Issue 45 (2014)

Saodat Ismailova: 40 Days of Silence (Chilla, 2013)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers© 2014

The Berlinale’s Forum 2014 presented the world premiere of Saodat Ismailova’s feature film debut, 40 Days of Silence. The Tashkent-born filmmaker, who lives and works in Paris, studied film at the Tashkent State Institute of Art. She has won numerous awards for her documentaries and held several residencies in Italy, Germany and France, where she developed her film, which managed to attract financial support from a number of international funds, such as World Cinema Fund, Fonds Sud Cinema, and Hubert Bals Fund.

bibchaIn 2013 Ismailova represented Uzbekistan in the Central Asian Pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale with her video installation Zukhra, which plays with different levels of physical presence: as we move around a projection of a woman resting onto a cloth hung diagonally across the room, the double video projection on a bifacial screen gently and slightly changes the state of the resting woman who appears to levitate. “Through the installation, the viewer is encouraged to actively participate in an experience—that of a woman in a lethargic state remembering her life, passively existing in a moment of suspension.” (booklet for the Central Asia Pavilion, 2013)

chillaIsmailova’s film 40 Days of Silence is at once traditional and challenging, positioning her protagonist Bibicha (Rushana Sadykova) in the present, while making it impossible for her to move forward in her development without understanding her past, her roots and her self. Ismailova weaves together Bibicha’s story in an innovative visual manner, refraining from a clear verbal narrative and leaving a wide range of possibilities for interpretation.

Bibicha is a teenage girl who takes a vow of silence. Why—this question does not interest Ismailova, who admits that she not only had a part in the script about Bibicha’s motivation (the departure of her beloved) but had effectively filmed the relevant scenes. Then she found this approach too narrow and decided to focus on the effect of the silence which forces the character to look inside herself, making sense of the past.

chillaSet in a mountain village, the film offers stunning nature shots conventionally associated with the region: the house is located high up in the mountains, almost above the clouds. The only link to the outside world is through a mobile phone. A reference to the temporal and geographical context is suggested by the image of turning wheels in an industrial building and the presence of shepherds: these are the only occupations for men in the remote mountain settlement.

Most of the time Bibicha is inside her grandmother’s house, where she is joined by her aunt Khamida, who is the mother to young Sharifa, a girl born out of wedlock and raised by her grandmother, Bibi Saodat. This is essentially a women’s world: there are photographs of the grandfather; there is a man in town whom Khamida sees, but who only communicates with her through SMS messages, as well as her dead fiancé Arbor; there is talk of Bibicha’s father; and there is the shadow of a man in Bibicha’s life—if we believe that her vow of silence follows the departure of her beloved.

chillaThe experiences of the three generations of women seem to add up to the life story of a single character rather than three different women: fate repeats itself, albeit with variations. Bibi Saodat married young, her husband perished on the way to the front and her first child was stillborn. In the second generation, her daughter Khamida loses Abror and gives birth, out of wedlock, to Sharifa: where the first generation is married and loses the child, the second generation is unmarried and bears the child. In the third generation, Bibicha is the daughter of Saodat’s son and his wife Mamlakat. None of the men ever appears on screen: Abror is dead, and it is possibly his body that floats in the pond when Khamida searches for Bibicha: this happens shortly after she accepts her fate and formally adopts Sharifa, legitimising her as her daughter. There are photographs of the grandfather. Te grandmother’s story is revealed through words, but these are not spoken by her; instead, they come from the radio, where her letters are read out during a program. Finally, there is the shadow of a man in Bibicha’s life, possibly her first love: a chaotic sequence shows in a quick montage (that stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the film) images of Bibicha in perturbation, performing wild movements; a red fluid stains her dress, suggesting either the beginning of her menstruation (maturation), or her loss of virginity (first love), or a rape (violence)—in any case a rupture in her life which may be the trigger for her self-search during the forty days of silence.

chillaIsmailova works with almost static shots, where movement is generated within the frame. Therefore the above montage sequence is a deliberate and visible break with the film’s style. Ismailova composes her frames carefully, like a painter, and she is inspired by the composition of paintings. For example, she draws on the compositions of Vilhelm Hammershøi, who was preoccupied in his paintings with interior spaces, doors and windows. These are liminal spaces that are important here because Bibicha stands on the border of adulthood. In order to develop, she needs to cross a line and understand herself. When Bibicha looks at herself in the mirror, the glass breaks; the window is apparently a window on her disturbed soul: the girl Bibicha is no longer, the woman is not yet. As the mirror shatters, a stone smashes the window of the house and lands on the floor inside: the break is internal and external.

chillaIn another visual allegory, Bibicha tries to explore her inner self and follows a cord in the mud that appears to guide her: it represents the umbilical cord and thus stands for her attempt to return to the womb. This connection is supported by another sequence in the film which shows the navel of the pregnant Mamlakat before she gives birth to Bibicha.

The orchard that lies below Bibi Saodat’s house may be a reference to Chekhov’s cherry orchard: a pasture that is no longer needed in the present and threatened (at least in Chekhov’s play) by construction work. In 40 Days of Silence, the garden is destroyed by goats that graze here and devour the leaves on the trees. They appear real, although the sequence seems like a nightmarish vision of destruction. The destructive force of the goat is brought home in another sequence where one animal appears inside the room, stands on the table and devastates the remnants of food.

chillaIn the visual narrative, the film conflates past and present. As she matures, Bibicha is the continuation of Khamida and a reflection of Bibi Saodat. Yet it is not a question of determinism, but of carrying the past into the present and the future; without that, there is no way forth. Bibicha looks, as it were, at herself in old age (Saodat) and as mature woman (Khamida); the grandmother and aunt are reflections of herself in the future, showing what could become of her. As Bibicha grows up, she leaves something behind, but she discovers her past and that of her ancestors, and collapses it into the future.

Ismailova beautifully and skillfully weaves together the strands of different times and different lives to create the experience of a girl who looks very deep into herself during the forty days when she withdraws from the outside world.

Birgit Beumers
Aberystwyth U

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Works Cited

Press Booklet, Central Asian Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2013

40 Days of Silence, Uzbekistan/Tajikistan/Netherlands/France/Germany, 2014
Color, 84 minutes
Director: Saodat Ismailova
Scriptwriter: Saodat ISmailova, Ulugbek Sadykov
DoP: Benito Strangio
Editing: Benjamin Mirguet
Music Jacob Kirkegaard
Sound Design: Ranko Paukovic
Sound: Diego van Uden
Production Design: Azamat Turaev
Costume Design: Ulugbek Sadykov
Prodcuers: Denis Vaslin (Volya Films), Jean des Forêts (Petit Film), Benny
Drechsel (Rohfilm), Pascale Ramonda
Cast: Rushana Sadykova (Bibicha); Saodat Rakhimova (Bibi Saodat); Farida
Olimova (Sharifa); Barohad Shukurova (Khamida); Muhabbat Sattori (Matluba); Kurbon
Sobir, Amina Nurmatova, Sattor Saidov,
Production: Volya Films, Petit Film, Rohfilm, Pascale Ramonda

Saodat Ismailova: 40 Days of Silence (Chilla, 2013)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers© 2014