Issue 49 (2015)
Sharofat Arabova: Tasfiya (Tajikistan, 2014)
reviewed by Andrew Chapman© 2015
Sharofat Arabova’s Tasfiya is based on Temur Zulfiqorov’s (aka Timur Zul’fikarov) story “Jealousy” (1978), which begins by placing the tale within a tradition of famous tragedies:
In the East there was Layla and Majnun, and in the West there was Romeo and Juliet. The only outcome was death … I will tell you about another one of these… I’ll tell you about the mad domra player Murtazo-Shams and his wife, the singer Bunnaffshe-Bul’bul’ [Mehri in the film], that not even one hundred years ago took place in my melodious Asia.
By changing the title from “Jealousy” to Purification/Tasfiya, Arabova immediately distances her film from these famous tragedies. Instead, Tasfiya’s tragic act occurs within the first twenty minutes of the film, which uses murder as a vehicle to explore themes of suffering, redemption, and purification. The title comes from the Arabic word for purification; adopted in Persian, Tasfiya became a tenant of the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, finding beauty in the trinity of beliefs, words, and actions. Arabova states that, while reading Zulfiqorov, she was curious “not about the romantic love and jealousy between two characters, but rather about love in the general sense and absolution” (Arabova). These themes are not specific to Tajik culture, but to most religions, and also to writers such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, to whom Arabova’s student films were dedicated.
Tasfiya contains several narrative layers that retell the same basic plotline. The story of Shams and Mehri is initially told by a father to his son. As his wedding day approaches, the son asks the father: “What is love, and how can I prepare for it?” The father relates to the son that “Love and death are inseparable, like the shepherd and his herd. The shepherd of love is death. It follows it like a snow leopard, stealthily tracking the shepherd’s goats.” He then begins to tell the story of Shams and Mehri as a way to prepare the son for marriage.
As the father continues to talk, a second didactic storytelling device is layered on to the screen. We see a puppeteer, who begins to act out the same fairy tale for a group of children. The father’s voice overlaps with the puppeteer’s performance, suturing the layers together. The brief puppet show acts out what will become the plot exposition of the film: the two vagabond artists Shams and Mehri perform song and dance numbers at a wedding. The husband kills the wife out of jealousy for her wandering eyes at the ceremony.
After the abrupt ending to the show, a new scene introduces the main layer of the film, and we finally see Shams and Mehri cast against the vast mountainous Tajik landscape. While the two other layers of the film are timeless, the live-action shots of Shams and Mehri are set in the Tajik SSR, most likely in the 1950s or 1960s. In the opening shots of the young couple, Shams pledges his unending love for Mehri as the two stand on a bridge in the middle of a picturesque valley. Only ten minutes later, and without any plot developments—other than a dance scene that conveys Shams’s jealousy of other men—Shams murders Mehri. This act begins Shams’ journey for redemption, on which the film’s title is based. Ironically for the film, Shams’s purification begins when he turns himself in and is eventually sentenced to ten years’ work in a radioactive uranium mine, which is used to gather material for the Soviet atomic project.
Arabova tries to establish psychological depth through the film’s intense chromatic range. This film is bathed in sunlight; the initial absence of any shadows creates a flat image of life, whereas events with deeper meaning take place in the dark or in enclosed spaces. For instance, Shams kills Mehri in their house at night, with the action taking place off camera. He throws Mehri’s body, enclosed in a gigantic ceramic pot, into the depths of the river where they took their vows. Shams’s punishment and contemplation take place in the depths of the uranium mine, where the journey into the mine also extends into the mind.
Although somewhat confusing at times, Arabova’s layering of narratives is actually the most interesting element of the film. For one, it destroys stable notions of time within the film and in relation to its adapted text. Other than a few modern markers of an automobile, two Soviet-era uniforms, an accordion, and talk of the atomic bomb, there are almost no markers to the modern era. Secondly, Arabova’s different modes of storytelling interact with one another; they intersect one another, invading each other’s space in moments that defy narrative logic. For example, even though the father narrates a bygone tale, he interacts on screen with Shams, who wanders past the storyteller at the beginning of his journey of tribulation. Likewise, the puppeteer later joins Shams in the uranium mine, and his puppet of Mehri becomes a stand-in for the deceased wife. These unexpected turns allow Arabova to collapse temporal distances between modernity and tradition. What is left—a shared Tajik folk culture—becomes timeless and universal.
The film very much forwards an essentialist notion of Tajik identity grounded in the land and its peoples’ ancient customs. Sounds of nature, babbling brooks and chirping birds, permeate conversations. Nature metaphors are prevalent in both Zulfiqorov’s story and in the film, and they are used to connect people to the land. In the film, Shams conveys his distrust of Mehri by telling her: “You look like water flowing down the mountain, that wiggles like a snake under every stone.” Tasfiya also pays close attention to Tajik customs: there are extended episodes of wedding ceremonies and musical performances. Close attention is paid to the simplicity of food, bread in particular, which represents fulfillment in life. While these elements certainly give the film its lyrical qualities, they also add an ethnographic gaze. Tasfiya has been shown at film festivals both in Central Asia and abroad, and also screened in 2015 at a touring festival in Quebec City, titled the “International Uranium Film Festival: A Film Festival About Nuclear Power.”
Tasfiya is Arabova’s first feature film and her first project shot in Tajikistan. Arabova originally trained as a historian, graduating from the Institute of History, Archeology and Ethnography of the Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan with a dissertation on the history of Tajik cinema in the second half of the 20th century. In 2007 Arabova embarked on a three-year postgraduate degree at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune. There, she made two shorts: In Between (2013) and Flying High (2011), which depict hardships of contemporary life in India. In Between was presented at festivals as a trans-national picture, where everyone in the film—South Indians, Russians, and Nepalese—are foreigners in the metropolis. Arabova later attended the Asian Film Academy (AFA) in Busan, Korea, and master-classes at Nikita Mikhalkov’s Summer Film Academy (2013), making the short Serge, based on Leo Tolstoy’s Father Sergius.
Arabova’s educational and professional biography is indicative of many filmmakers in Central Asia today, whose career trajectories are no longer necessarily oriented solely through Moscow as a cultural training center. Tajikistan in particular has seen many filmmakers leave the country to train and shoot films elsewhere, mainly due to the civil war in the 1990s (see Rakhimov 2010, 2013 and Graham 2013 for problems faced by contemporary Tajik cinema). Arabova did not want to wait to pay her dues necessary to break into the Indian film industry. She has stated that in India, a director’s film success lies solely in music production and the ability to produce hit songs. In Russia, Arabova worried that she would end up working in television. By filming in Tajikistan, she was able to make something more “philosophical,” yet her return provided its own problems: a lack of film financing and very few domestic exhibition spaces (quoted in Chuzhkova).
Tasfiya marks a departure from Arabova’s shorts, which surprisingly show much more formal and visual sophistication. Instead, Tasfiya tries to leave its impression through lyrical qualities and simple pastoral landscapes, which provide quiet moments of contemplation. The film has not been widely seen by its domestic audience, other than the screenings at Didor International Film Festival in October 2014 and two additional screenings at the Echo of Didor in northern Tajikistan and in Dushanbe. Any other theatrical screenings would have required a larger budget for advertising, promotion, and theater rental space, a challenging position for any filmmaker in Tajikistan today. Thus, although the film was shot in Tajikistan, it is made for international eyes. The film’s untranslated title provides the first hint that Tasfiya’s inward gaze toward its folk traditions will be viewed through an orientalist filter. Nevertheless, the film’s presence is important for a national film industry that has gone through periods of stifled film production, unlike elsewhere in Central Asia.
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Arabova, Sharofat. 2015. “Re: KinoKultura.” Email to Andrew Chapman, 6 June.
Chuzhkova, Anna. 2013. “Kolbasa dlia Mikhalkova, buben dlia Mironova.” Portal-Kultura.Ru 27 July.
Graham, Seth. 2013. “Contemporary Tajik Cinema in Context: On Djamshed Usmonov” in Cinema in Central Asia: Rewriting Cultural Histories, edited by Michael Rouland, Gulnara Abikeyeva and Birgit Beumers, pp. 221-233. London: I.B. Tauris.
Rakhimov, Sadullo. 2013. “Tajik Cinema at the End of the Soviet Era” in Cinema in Central Asia: Rewriting Cultural Histories, edited by Michael Rouland, Gulnara Abikeyeva and Birgit Beumers, pp. 115-126. London: I.B. Tauris.
Rakhimov, Sadullo. 2010. “The Contemporary State of Tajik Cinema”, Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema 4.2: 234–40.
Tasfiya, 2014, Tajikistan
Color, 70 minutes
Director: Sharofat Arabova
Original story and screenplay: Temur Zulfiqorov
Cinematography: Bakhtier Yusupov
Music: Tolib Shakhidi and Iqbol Zavkibekov
Sound design: Olim Utamishev
Production design: Umed Bozorov
Costume design: Sarvinoz Khodjieva
Cast: Khurshed Mustafoev, Sherali Abdulkaysov, Iso Abdurashidov, Rudoba Makhmudova, Vakhob Dustov, Kamariddin Mirzoev, Dilovar Negmatov, Nekbakhtsulton Mazabshoeva, Shohruk Khamzazoda
Production: VARD SIMO
Sharofat Arabova: Tasfiya (Tajikistan, 2014)
reviewed by Andrew Chapman© 2015