Issue 40 (2013)
Nurbek Egen: The Empty Home (Pustoi dom, 2012)
reviewed by Elizabeth Papazian © 2013
Nurbek Egen’s previous success on the international festival circuit appears to be linked to his interest in the clash between modernity and tradition, between metropole and a somewhat idealized village life—a clash that reveals the value in both, and never appears hopeless. Whether imagined or purely invented (as Gulbara Tolomusheva argued in her review of his debut feature, The Wedding Chest/Sunduk predkov, 2006) and his student short film, Sanzhyra, 2000), Egen’s evocation of Kyrgyz tradition creates a world of myth that underlies a sometimes violent everyday village life. In The Wedding Chest, this mythical world manifests itself both in the nostalgic and troubling dreams of the émigré Aidar, who returns to his village, and as the object of longing of his Parisian fiancée Isabelle, who is simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by traditional values such as the ideal masculinity of the djigit and the close-knit community of women embodied in the wedding chest of the title. But Aidar and Isabelle manage to synthesize their separate variants of longing: Aidar, who has previously confessed that he does not like horses and so cannot be a djigit, jumps onto a horse to chase after Isabelle, who similarly chooses to confront the retributive stampede of horses, which then flows around and past her. All ends well with a panoramic shot of Paris (featuring the Eiffel Tower) that concludes with a close-up of the wedding chest that has been integrated into the life of the metropole.
Egen’s current film, The Empty Home, on the other hand, takes a different position, one in which successful integration of the idealized village into the idealized metropole is no longer possible: instead, The Empty Home confronts the “trauma of modernity” that has been the subject of many current post-Soviet films (Rouland). While village life offers a contrast to life in the big city, it cannot offer a respite from the challenges of post-Soviet life. At the same time, this film represents a continuation of Egen’s earlier preoccupations, in particular with the crucial juxtaposition of everyday and ritual violence.  And while violence is no longer associated with a dreamlike nostalgia for an idealized unity (as in Aidar’s recurring dream of stampeding horses in The Wedding Chest), in The Empty Home ritual violence undergirds everyday life throughout the post-Soviet space.
From the very beginning of The Empty Home, the viewer enters a symbolic realm in which each successive image is freighted with meaning. The central themes are established in the first seven shots of the film, in which the main character, Ascel, and her brothers stand by the roadside selling apricots. The viewer is introduced to Ascel’s boredom, her hopes for success and spurts of enthusiasm, her failure, her resignation; the road; the pristine lake Issyk-kul, mountains, and the disintegration of village life. The seventh shot abruptly shifts location to a rocky mountain path, with a medium long shot of a lone sheep. The sheep’s pose and impassive off-screen gaze visually echo the first and sixth shots of Ascel. The graphic match and the fact that this single shot has no narrative link to the shots that come before and after it suggest a symbolic connection to Ascel. The insertion of the almost non-diegetic image of the sheep introduces the theme of sacrifice. Later the inclusion of this shot will be partly motivated by several incidents involving the village’s herds, but this particular sheep, and this particular framing of the lone sheep against the backdrop of the mountains, is never given a plot motivation, thus confirming its importance on the symbolic level.
The major theme not introduced in the opening sequence actually appears in the title of the film, immediately preceding the first shot: the “empty house.” The film’s plot is structured as a road movie, with the heroine inhabiting seven houses over the course of the film. Ascel begins at the house of her father, the village drunkard, who is giving her as a second wife to the tough and unappealing village boss Sultan, though she loves one of Sultan’s henchmen, Marat, and has just learned she is pregnant. (Marat’s meager attempts to escape together with her before the wedding fail.) Ascel spends only one night at the house of her new husband Sultan—her wedding night—and flees in the early morning, grabbing some of his cash, striding around the bodies of the drunken guests, and chasing away one of her brothers who follows her, crying that she had promised to take him with her to her new home. She alights briefly at a relative’s apartment in Moscow, spends a short time living in a communal apartment for undocumented workers in Moscow, gets a job as a housekeeper and lives in a fancy villa owned by a “new Russian.” Marat reappears and “rescues” Ascel, and they find work at a sushi restaurant in Moscow and live in a bunkhouse next to the restaurant. After Marat is arrested (presumably for killing the “new Russian”), Ascel lives with a Frenchwoman, Virginie, and Virginie’s mother at a villa in the French countryside, where Ascel gives birth to the baby she has agreed to sell to Virginie.
At each successive “home,” Ascel unwraps an embroidered cloth, a doll, and a portrait of her boyfriend, Marat, and sets them down near her bed; each time, not excluding the last, she ends up back on the road. But there is an eighth home that transcends the other seven: Ascel’s own (pregnant) body, which becomes the repository for the hopes of several different characters. The plot is driven by Ascel’s flight from her husband, Sultan, who continues to track her down, and anchored in time by her pregnancy, which marks the duration of her journey and provides a logical endpoint. That endpoint consists in a convergence of birth and death—Ascel’s father’s unpremeditated murder of Sultan, the birth of Ascel’s baby (followed by a second non-diegetic shot of a sheep in the mountains), and Ascel’s own death at a highway crossroads in provincial France, as she attempts to hitchhike to the ultimate metropole, Paris.
The episodic road-trip structure places each successive “home” under the camera’s scrutiny in a kind of social satire, starting from the dictator-like village boss Sultan, with his habit of making longwinded political speeches over the village loudspeaker (and shooting a chicken that dares to cluck nearby as he is speaking). The stop at the house of Ascel’s relative shows us the successful cosmopolitan immigrant in Moscow, with a fancy kitchen, a Russian businessman husband, and exclusively Russian speech. Handing Ascel the address of her next “house,” the underground realm of newly arrived immigrants, the relative offers a cynical view of the post-Soviet metropole when she replies to Ascel’s questions: “Ascel, this is Moscow. You can get an abortion anywhere.” Ascel passes through a hole in the ground into her next “house,” through long abandoned corridors, a sweatshop (where she tries to help a woman who passes out at her sewing machine), and on to her guide and contact, Masha, who will tell her, “Take care of the child. Without it you are worth nothing.”
Each successive vignette contributes to an overwhelming impression of an all-pervasive corruption that embraces everything and everyone, from the highest positions on the social ladder and the most central positions in world culture to the very poorest people in the most far-flung regions of the global economy. Raised within this system, Ascel mostly operates within it (stealing money, abandoning her brothers, abandoning Marat when he is arrested). Through all of her adventures, Ascel maintains an attitude combining boredom, hope, and resignation, but with a dash of youthful boldness and sense of self that never seems to flag. (When she gets to Moscow, her first move is to get a new hairstyle, manicure, and some new clothes; when she meets Masha and asks about a place to stay, she wonders aloud, “Is there a TV there?”; when she sees some kids defacing a billboard, she chases them away.) When asked what she hopes to do, she mentions that she can sing, although throughout the course of the film, she never once sings, which leaves the viewer wondering about the probability of fulfilling this barely articulated hope. Her initial resistance to the system, when she refuses the fate chosen for her by her father and runs away from her husband, makes her a sort of rebel, but her rebellion ends there: she doesn’t quite understand her own predicament, in which successive people seek to exploit her, nor does she understand the ultimately monolithic character of the corrupt system in which she is caught. As a variant of the picaresque hero, she combines the innocence of Candide with a dash of the shrewdness of Moll Flanders, but she will never attain Paris or the garden to be tilled at the end of the adventure.
Instead, she ends life as a sheep, killed with a knife and left to bleed to death at a crossroads. After the initial graphic comparison of Ascel and a sheep, the motif of sheep recurs several times. Before the wedding, Ascel’s father finds a sheep covered in paint, nibbling at the portrait of Hu Jintao that the father has painted (and which reappears at the wedding celebration). The father angrily grabs the sheep and tries to slaughter it with a knife; Ascel intervenes in order, we suppose, to save it, but instead pulls out a tub and slaughters the sheep herself, saving some of the blood, which she uses later to stain her marital bed. The camera lingers on Ascel’s face, now marked by a streak of blood. A second episode involving sheep occurs just after Ascel has first met Virginie in Moscow and has agreed on a price for the baby: back in Kyrgyzstan, Sultan’s henchmen ask the boss to pick out a sheep, which they mark with paint on its head, putting something—later revealed as drugs—into its mouth. The truck carrying a herd of sheep is stopped by a customs officer as it crosses the border (apparently into Kazakhstan); the paint-marked sheep carrying drugs are discovered; the border patrol asks Sultan’s driver to fill out a declaration form and murders the driver offscreen. Here the link between the sheep and Ascel is reiterated, this time as “mules” carrying something of more value than themselves.
According to René Girard, the function of ritual—of sacrificial, beneficial, generative violence against a surrogate victim—is “to ‘purify’ violence.” (Girard, 36-37) In his famous analysis of the “paradoxical nature of violence,” Girard asserts that the “violent unanimity” against the scapegoat “underlies not only all mythologies and rituals but the whole of human culture,” including “political power, legal institutions, medicine, the theater, philosophy and anthropology itself,” even the “working basis of human thought, the process of ‘symbolization.’” (297-306) Nurbek Egen’s preoccupation with knives, blood, and sheep in much of his work alludes to the connection between everyday, destructive violence and ritual. In The Wedding Chest such rituals pervade everyday life as well as celebrations such as the buzkashi match played on horseback, the wedding, and the matchmaking, but in The Empty Home, the village seems to have lost its connection to its native traditions and rituals, and the wedding scene includes a mix of Western traditions (the white dress), mobster fantasy (the room full of cash), and aspirations toward China (the portrait of Hu Jintao). In this section of the film, with its clear references to Andrei Konchalovsky’s First Teacher (Pervyi uchitel’, 1965, based on the story by Chingiz Aitmatov), there is no Bolshevik hero to save the orphaned heroine from her brutal husband and put her on the train that will take her to Tashkent and the bright future. In First Teacher, the schoolhouse is burned down by the villagers in a violent retaliation against the hero Diushen’s rescue of the orphaned Altynai, the innocent scapegoat who unifies the village: Diushen in turn retaliates by chopping down the last tree in the village. Each sacrifice is substituted and balanced with another sacrifice, in each case of an innocent victim, all of it fueling the forward trajectory of Soviet history. In The Empty Home, characters long for various things and imbue Ascel with their fantasies. Yet Ascel’s lonely death is pointless, random, and unnoticed. In this world, sacrifice has lost its meaning.
Director Nurbek Egen explained the title of the film in a video interview at the 2012 Kinotavr film festival: “‘Empty house’ because it’s empty there. They have nothing to lean on. […] The main thing is that they don’t have any goals. […] In my opinion, these are not individuals. The movie is about this” (Egen). As though to confirm this emptiness, the film ends not with the shot of the murdered body of Ascel, but with a tableau of what appears to be a provincial talent show, with a young woman (who does not resemble Ascel) singing in Kyrgyz. A backdrop shows a lake with palm trees, creating a visual rhyme with the backdrop of Issyk-kul at the beginning of the film. The singer performs badly, stops, coughs, and asks, “Sorry, may I start from the beginning?” This frontally arranged coda, like the last shot of Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930) in which a different hero embraces Vasyl’s fiancée, seems to offer a glimmer of hope, after all. Life goes on; there are still talent shows in the villages; another girl will try to become a singer. Birth follows death, death follows birth. Perhaps for this reason, Andrei Shemiakin listed Empty Home in his review of the Kinotavr 2012 program as one of several “reassuring exceptions” to the recurring theme of the festival: showing Russian society as “a society deprived of a future” (Shemiakin).
In his video interview about Empty Home, Egen noted that he “very often reads that the film is about immigration.” He argues that this is not the case, although there is certainly a “backdrop of immigration”: “In the twenty-first century, people will certainly migrate often, and search for a home, search for themselves” (Egen). Empty Home is a film that eschews the kind of ethnographic or pseudo-ethnographic portrayals of the endurance of tradition that have been so attractive to metropolitan viewers and international juries. The film aspires to universality. In revealing the mutual exchanges of violence and longing that crisscross the fabric of the global economy, it has achieved its aim.
1] The juxtaposition of ritual and everyday violence can also be seen in Egen’s New York Film Academy short, The Short Story (2001), in which a pair of female grifters is murdered by one of their victims using a knife very similar to the knives seen in this film.
University of Maryland
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Nurbek Egen, “Kinotavr 23: Nurbek Egen o fil’me ‘Pustoi dom’,” Interview, Filmz.ru, 3 June 2012.
René Girard, Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979).
Michael Rouland, “Nurbek Egen: The Wedding Chest (Isabelle ou la rencontre inattendue [FR], Sunduk predkov [RU], 2006),” KinoKultura 14 (2006).
Andrei Shemiakin, “Na vzgliad starozhilov. Prishlo ‘protestnoe’ kino,” Iskusstvo kino 8 (2012)
Gulbara Tolomusheva, “Nurbek Egen: The Wedding Chest (Sunduk predkov, 2006),” KinoKultura 14 (2006).
The Empty Home, Kyrgyzstan/Russia, 2012
Color, 98 minutes
Director: Nurbek Egen
Screenplay: Ekaterina Tirdatova
Cinematography: Dmitrii Ermakov
Editing: Aleksei Volkov
Art Direction: Denis Isaev
Cast: Maral Koichukaraeva, Atai Omurbekov, Bolot Tentimyshov, Asan Amanov, Ksenia Lavrova-Glinka, Denis Sukhanov, Cecile Plage, Françoise Michaud
Producers: Dmitrii Kulikov, Il’ia Neretin, Timofei Sergeitsev
Production: Kinoglaz and Rekun-cinema, with the participation of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation and the Federal Foundation for Social and Economic Support of National Cinematography
Nurbek Egen: The Empty Home (Pustoi dom, 2012)
reviewed by Elizabeth Papazian © 2013