Issue 49 (2015)

Nosir Saidov: Mirror without Reflection (Zerkalo bez otrazheniia / Oinai Bejilo, 2013)

reviewed by Elise Thorsen© 2015

mirrorAt first glance, Mirror without Reflection is a misleading title: the first half of the film is wholly structured upon reflection and parallelism. On one side, there is Romish (Parviz Saidov), a poor, lethargic young man who is falling into the orbit of gangsters; on the other is Shahzod (Tursunov), a student feeling the flush of life and anticipating his upcoming marriage to the demure, ideally feminine Sitora (Nazaramonova). As the film intercuts between the lives of Romish and Shahzod, elements of the mise-en-scene and script pile up to encourage the reading of their lives in comparison. The shape of art objects hanging on walls echoes between the two apartments, although the richness of the material differs significantly. Similarly, when Romish and Shahzod both call out “Stop!”, it is in different emotional registers, as Romish departs the car of petty gangsters in disgust, and Shahzod chases his love playfully.

Lying at the heart of the differences between these two men is Anvar (Mahmadov), the central figure of the film. Anvar is a single father, having raised his son Shahzod alone after the death of his wife. He has since earned intense filial devotion, as Shahzod cooks his father breakfast, irons his shirts, catches him fish, ties his shoelaces… There is every indication that, when Sitora moves into the household, this pattern of filial piety will only be enhanced. Indeed, a family idyll appears to be in the offing, centered on the patriarch. Romish, in the meantime, is an orphan, provided for materially by an NGO which gives him an apartment and access to health care, but little apparent nurturing.

As the film progresses, the two parallel lives slowly work toward convergence. Romish has a defective heart and limited time to live if no organ donor can be found; as a result, he experiences intense despondence, to the point of playing Russian roulette. For his part, Shahzod also flirts with death unknowingly, every time he takes an underpass and thus presents the image of descending metaphorically into the underworld. The two finally encounter each other by chance one night and have an altercation. Romish shoots Shahzod fatally. By a twist of fate, Shahzod becomes the donor of Romish’s new heart. In this way, Romish becomes the mirror without a reflection.

mirrorGiven a new lease on life, Romish becomes remarkably more positive. The script incorporates a number of set pieces to showcase his new attitude, such as two visits before and after his surgery to see a young boy, another orphan. Before his operation, Romish had advised the child that he essentially has to look out for himself; afterwards his actions are more nurturing and the child immediately notes “You kind of changed.” Romish even begins to relate to his advocate Dilrabo (Yorova) from the NGO in far more filial terms, describing her as “like a mother to me,” although in initial scenes she does not even accept tea from him. These comparative moments are almost unnecessary; Parviz Saidov conveys the shift in his character’s outlook quite effectively through gesture and his new, beatifically calm expression alone. And while this new posture could be related to the suspension of the death sentence under which Romish had been living, he wonders whether, in receiving the heart of another, unknown man, he has received something more than a piece of flesh.

Anvar clearly also hopes that something of Shahzod has survived in Romish when he makes contact while knowing him to be the recipient of his son’s heart, but not the murderer. Romish’s situation as an orphan touches Anvar, while Romish understands that he can offer the older man comfort and succor. Their relationship deepens quickly, as they play chess together, get fish together, and eventually, on Anvar’s invitation, begin to live together. Presented first as a somewhat dreamy man who can get fixated on a fantastic image before him (a boon at his detail-oriented job making ornate grating), Anvar implicitly seeks to reconstruct the lost paradise he and his son had shared, using Romish as a blank canvas for this purpose.

mirrorHowever, the reconstruction of the idyllic family cannot be so simple, a point reflected most clearly in Romish’s relations to his on-again, off-again girlfriend Sharofat (Mirgulova) and to Sitora. Admirably dedicated to Romish even at his nadir, Sharofat nevertheless falls short of the ideal feminine that would be necessary to recreate the image of the ideal family initially presented by the trio of Anvar, Shahzod, and Sitora. She doesn’t cook, for example, and she pursues Romish doggedly instead of receiving his courtship; within the aesthetic and family morality of the film, she comes across poorly in comparison to her competition. She cannot perform in the family idyll, and plays a significant role in the decisive shattering of the illusion of its possibility. For her part, Sitora is somewhat immune to Anvar’s emotional neediness and his desire to reconstruct his little family—her first loyalty is to her dead fiancé, not to the patriarch of the lost family idyll. She rebuffs Romish’s courtship.

The shadow of Shahzod’s death dooms any long-term prospects for the simple reconstruction of the family. Romish cannot do the work of atoning for his transgression when it means depriving Anvar of yet another son. Anvar, in clinging to the image of his lost family and adamantly refusing to hear about the crimes Romish half-wants to confess (“I’ve done terrible things”), fails in a basic paternal duty. Only when the identities of murderer and victim are revealed can they move forward on a resolution to this untenable state.

It is a pattern that outdoor, natural spaces, which stand out prominently from the majority of scenes in built settings of courtyards, apartments and hospitals around Dushanbe, feature preliminary promises of the reproduction of family. Parks are the spaces where Shahzod and Sitora plan their wedding, where Anvar begins his search for the man who carries his son’s heart, and where Anvar and Romish begin bonding over a fishing trip. A park is also the site of the climactic moment of Romish’s confession to Anvar, when the dream of the family idyll is definitively broken. Yet this final scene in nature becomes, in its way, the origin of a slightly more robust sense of family, one which—by contrast to the earlier, shattered images of the family—can survive the stresses of modern life, even the most heinous transgressions, by means of the power of forgiveness.

As one of the first two films to come out of the Tajikfilm studio, newly resurrected from the Soviet period in 2012 with Nosir Saidov at its head, Mirror without Reflection and its concern with the reconstruction of a domestic past and the reproductive family unit seem especially cogent. The film continues the sense of anticipation of a new era in Tajik cinema that began when True Noon (Istinnyi polden’, 2009), Nosir Saidov’s debut feature film, became the first Tajik film in decades to be distributed in Tajikistan—that is, in the five or so cinemas that still operate in Dushanbe, as anemia has stricken all aspects of Tajik cinema. Mirror without Reflection has followed a similar distribution pattern, playing abroad with a world premiere at the 2013 Busan International Film Festival, but also playing to domestic audiences. More than likely, it is also striving to develop the domestic market by means of positive, possibly even saccharine melodrama (Kodirdukht 2013).

mirrorIn his capacity as director of Tajikfilm, Saidov has noted the challenges for the future of Tajik cinema, and in particular the limited cadres of experienced film workers in the country, like directors and scriptwriters. The fact that domestic film production is still in its second infancy in Tajikistan informs every layer of the film, particularly in the soapiness of the acting, but most interestingly with regard to the script. The young writer Bakhtiyor Karimov adapted the screenplay Mirror without Reflection from one of his literary works. On the one hand, Karimov structures and sustains engagement with the thematic of reconstructed families with an elegance that arguably earned the award for best screenplay at the Fadjr film festival in Iran. On the other, many red herrings in the plot would be explained by the fact that the screenplay was adapted from a longer, literary work. Otherwise, what were Anvar’s enigmatic references to his former wife all about? Why was Sitora more interested in talking about curtains than about Shahzod? Why were characters like Sharofat’s mother introduced, never to be seen again?

While such moments distract from the sense of tight aesthetic construction that otherwise characterizes this film, these digressions are interpretable, particularly in conjunction with a repeated camera movement of drifting away from central action before, in a sense, remembering itself and closing in on emotional moments. Much of the structure of the film is tied to the central characters’ wish fulfillment and performativity, rather than to an objective ideology of family or how it might operate outside of a traditional ideal. When the film strays from the central characters, it suggests that we the audience could be gently critical of the insularity and a-historicality of the family melodrama. The role of the father is important to the makers of this film, no doubt, but it is in grappling with the reality of his son’s loss and the transgressions of his adopted son that Anvar becomes capable of fatherhood in a troubled modern era.

Elise Thorsen
University of Pittsburgh

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Works Cited

Kodirdukht, Barnoi. 2013. “Tadjikskoe kino—2013. God nadezhd i trudnostei.” Radio Ozodi. 29 December.

Mirror without Reflection, Tajikistan, 2013
Color, 90 minutes
Director: Nosir Saidov
Scriptwriter: Bakhtiyor Karimov
Cinematography: Georgii Dzalaev
Music: Daler Nazarov
Sound: Farid Pirayesh
Art Design: Jamshed Khalikov
Editor: Dilovar Sultonov
Cast: Muhammad-Ali Mahmadov, Parviz Saidov, Madina Nazaramonova, Timur Tursunov, Mokhpaikar Yorova, Shirmoh Mirgulova
Producer: Nosir Saidov
Production: Tajikfilm

Nosir Saidov: Mirror without Reflection (Zerkalo bez otrazheniia / Oinai Bejilo, 2013)

reviewed by Elise Thorsen© 2015