Issue 44 (2014)
Erkin Saliev: Princess Nazik (Printsessa Nazik, 2012)
reviewed by Rita Safariants © 2014
At first glance, Erkin Saliev’s feature film, Princess Nazik (2012), is a familiar narrative of the prodigal father reconnecting with his precocious young daughter set against the backdrop of rural life in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan. In a deliberate nod to the late Soviet tradition of naturalistic cinematic depictions of imperfect family life that have seen numerous permutations from Vladimir Men’shov’s Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears (Moskva slezam ne verit, 1979) to Vasilii Pichul’s Little Vera (Malen’kaia Vera, 1986) and Karen Shakhnazarov’s American Daughter (Amerikanskaia doch’, 1998), Saliev crafts yet another story of complex human relationships and the dexterity of a child’s imagination.
The film follows seven year old Aidai, masterfully played by Saliev’s own daughter, Aidai Salieva, as she battles her fatherless only-child loneliness and the quotidian monotony of village life through an elaborate world of fairytale make-believe captured in her vivid drawings. Aidai lives in a small two-family clay house with her young single mother Rumiya (Rumiya Agisheva), who works at the local trout farm, yet whose primary income is dependent on her next-door neighbors’ poaching and drug trafficking operation. Early in the film, we see mother and daughter harvesting cannabis in a nearby field to make up for a low trout count in Rumiya’s most recent delivery. Rumiya keeps the identity of her daughter’s father a secret, while struggling to raise the child by herself. Their quiet life is shaken up when a guest arrives unexpectedly at their neighbors’ house – a melancholy and somewhat reclusive Kazakh artist named Emil (Dosmat Sadyrkulov), who has recently returned from a creatively and financially disappointing stay in Paris. Saliev relies on symbolic markers as an expository of Emil’s circumstances, like, for example, the cheaply made imported sun hat that he gives Raziya, the matron of the house and Rumiya’s neighbor, as his “gift from Paris.” The hat, bearing a Chinese brand name, eventually ends up in Aidai’s possession and closely resembles the girl’s own hand-me-downs. In Saliev’s interpretation of rural Kyrgyz everyday life, Emil becomes a symbol of post-Soviet disenchantment with the West as a land of prosperity.
Despite the look of worry and alarm on her mother’s face, Aidai seems oblivious to her family’s desperate situation and the implications of Emil’s visit, as she goes about her day fetching milk and eggs from her farmer neighbor, to elbowing her way past other village children to sell dried fish to hungry motorists along the main road. Aidai’s surroundings are breathtaking in their natural beauty and the film’s cinematography is among its primary artistic strengths—the camera’s numerous panoramic shots relish in the blueness of the water, whiteness of the sand and hazy snow-covered mountain peaks that glisten in the distance—creating a stark contrast to the seemingly stagnant everyday struggles of the villagers as they try to make ends meet through “unclean work.”
Saliev makes a point of employing analogous contrasting motifs throughout his visual narrative, with the most pronounced being the plotline of Aidai’s favorite Kyrgyz folktale that gives the film its title. Aidai imagines herself as Princess Nazik, the beloved only daughter of King Aglakar, who is heartbroken by having to leave her in order to battle his enemies. In one early scene of the film, we see Aidai reading the following lines aloud to herself: “So [the King] was bitter to leave his daughter, but more important was to do his royal duty. He embraced his daughter, kissed her golden curls and said, ‘Do not grieve, my daughter…’.” The folktale’s fabula, and especially those short lines are employed as a heavy-handed thematic parallel to the little girl’s own fatherless life in an economically destitute place that hardly resembles a kingdom. When it becomes clear to both the protagonists and the viewer that Emil is most likely Aidai’s biological father, Saliev chooses to underscore the wordless kinship between father and daughter by injecting voiceovers of Aidai reading the folktale to highlight the emotionally nuanced interconnections of this broken family.
The theme of artistic expression as a unifying bond between estranged father and daughter is another prominent element within Saliev’s film. Aidai begins to suspect her biological relationship to Emil when she recognizes a drawing of a seagull while snooping through the artist’s sketches. She finds a similar drawing among her mother’s mementoes and photographs. The camera then delivers a series of graphic matches based on the visual motif of mirrors and reflections. We see Aidai studying herself in the mirror with stern precision as if trying to find further evidence of her suspicion in the contours of her face. The camera then cuts to a mirror reflection of Rumiya in her nightgown as she prepares for sleep, cutting once more to a reflection of Emil, outlining the triptych of familial linkages. In the next scene, a curious Aidai spies Emil and Rumiya in a passionate embrace, which solidifies her hunch that the visiting artist is indeed her father.
Beyond the camerawork and shot composition, Saliev provides little in terms of explicit dialogue between the father and daughter concerning their relationship. At one point in the film, Emil even confides in Aidai that he had never thought of having a family as a response to her question if he had any children. Much of the discussion of Emil and Aidai’s blood ties comes from the outside, as, for example, in Raziya’s comment to her husband about Aidai’s resemblance to Emil and speculation on whether the artist would take the little girl away if he had definite proof of his paternity. The old man scoffs at the idea, veering Saliev’s narrative into the realm of gender dynamics. Despite writing Rumiya’s character as a strong willed woman and mother, Saliev makes a deliberate choice to place her in a subordinate position to Emil and men in general. Despite their history and intimacy, she addresses Emil with the formal “you,” [vy] underscoring Rumiya’s perception of his superiority. By a similar token, Rumiya’s livelihood depends on appeasing the demands of the illegal operation run by her two male neighbors, Raziya’s husband, Zhike, and younger brother, Tyncha, who has been making sexual advances towards her at the prodding of his sister, who would like the two to marry. Despite a clear lack of attraction on her part, Rumiya chooses to do nothing to change her fate, even playing along with the possibility of the arranged marriage. Just as the other villagers around her, Rumiya is resigned to her inferior position as a provincial woman and single mother, going so far as to admonish Emil for arriving in the first place, and contributing to his eventual wordless departure.
An aura of generalized stagnation and helplessness permeates a large part of the film, harkening back to similar motifs in perestroika-era Soviet cinema. Saliev’s narrative, however, hovers just above the familiar tropes of chernukha, opting instead for a cautious and melancholy optimism that manifests itself in the film’s exaltation of the transcendent nature of art. The sketch of the seagull, which initially serves as a marker of kinship, becomes a leitmotif for the largely wordless bond that Aidai and Emil share throughout the film. While on a walk around the countryside sketching landscapes, Emil gives Aidai one of his pencils, assuring her that it possesses magic powers to bring to life anything she draws. Later, in a fit of personal and artistic dejection, Emil laments to Aidai that his seagull can no longer fly, a statement that foreshadows Emil’s ultimate powerlessness to change the course of his child’s life. In the last scene of the film, after Aidai for the first time in her life utters the word daddy, she uses the magic pencil to draw a seagull on a rock, which to her surprise is replaced by a real bird that blithely flies off into the distance.
As an allegory, the narrative of Princess Nazik extends far beyond the film’s plotline, seamlessly entering the realm of historical myth-making on the part of Saliev. Just as Emil, who at one point describes himself to Aidai as a “rolling stone,” is largely separated from his daughter’s socioeconomic reality, the people of rural Kyrgyzstan, who once lived under the economic and industrial protection of the Soviet Union, now find themselves in an analogous position of fatherlessness. Remnants of the old regime are seen in the Russian language Soviet editions of Aidai’s children’s books, the fluid Kyrgyz-Russian bilingualism of the surrounding villagers and Tyncha’s crumbling Soviet jalopy that hurdles along winding roads set against the majestic views of Lake Issyk-Kul and the Tian Shan mountain range. Saliev underscores the dichotomy further by structuring his narrative largely from the point-of-view of a child, who is precariously caught between the East and the West, the mythical folklore of her Central Asian ancestry and the staggering disappointments the grown-ups around her experience in piecing together a sustainable future in the new era. Perhaps the most poignant note of pathos that Saliev manages to infuse into his film is Aidai’s seemingly instinctive refusal to evaluate her situation with the same dejected resignation as the adults in the village. As a child of the post-Soviet period, she is unburdened by the false hopes which the collapse of the USSR has left deeply imprinted in the older generation. Unbound by lofty expectations, Aidai and, by proxy, the future generations on the outskirts of the former Soviet empire, are left with little more than what King Aglakar could offer his daughter, Nazik: a heartfelt appeal to contain her sorrow.
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Princess Nazik, Kyrgyzstan, 2012
Color, 73 minutes
Director and Scriptwriter: Erkin Saliev
Director of Photography: Hasan Kadyraliev
Art Director: Erkin Saliev
Music: Aleksandr Yurtaev
Sound: Ali Akhmahdeyev
Editing: Erkin Saliev, Marat Ryspakov, Kerim Omurkkodzhayev
Cast: Aidai Salieva, Rumiya Agisheva, Dosmat Sadyrkulov, Tynchtyk Abylkasymov, Zhylkychy Zhakipov, Roza Abdullaeva
Producers: Gul’mira Kerimova, Taalai Kulmendeyev
Erkin Saliev: Princess Nazik (Printsessa Nazik, 2012)
reviewed by Rita Safariants © 2014