Issue 44 (2014)
Ulugbek Sadykov and Muhabbat Sattori: Gilding (Zarandud/Pozolota) 2013
reviewed by Elizabeth Papazian © 2014
Gilding begins with a documentary-style series of short medium close up shots of children responding to questions about what wealth is, and what they would do first if they were rich. Dressed in European-style clothing, with a background suggesting some kind of non-religious holiday, most of the children respond with modest, often humanitarian ideals: one will give her money to the homeless, another to her mother to make the Hajj, a third will use the money to beautify the city, a fourth will get an education. One boy announces that he will put half the money in the bank, just in case. The last boy looks down and doesn’t answer the question, though he admits that he does have an answer. This boy, Nur, is the hero of the film and, as we soon learn, he knows exactly what he would do with wealth; his quest for gold structures the film. The documentary frame of “what is wealth” serves not only to introduce the central theme; it also references the constrained conditions of the film’s own production. Gilding is a “completely non-commercial film, made without any state subsidies.” According to the filmmakers, “in the whole world, even in Kazakhstan,” where the film was shown in competition at the 2013 Eurasia International Film Festival, “no one has been making films for so little money; but believe us: for Tajikistan this was a huge sum.” (Tungus)
Nur’s need for wealth coincides with the selfless ideals of the children interviewed in the first sequence: he needs money to pay for his mother’s treatment for a serious illness. An actress who feels her beauty fading, his mother has lately been unable to find jobs other than voice work on the radio: “My face no longer brings joy to people. It looks too much like their everyday life. My face is like a derelict home which emanates melancholy.” Nur says goodbye to his mother and ostensibly heads off to summer camp, but instead embarks on a quest to the gold mines of Shugnov.
From the moment he steps off the bus that would have taken him to camp, the film enters into the register of the fairytale or folktale, as Nur moves ever further away from the city, and encounters a variety of stock characters and situations, starting with Uncle Asso, a trickster figure who disdains money. Uncle Asso accompanies Nur through many of the episodes: when Nur helps a boy who has climbed up some rocks and lost his nerve, Asso tells him that his interference has prevented the boy from overcoming his fear; after Nur refuses to run away as Asso is beaten up by a group of thugs, Asso tells him that he should worry only about protecting himself; when Nur finally attains his goal, he meets Asso again.
The juxtaposition of the innocent and selfless Nur with the earthy, entertaining, and cynical Asso suggests a possible Persian literary subtext, the folktale “Samak-e-Ayyar.” In this episodic prose narrative, which was transmitted orally and was written down around the twelfth century, a young prince sets out on a quest with the aid of a companion from a “socially lower class,” Samak the Ayyar. The key feature of this tale is the friendship between the prince, whose “aims and desires” structure the quest, and the ayyar, whose entertaining “exploits” and “remarkable feats” constitute the “main subject matter of the story.” (Gaillard) The ayyar, or “vagabond,” is both an historical and literary figure, depicted at times as an “irregular fighter, rogue, highwayman, robber, troublemaker,” or, in a positive light, as a “noble-minded highwayman, or a generous, clever, brave, modest, pious, chaste, hospitable, generally upright person”; or, as in this film, the ayyar may be portrayed more ambivalently (Hanaway and Cahen).
In Gilding, the juxtaposition of the prince and the ayyar is redefined as a philosophical contest between Uncle Asso’s avowed freedom (which he claims everyone envies), and Nur’s attachment to other people, and his hope that, as his mother reads over the radio, “Even after the darkest of nights comes the dawn,” a hope embodied in Nur’s name, which means “light” in Arabic. Almost immediately after they meet, Asso invites Nur to follow him: “If you want to eat well and get useful advice on survival in this unfair world, then hurry up and follow Asso!” From this point on, Asso’s philosophy of disdaining money, but taking what he needs when he needs it, whether through trickery, petty theft, or opportunity, clashes with Nur’s need to help everyone he meets, and with his conception of “true grit” as the performance of a great deed for a loved one. In one scene, Nur sits on a train track and listens to his mother’s voice narrating a story over the radio (“What matters is that you’re in this world,” she tells an unseen romantic hero), as Asso comes into the frame and asks Nur why he is listening to “that bullshit,” since “Radio, TV, newspapers are just there to rip up our brain!” Nur’s radio connects him to his mother, to her voice, and to the radio melodramas she narrates, which seem to comment on his own situation; Asso, on the other hand, eschews all connections, whether to individuals or to society. (“Everybody is locked in a cage! Family, work, state—all these cages! Everywhere people dream about freedom! And only I fly free as a bird!”)
In a sense, Nur’s position triumphs: once he gets to the mine, he meets Uncle Saydo, who asks him to accompany him to his distant village so that he can die in his native land; on the way, they adopt each other as grandfather and grandson, and although Nur’s hard work at the mine hasn’t yielded nearly enough money for his mother’s treatment, Saydo rewards the boy for his kindness and his love by giving him almost all of his own money. Similarly, when Saydo reaches his native village, in a fairytale moment he is greeted by a relative whom he says strongly resembles his own mother; she has heard him playing his drum, and walks him back to the village, where he will take his rightful place as the eldest in the family: “The souls of our ancestors will be happy.” Attachment to land and to family is rewarded and revealed as the natural order of things. At the same time, the trickster Asso finds himself more attached than he had claimed, at one point carrying Nur “like a donkey” when the boy falls ill (though he complains aloud that he “doesn’t need anyone else’s problems” and deposits the boy into a passing car and runs away). And once Nur meets Asso again, Asso steals Nur’s money from him while he sleeps, explaining afterward that “in your short life you’ve already done something great. I envied you.” Though Asso returns the money to Nur, his vaunted freedom is revealed as a mere pose.
But the debate cannot be solved so easily; the trajectory of the story takes us not only from poverty to riches, but also from the post-industrial post-Soviet city (the “derelict home”) to a pre-industrial countryside, where the ties to the center slowly evaporate: although at the beginning of the story, highways, streetlights, electrical wires, and train tracks are clearly visible, by the time Nur and Saydo arrive in Childukhtaron, all such technological connections have been severed; although at the beginning of the film, we see people in European clothing at generic celebrations and references to Russian culture (a DVD of an Alla Pugacheva concert; a woman reading Meyerhold), by the end we see an old man (Saydo) communing with the mountains of his native land. Only a cell phone and Nur’s radio remain with him at all times, connecting him exclusively to his mother’s voice; at the end of the film, Nur turns on the radio once again to listen to his mother’s program, but it is not transmitted and he instead hears only music, which conveys her death both to Nur and, elegantly, to the viewer. Communication regresses from speech and song to drum, and finally to Nur’s Rousseauvian cry in the wilderness when he learns that Uncle Asso has stolen his money. In parallel to the return to the primeval cry, the economic bases of the story evolve backward from money to gold, with Saydo giving away all his money to Nur except a small amount for his funeral, leaving the viewer to wonder why, then, Saydo spent his adult life slaving at gold mining.
Here the film hints at a major contemporary problem in Tajikistan, where a large percentage of the male population works outside the country. Saydo’s relative in the fairytale village mentions another relative working outside the country; earlier in the film, Nur falls ill and is nursed back to health in a house populated by three generations of women but “without any man.” In fact, Nur’s quest can also be seen as a quest to find a father: the simultaneous quest of attachment to the mother (who is dying) becomes a journey towards the missing father and therefore towards independence, freedom, and adulthood—not unlike many post-Soviet films, among them The Return (Vozvrashchenie, Andrei Zviagintsev, 2003).
While on the one hand, the film seems to promote an idyllic preindustrial (maternal) vision of the native land, with the quest for gold motivated by love of a woman; on the other, the quest for a true father-figure requires severing the ties to the mother. While Nur’s quest succeeds as a great feat of love, it turns out to be futile, leaving him only to dream of giving the gold to his mother. The film itself balances the constraints of its low budget with freedom from commercial constraints, taking advantage of the rugged beauty of the landscape in long shots and of the innocent face of its young hero in close up, and allowing the pre-cinematic attractions of the two father figures—Asso’s comic theatricality and Saydo’s dramatic drumming—to communicate its ambivalence.
The film’s ambivalence is embodied in particular in an unusual shot that, like several individual shots in the film (along with the reference to Meyerhold) suggest an avant-garde sensibility: an extreme close up of Uncle Asso’s eye in a mirror held by Nur as Asso shaves. Whether conveying a suggestion of divine, devilish, paternal, or political surveillance, this self-reflexive shot serves to jolt the viewer into a deeper consideration of the implications of this apparent fairytale. At the same time, the eye connects Nur’s journey to the “documentary” frame (with its obviously “low budget” look) of the film, which places Nur’s story into the context of many other children living in the “derelict home” of the post-Soviet city, and their own individual hopes and ideals—stories that apparently can only be told, in this postindustrial world, through the cinema. In the end, then, the film remains ambivalent, balancing the terms of the debate between the attractiveness of freedom and the closeness of attachment, between the preindustrial traditions of storytelling and the technological mode of cinema.
I would like to thank my colleague, Dr Ali Reza Abasi, for the reference to classical Persian literature, and for his assistance with my questions about Persian culture.
University of Maryland
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Tungus (Ruslan Chernykh), “Konkursnaia rabota IX MKF ‘Evraziia’. Pozolota/Zarandud, Tadzhikistan, 2013,” 18 September 2013, tungus.kz govoriashchie bukvy.
Marina Gaillard, “Samak-E Ayyar,” Encyclopedia Iranica, 20 July 2009.
Cl. Cahen and W. L. Hanaway, Jr, “Ayyar,” Encyclopedia Iranica III/2, pp.159-163.
Gilding, Tajikistan, 2013
Color, HDD, 82 min.
Directors: Ulugbek Sadykov, Muhabbat Sattori
Screenplay: Ulugbek Sadykov
Cinematography: Rustami Yusuf
Music: Parvin Yusufi
Cast: Umed Mirzoev, Nasriddini Nuriddin, Barohat Shukurova, Gaffor Karimov
Producer: Muhabbat Sattori
Ulugbek Sadykov and Muhabbat Sattori: Gilding (Zarandud/Pozolota) 2013
reviewed by Elizabeth Papazian © 2014