arym Kubat has much more to offer to the viewer who is able to understand the deeper flows of nomadic life and its philosophy, deeply rooted in nature and its slow cycles. In his trilogy The Swing (Selkinchek, 1993), Beshkempir (1998) and The Chimp (Maimyl, 2001) we can find many of these elements. All three films reflects the process of maturation, the coming-of age from childhood, puberty to adulthood, which is shown in parallel to the changes in nature and other related rituals.

The heroes of Arym Kubat’s films are small, ordinary people who are portrayed with a dash of lyrical humor; they are headstrong and inventive in looking for solutions at the crossings of their lives. They are always visible members of a rural community, with a definitive place in its hierarchy.

The director is one of the main figures of Kyrgyz cinema, who has found a way out of Soviet monumentalism and has shaped his own film language, reflecting not only ethnic features but also his cultural mentality. Mostly thanks to Arym Kubat’s films, Central Asian cinema has experienced a mixture of humor, a kind of “naïve” surrealism, bordering on absurdity and combined with the flow of ethnic patterns.

The shift towards social drama becomes apparent with his latest film, Paradise for Mum. The story is set once again in a mixed Kazakh-Russian family, but now extracted from the lush nature surroundings and placed to an urban environment, a suburb that is somewhere between the city and the village. The living space is squeezed to a tiny apartment in a shabby house, rusty relics of Soviet times and dusty “barakholka” booths.

mamin raiThe family of the lonely Polina (Olga Landina) suffers from the absence of the father. Polina’s husband Ersain has gone to Moscow to look for a job in order to feed his extended family—two sons, his wife, her father (Mikhail Zhigalov) and his mother (Natalia Arinbasarova). There is no news from him, yet Polina tries to make ends meet in a decent manner. The results of all these uncertainties are sad and pessimistic: ultimately, the only solution for Polina is to earn money by prostitution. Things are getting worse when her older son, as well as father and mother-in-law know find out and the moral pressure becomes more difficult to cope with. When her older son Amir steals the father’s accordion that grandpa has sold to the neighbor, the police officer asks her for “a service” to cancel the statement. Polina’s father comes back from Moscow with nothing in hand; even the sympathy of the school headmaster Marat, an old army friend of her husband, cannot stop her from committing suicide. Her naked body is washed to be buried.

The film’s epilogue presents Polina’s younger son Serikbai. He believes that his mom went to paradise and that she is happy there. He attached a letter with his wish to the railway tracks, to be “stamped” by a heavy train: if the letter disappears, the wish will be fulfilled. A still frame of his childish figure is the final image of the film.

We can discuss problems of the film’s dramaturgy: if Polina’s decision to commit suicide was sufficiently motivated, since her inner drama is almost invisible. The motive of headmaster Marat, who tries to help her and likes her, is also questionable, as his comportment has surprisingly no real impact on her difficult situation and her final decision.

mamin raiAlthough the story of the victim, who could not cope with her miserable life, is in forefront of the film, the real hero and holder of the liberating idea of a better life somewhere else is the youngest son, Serikbai. He doesn’t understand his mother’s guilt and does not rebel, like the older Amir. He is the embodiment of tenderness, which he shares with his beloved mother; he respects the grandfather and childishly imitates the conduct of the male adult. Here, at the border between the harshness of life and a child’s way of understanding the world—naivety, defending the innocence of the soul, and allowing him to hope for a better future—lie the core of the film’s idea. Arym Kubat is optimistic in this statement, turning to children and their sincere belief, because herein lies the purity and chastity of their minds that has the power of the salvation.

Looking at Arym Kubat’s previous films The Light Thief (Svet Ake) carefully, we see its echoes everywhere. Even the adult hero of the earlier film has absorbed much of the “childish” skills—playfulness, cunning improvisation and moral chastity. “I think that people don’t need moral preaching, they need positive emotions...,” says Arym Kubat in an interview.

The fact that script was written by famous Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf does not leave any special cultural trace. Makhmalbaf is a fan of Central Asia (including Afghanistan) and he is just a good observer and aware of the most critical points of current life there.

The drama of “disappearance” is symptomatic for almost all post-Soviet cinematographies. Other films concerning this theme are Another Sky (Drugoe nebo 2010) by Dmitrii Mamuliia; Gastarbeiter (2009) by Yusup Razykov; and Angel on the Right (Angel na pravom pleche, 2002) by Djamshed Usmonov. The stories of broken families, where father (or mother) has disappeared looking for work in Moscow are framed by economic problems after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The subsequent migration has brought serious moral problems, as the traditional columns of the family structure have been absent. The controlled isolation of the Soviet Central Asian republics has been replaced by an uncontrolled collapse, during which processes of the survival of the fittest govern social developments. We may wonder whether these processes are simply a necessary phase towards modernization with cruel, but inevitable lessons of individualization, or just the restoration of a regressive, authoritative past and its controlled, relative order.

Viera Langerova

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Works Cited

Aktan Arym Kubat, “Vo mne gorit lampochka nadezhdy,” Vechernii Bishkek 21 October 2011.

Paradise for Mum (Mamin Rai)
Kazakhstan, 2010, 76 minutes
Language: Russian
Scriptwriter: Mohsen Mahmalbaf
Director: Aktan Arym Kubat
Cinematography: Rafik Galeev
Production Design: Erkin Saliev
Composer: Renat Gaisin
Producers: Sergei Azimov, Tuken Zhumagulov
Cast: Olga Landina, Natalia Arinbasarova, Mikhail Zhigalov, Sergei Abishev
Production: Tanaris Production

Aktan Arym Kubat: Paradise for Mum (Mamin rai, 2011)

reviewed by Viera Langerova © 2012