Issue 45 (2014)
Nurbek Egen: The Shaft (Shakhta, 2012)
reviewed by Margarita Levantovskaya© 2014
Emigration from the Russian Federation to the US has dwindled dramatically in the past few years. Yet, according to Nurbek Egen’s gritty melodrama The Shaft dreams of coming to America persist among Russians, particularly those residing in remote, post-industrial regions. The film takes place in a former mining town where life revolves around the elusive goal of leaving for the West. Children learn English in schools and adults make deals with the mafia at the promise of a green card. Egen suggests the futility of these efforts no better than in a scene where two boys attempt to forge a path to America by way of their local mine shaft. Clutching a hand-drawn map of the globe that locates the shaft in the north and the US in south, the kids hope to take a short-cut through the earth's center, thus avoiding the geopolitical impediments to migration. The scene ironizes the notion that globalization has made our world “small.” One of the boys, Sania Karol’, has a father “on the other side.” Kostia Karol', who went to America to become a boxer, is the town's only known emigrant. While he lies in a coma following defeat in the ring, Sania gets trapped in the shaft.
The Shaft is the latest installment in the Kyrgyz-born director’s meditations on migration and home in the post-Soviet era. Egen’s first feature film, The Wedding Chest (Sunduk predkov, 2006), depicted the homecoming of a Kyrgyz man who had built another life in Paris. The Empty Home (Pustoi dom, 2012) had centered on a young woman’s movements across the former Soviet Union, from a Kyrgyz village to Moscow, and her unsuccessful attempt to emigrate to the West. The Shaft shifts focus onto Russian characters and Russian-American migration. However, the film reveals the director’s continuing interest in examining emigration to an economically developed metropolis from a hometown that lacks opportunities for social mobility. In an interview about The Empty Home, Egen explained the title thus: “Empty Home, because it is empty there. The people have no support... They don’t have their own point of view. Most importantly, they don’t have goals. These people, in my opinion, are very dangerous” (Egen 2012). The description and the title are also applicable to The Shaft, whose central characters are dangerous to themselves and to others. Among them are Tania, Sania’s aunt and emotionally abusive caretaker, and her lover, Dimon, who conspires with the mafia against his supposed “blood brother,” Kostia. Even Sania acts out his fear of being left behind by his father through aggression towards other kids.
A sense of abandonment permeates the Russian home and unnamed hometown portrayed in The Shaft. Tania lives in a run-down apartment decorated with photographs of happier times and English vocabulary that Sania must memorize before going to the US. Even this home threatens to disappear for the boy when Tania contemplates sending him to an orphanage. Yet before showing this domicile, the film takes us into the shaft. The first shot brings into focus a small opening of light within an otherwise pitch-black environment. It’s a fitting beginning for the story of a town where all are born in the shaft, to paraphrase Dimon. The camera moves from light to darkness and then to another opening, which frames the miniature “miners” mentioned above. This is a mere glimpse of a scene that unfolds at the film's climax. We see other symbolic imagery that foreshadows the conclusion—a photograph of Kostia that Sania carries on his person and a hard hat with a flashing light. Both objects lie in a puddle on the ground in the shaft. The first scene seamlessly flashes back to an earlier episode, a regular expedition of scavenging for coal, by Sania and his friends. This scene begins with the screaming of a boy who thinks he has seen a dead mountain climber, presumably the hard hat’s owner. Sania and his other friend respond with mockery and laughter. When the children climb out of the shaft, they run into a drunken Dimon who teases the boys with coal-stained faces, shouting “keep going further up the ass!” Sania retorts naively, “This isn't an ass, but a shaft!”—“This, this,” Dimon replies, waving his arms to indicate the whole town, “is an ass. Not only that, but a deep one,” he says, bending over and grabbing his buttocks. Dimon, the town’s alcoholic sage, here, as in other moments in the film, spells out the metaphor that no viewer can miss, namely that the town is a dark and empty “hole.”
Light and color function on formal and symbolic levels in The Shaft, allowing Egen not only to establish, but also question, the homeland/emigration dichotomy. Cinematographer Dmitrii Ermakov, Egen’s regular collaborator, renders the exterior scenes set in Russia in muted gray and brown tones. The long shots have a sublime beauty, with hints of Tarkovsky. The influence of such films as Stalker is also thematically present in the subterranean scenes where the three (and then two) boys wander down dark tunnels in pursuit of their dreams. In contrast, The Shaft's American scenes are brightly-lit and in saturated colors. One scene in particular, in which Kostia jogs along the beach of Los Angeles, evokes the cliché that life is more colorful in the US. In one of the two surreal scenes in the film, we occupy Sania’s point of view as he holds a telephone, staring at a wall poster of an American city. The camera zooms in on the poster as it “comes alive,” seamlessly transitioning into Kostia’s setting. When the father and son talk, the city lights are reflected on the Airstream trailer where Kostia lives. Yet, this quintessentially American vehicle also reminds us that Kostia is a drifter and an outsider in this place.
The film reiterates multiple times that non-urban Russians are easily seduced by America's “bright lights.” As a result, they have become accustomed to seeing their towns as dark and underdeveloped. This idea emerges most explicitly when, on their first attempt to run away from their town, this time by train, the boys are stopped by a conductor who encourages them to think locally. Holding them in his office he urges, “Don’t run for no reason. Live like people here do. Over there, that’s not our America. Our America is here. We have to raise ourselves up here.” He makes the last two statements while stepping into the sunlight and opening up a window. The gesture is idealistic in comparison to Dimon’s, with the conductor suggesting there is still hope for towns, such as the one portrayed in the film, if the residents stay and contribute to the economic development. He ends by saying, “No matter how much you run, it’s from one shaft to another.” Reacting to Russia’s persistent brain-drain, the conductor issues a warning—that the place of destination may be no better than the place of departure for the migrant. The boys, however, stare back at him blankly. It is difficult not to empathize with their lack of responsiveness to this “pull yourself by your bootstraps” message. Up to this point, the film has shown that the town's only competence is in teaching its children English (with Nadezhda Markina in the cameo role of the compassionate English teacher).
Still, The Shaft is consistent in its critique of attempts to idealize migration, particularly in Kostia’s scenes in America. As a non-traditional immigrant, the boxer lacks the kind of institutional support that helped Russian-speaking refugees in the late twentieth century. The film suggests that Kostia is one of many former miners imported to America under shady circumstances. His experience alludes to the commodification of Eastern European bodies under the umbrella of globalization. Kostia’s objectification also occurs at the hands of his well-meaning, but ditzy American documentarian, Cindy. Unfortunately, like all of the female characters in the film, Cindy is instrumental—a device that connects Sania’s and Kostia’s narratives. Her role is also to show the American people’s cluelessness about immigrants’ problems of well-being. For Kostia, these problems are urgent, as he suffers serious injuries while being unable to pay for the medical treatments. Cindy, however, attempts to translate his biography into a traditional tale of immigrant success. This becomes especially clear in one of their interviews, when she prompts Kostia with such cliché phrases as, “Back in Russia, you couldn’t pursue the things you’re pursuing here. Maybe you found something here that you couldn’t find back there.” Kostia doesn’t play along but makes her turn off the camera and then asks, “So, you really think that someone is gonna wanna buy a film about immigrants?” When she naively replies “Well, this country was built by immigrants,” Kostia dismisses her response and goes back to the punching bag.
Does the act of leaving one's home result in survival or death? Currently, Egen’s oeuvre provides conflicting answers. In The Wedding Chest the hero resettles in Paris, reconciling his Kyrgyz upbringing with his émigré identity. On the other hand, the heroine of Empty Home dies before reaching her destination. The Shaft continues in the pessimistic vein, associating emigration with mortal danger. Dimon communicates this idea to Cindy, when, in an improbable move, she comes to Russia to relay a message from Kostia to Sania. By this point, Dimon has sobered up to resume his role as miner in order to rescue Sania. The conversation takes place just before Dimon descends into the shaft:
Dimon: He was born here. We all were born in this shaft. We don't have another home.
Cindy: When I was there, at the hospital, someone said that Kostia was in the shaft. They say that when you’re in a coma—
Dimon: Wander in the tunnel and try to get into the light
Cindy: But if you make it into the light, that means…
Dimon: … death. Shaft is our life. Do you understand?
Cindy: Your English is very good.
The ambiguous “he” of the first sentence could refer to Kostia or Sania, who could have been buried in the shaft as a result of his wanderings. Otherwise, the dialogue represents another instance of the film using Dimon to turn subtext into text, this time by articulating the idea that the attempt to follow the light out of the mine, or emigrate, ultimately ends in darkness, or death.
The analogy between Kostia’s coma and the shaft suggests the emigrant’s lack of progression, recalling the conductor's words: “No matter how much you run, it's from one shaft to another.” Indeed, in the film's concluding scenes, Kostia returns to the mine as a ghostly presence. The film again takes on a surreal quality, transitioning into blue-tinted darkness and slow motion. We see Sania, in the shaft, spotting his rescuer. This should be Dimon, but we hear Kostia’s voice, telling his son not to cry. For a split second, viewers glimpse the boxer's face, as he takes Sania into his arms during a homecoming that never takes place. The final shots of the film again show the photograph of Kostia and the red hard hat with the flickering light, which permanently goes out just before the credits. Kostia is the dead mountain climber imagined by one of the boys. He has stopped searching. But what about Sania? Will he come to accept the conductor's claim that “our America is here,” or keep running “from one shaft to another?”
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
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Nurbek Egen (2012), “Kinotavr 23: Nurbek Egen o fil’me ‘Pustoi dom’,” Interview, Filmz.ru, 3 June
The Shaft, Russia, 2012
Color, 79 minutes
Director: Nurbek Egen
Screenplay: Oleg Timoshishin
Cinematography: Dmitrii Ermakov
Art direction: Denis Isaev
Cast: Nikita Osadchii, Vitalii Kishenko, Viktoria Romanenko, Aleksandr Poliakov, Sergei Shnurov, Sergei Pokhodaev, Stacey Ann Shevlin, Morris Worfield, Nadezhda Markina
Executive Producers: Viktor Antonov, Aleksei Golodnitskii, Ol'ga Golomovziuk
Producer: Aleksandr Litvinov,
Production Company: Production Company of Aleksandr Litvinov and “Work Hard, Play Hard Production”
Nurbek Egen: The Shaft (Shakhta, 2012)
reviewed by Margarita Levantovskaya© 2014