Issue 40 (2013)
Zulfikar Musakov: Lead (Svinets/Qo`rg`oshin 2011)
reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov © 2013
Zulfikar Musakov belongs to the third generation of Uzbek filmmakers who began their careers during Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika (Abikeeva 2001: 185). Having started as a comedy filmmaker, over the course of his long career Musakov became a more serious and civic-minded director. His most recent, award-winning feature explores the fate of two secret police officers, Rim Marlen (played by Timur Musakov) and Umar Kadyrov (played by Bobur Yuldashev), who try to preserve a modicum of individual agency and humanity amidst the paranoia and rule of terror in the last months of Joseph Stalin’s rule.
The action of the film takes place primarily in Tashkent and is related through Rim Marlen’s personal diary. In the opening sequence, set in present-day Uzbekistan, old and sick Rim passes his diary to his son so that he and his family understand better their story of origins. In 1952 Rim used to head Uzbekistan’s criminal police, while his friend Umar had been appointed by Joseph Stalin to lead the Uzbek division of the Ministry of State Security. The secret police boss in Moscow gives Umar the code name “Lead,” and the mission to control the republic through terror. While it is not clear how idealistic the two men are about communist ideology, both Rim and Umar believe in the possibility of establishing justice in the community they lead. They have gone through WWII together, and now try to serve their country honestly and not to shed blood in vain. But Umar’s code name implies violence and terror as their primary tool of trade. Some people whom they arrest are true thugs and criminals but others, mostly the local intelligentsia, in no way try to undermine the Soviet regime. Doubts appear in the friends’ conversations.
The denouement comes when Umar is ordered to arrest his own brother, Rashid. Rashid works in a local collective farm and somewhat naively believes that his work contributes to the construction of the communist utopia. In order to diversify local harvests, Rashid plants a weather-resistant Canadian variety of wheat instead of the centrally prescribed cotton. Rashid seals his fate when he disobeys the order from the center and chooses North American cereals for Uzbek fields. When Umar receives the order from Moscow to arrest Rashid, he has to choose between his own blood and his obligations to Moscow. Unable to betray his brother, Umar chooses to shoot himself instead of using “lead” and fire at his own brother.
Only Stalin’s death eventually allows Rim to stop this endless chain of senseless murders and save Rashid’s life. Although Rim protects Umar’s brother from inevitable death, this is hardly a last-minute rescue. Musakov eschews easy, melodramatic turns and refrains from dividing characters into villains and victims. In his film, most characters are both victims and victimizers. Many, like Umar, are redeemed only as martyrs of the violent system that they naively helped to build. Rim is in part redeemed because he feels guilty for his past and shares his sense of guilt with his son through the diary. The past and its memories are a complex and ambiguous set of individual and communal stories with no easy and clear-cut answers.
Like many artists from the newly independent nations of the former Soviet Union, Musakov is interested in the role of the shared Soviet past in the collective national memory. In 2008 he published a letter criticizing the Uzbek film authorities for prioritizing commercial projects and paying no attention to the role of Uzbek national cinema in discussing controversial pages of Uzbek national memory (Musakov 2008). It looks like the National Agency Uzbekkino listened and decided to fund Musakov’s thoughtful and personal film, even though this film will never become a blockbuster.
In his exploration of Stalinist terror and its role in the national past, Musakov uses various strategies. He incorporates documentary footage into his film, uses a fictionalized diary as a means of empowering an individual recounting his memories, deploys intertitles and a voice-over to introduce statistics about the Stalinist purges in Uzbekistan. Finally, in a very symbolic narrative frame, the filmmaker takes the viewers to the memorial dedicated to the victims of Stalin’s purges. At the beginning of the film Musakov shows the memorial’s gazebo, with cars passing by, but he does not explain the meaning of the structure. Like the drivers of the cars, the viewers lack memories to understand what this site is about. Only at the film’s end, after the picture has brought back the complicated and conflicting past, the director returns to the same site and explains the significance of the memory site dedicated to tens of thousands of innocent victims who perished in Stalinist camps.
The film’s personalized mode of commemoration, its slow-paced rhythm, and the fragmented structure evoke the visual style of Aleksei German’s My Friend Ivan Lapshin (Moi drug Ivan Lapshin, 1983). Musakov’s picture too pays tribute to the generation who believed in the Stalinist utopia and paid a high price for their faith. The filmmaker presents the stories of this generation as subjective, and memories as contradictory and disjointed, thus raising questions rather than affirming unified, sentimentalized narratives. Musakov also links the crimes of the past to the present through familial ties, and implies that the consequences of this past are pervasive in contemporary Uzbek society.
The film’s linguistic polyphony underscores the issues facing those artists who attempt to articulate national memories in a post-colonial context. When the action is set in present-day Uzbekistan, the characters speak Uzbek. In the Soviet past, the characters live double lives: in domestic settings they speak Uzbek, while in public they speak Russian. The status of Rim’s diary in this respect is most problematic: does it belong to the private or the public sphere? It is a very personal document, but it is written in Russian—the language of official, public discourse. The film’s closure—an intertitle listing data on the victims of Gulag camps and the voice-over explaining the statistics—are also in Russian. Musakov seems to imply that both national cinema and other modes of cultural production should be articulated in their own languages, which will allow the new nation to commemorate its past, and wounds to heal.
College of William and Mary
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Abikeeva, Gul’nara, Kino Tsentral’noi Azii (1990-2001), Almaty: Irex, 2001.
Musakov, Zulfikar, “Kino i mankurtizatsiia naroda,” Uzmetronom.com 28 February 2008.
Lead, Uzbekistan, 2011
Color, 90 min.
Director: Zulfikar Musakov
Scriptwriter: Zulfikar Musakov
Cinematography: Azizbek Arzikulov, Abdurakhim Izmailov
Music: Mari Iuri
Cast: Bobus Yuldashev, Timur Musakov, Otabek Musaev, Kristina Tairova
Producer: Tuliagan Nazarov
Production: National Agency Uzbekkino, Uzbekfilm Studio
Zulfikar Musakov: Lead (Svinets 2011)
reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov © 2013