Issue 52 (2016)
Elchin Musaoglu: Nabat (Azerbaijan, 2014)
reviewed by Joe Andrew,© 2016
Elchin Musaoglu’s film Nabat, an Azebaijani film of 2014, follows in a long line of works that deal with the aftermath of the end of the Soviet Union in the Caucasus region, and the wars that erupted in the 1990s, several of which remain unresolved. As is the case with Sergei Bodrov’s The Prisoner of the Mountains (Kavkazskii plennik, 1996), and Aleksei Uchitel’’s The Captive (Plennyi, 2008), Nabat does not explicitly state where or when the action is set, although it is generally taken to be against the backdrop of the Nagorno-Karabakh War of the late 1980s–1994 (this is one of the wars that remains unresolved). From internal evidence, the film seems to be set in the autumn of 1992 or 1993. Musaoglu himself was born in 1961; growing up in Soviet Azerbaijan and reaching adulthood just as the Soviet Union imploded, he seeks to capture the passing of an old world that is threatened by the violence, deprivation and tragedy that beset much of the region in the 1990s. In this regard, his film is very different from those of Bodrov and Uchitel’, in that it focuses not so much on the men on both sides who fought the wars, but on those left behind, here personified in the eponymous protagonist, Nabat, a woman probably in her mid-50s and brilliantly brought to life by the celebrated Iranian actres, Fatemah Motamed-Arya.
The apparent plot of Nabat is simple in the extreme. The film opens with Nabat slowly wending her way down the mountain-side from her isolated farmhouse to sell two jars of milk from her beloved cow, Aghya, to a milk-merchant in the nearby village. However, from the outset, it is obvious that the old routines are about to disappear forever. After the merchant has bought Nabat’s milk, he admits that he has done so almost out of charity, as no-one is buying milk any more. In turn, when Nabat goes to the local store to buy meager supplies of tea, sugar and flour, she is shocked at the steeply rising prices. In an understated way the film captures a sense of imminent danger and panic. Indeed, when a few days later Nabat returns to the village, she finds that it has been abandoned, literally overnight, with children’s laundry still flapping on the clothes line, and food left half-eaten on the table. It transpires that the enemy is about to occupy Chinarli, and the order has been given to evacuate all civilians. But Nabat and her dying husband, like Firs at the end of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, have been forgotten and left behind.
However, the war in this film is always in the background, and the story, especially in the second half, is much more about how Nabat deals with the series of blows that befall her. Her beloved and only son, Murad, has already died (in 1992, as we see from his headstone at a lonely, mountainside grave), at the age of only 22, one of the “fallen.” Nabat’s husband, Iskender (Vidadi Aliyev), is near the end of his life, dying from an unspecified respiratory disease. The relationship between the couple remains loving and tender, and there is a particularly moving scene when Nabat bathes her emaciated husband in a tin bath, and they recall his former thick black hair, and try to remember who had “kidnapped” whom into marriage. At almost exactly half way through the film, Iskender dies (this happens off screen) and there ensues another deeply poignant scene as Nabat hacks out his grave next to Murad’s, using a pickaxe and shovel to loosen the stony ground as the rain pours down.
After his demise (as consequence of which the latter half of the film is effectively a silent movie), and after the abandonment of the village, Nabat carries on with her life, and undertakes a series of almost ritualistic acts. She goes down to the village, visiting private and public buildings (the mosque, the offices of the local “Sovet”—it is still called that—the photographer’s studios where the only picture of Murad has been mislaid, and the former home of her daughter-in-law). Everywhere she goes she lights an oil-lamp (until the oil too begins to run out), cleans and tidies, and looks around, taking stock. With no-one else there, not a word is spoken, except to her beloved cow. Animals, indeed, creep ever more center stage, almost as if nature is reclaiming the land. In the last phase of the film, Nabat frees a she-wolf that has fallen into the trap that Nabat had built in a corner of the farmstead; thereafter, the wolf seems to keep a watchful eye on its human liberator. The army returns, and re-establishes contact with the wider world. The film ends mysteriously, as the camera dwells on a motionless Nabat, sitting on a bench outside her farmhouse as the light first snow of winter slowly falls. Although we are not told how this might have happened, as the camera slowly withdraws and we see the house in a series of increasingly longer shots, we must assume that, again like Firs, Nabat herself has died, or will do so shortly.
With her going, it is implied that a whole way of life will disappear. Indeed, in an ever more elegiac and beautifully shot film, the emphasis is on capturing a time and place, rather than in telling a story. And, although the film is very explicitly set in a post-Soviet world, Nabat and her environment actually exist, in effect, in a pre-Soviet, even pre-modern way of life. We see this from the striking opening scene onwards. For a couple of minutes the motionless camera, as it were, stares into the distance, creating a long-shot of a stony road that wends its way to a small farmstead on the mountain side, with the majestic Caucasus beyond. Only bird-song is heard. This is a scene that could have been captured for centuries past. Then a distant figure of a woman suddenly emerges from a dip in the road; she walks towards and then past the camera. An ancient way of life continues. As she enters the village, it again has an age-old appearance, with rocky unmade roads, stone buildings that seem in danger of imminent collapse. As she slowly trudges on, we pass a small café where elderly men sip the traditional chai and lament the modern state of things. Only as she arrives at the milk-merchant’s do we see the first sign of the twentieth-century, a beaten-up old Zhiguli, that will soon depart the village laden with carpets. Throughout the film, both before and after the abandonment of the village, we see almost no signs of electricity, modern machines, or anything else remotely of modernity. The ubiquitous and symbolic presence of oil lamps suggest that the Leninist aspiration of ‘elektrifikatsiia vsei strany’ had never been fulfilled in this remote corner of Azerbaijan.
Just as the subject matter of Nabat suggests the dying or destruction of an ancient culture and way of life, Musaoglu’s minimalist cinema would seem to convey this theme cinematically by evocations of bygone eras, both in the cinema itself, and in one of its precursor art forms. As noted, in some senses, and for most of the second half, this is in effect a silent film. Similarly, while in color, the palette is so muted and washed out for much of the time that the film again evokes an earlier period of black and white, or tinted monochrome. Editing and cinematography also inhabit the same aesthetic. Once again, the opening scene sets the tempo. For minutes on end a motionless camera simply looks at the scene, like a “camera eye,” and long, static takes are frequently used throughout the film. Editing is limited, and slow horizontal pans and slow crane shots abound. At times it is like watching a series of tableaux vivants, with the main pictorial inspirations being Vermeer and Georges de la Tour. The stillness of the former blends with the chiaroscuro of the latter to suggest a slow-moving and intrinsically peaceful, timeless world. The use of almost exclusively natural light is the final piece of technique to make the same points about the world that is slipping before our eyes. Music is also sparsely deployed, minor-key Johann Sebastian Bach alongside Samet’s mournful score.
All this slowness and stillness, the lack of fast edits and quick cuts, enable, indeed encourage the viewer to really look at the details of the mise-en-scène. These details are used in a way, again, to suggest a world trapped in time, and about to disappear. When Nabat returns to her home, or enters the deserted buildings after the village has been abandoned, the camera looks slowly round the room concerned, so that we dwell upon the mixture of Azeri and Russian books, for example, and the faded carpets on the stone floor of the mosque. The precise details of the last, hastily abandoned meals, the cheese, the half-eaten bits of bread, the cutlery left leaning against the plates and bowls; the newly-washed, but now forlorn children’s clothes blowing in the wind—all of this, and much else besides is examined slowly and methodically. When Nabat visits the deserted photographer’s studio to look again for Murad’s missing portrait we leaf through with her a series of stills which seek to capture a now lost world.
In all these cinematic regards Nabat is a rare film that evokes the cinema of Robert Bresson as well as the painters already mentioned. However, while Bresson’s minimalism has a ruthless misanthropic coldness at its heart, Musaoglu paints his world with a poignant love and intimacy. Crucial to this is Nabat herself. As the title suggests, the film is all about her. Fatemah Motamed-Arya plays the role beautifully, making the most of the limited diapason at her disposal, given the sparseness of dialog and few scenes of intrinsic emotional power. Nabat, in her rendition, is a woman at the heart of community, greeted in the opening sequences by all she meets as “auntie Nabat.” (In Azeri Nabat means “sugar-plum” or “candy”: “Sweetie” might be a good English translation of the film’s title). The washing scene with her husband, indeed all the scenes with Iskender, are imbued with loving tenderness. The moment when she leans exhausted against the headstone of Murad, almost embracing it, is also profoundly touching.
Nabat, then, is very different from its predecessors in almost all regards. The war is very much in the background. There are no scenes of actual fighting, although shelling is often to be heard as Nabat lies awake at night. At times, it has to be said, one wonders whether this film is really about the Nagorno-Karabakh war, or any war for that matter. Rather it is about the passing of an old way of life, and any imminent fundamental change, such as the building of a reservoir, for example, as in Elem Klimov’s Farewell (Proshchanie, 1983) might equally have been the topic. More generally, in fact, Nabat and her film have much in common with the late Soviet classic, and the women within it.
Since its release in 2014 Nabat has been nominated for and received numerous awards, including several at the Mannheim-Heidelberg Film Festival of 2014; it was also Azerbaijan’s official entry for the 2015 Best Foreign Language Oscar. Like the war that it does and does not depict, the film has certain unresolved issues, and is not to everyone’s taste. The role of the she-wolf, for example, verges on the sentimental, and the ending is enigmatic, but also unnecessarily opaque. But even so, Nabat is indeed a very fine film and one that repays the very close attention its cinematic style almost demands of the viewer.
University of Keele
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Nabat, Azerbaijan, 2014
Color, 146 minutes
Director: Elchin Musaoglu
Script: Elchin Musaoglu and Elkhan Nabiev
Cinematographer: Abdulrahim Besharat
Music: Hamed Samet
Cast: Fatemah Motamed-Arya, Vidadi Aliyev, Sabir Mammadov, Farhad Israfilov, Ramin Zeynalov, Rahila Mammadova, Rovshan Aghayev, Hasan Safarov
Producer: Mushfiq Fatamov
Production Company: Azerbaijan Film Studios
Elchin Musaoglu: Nabat (Azerbaijan, 2014)
reviewed by Joe Andrew,© 2016