Issue 53 (2016)

Maria Guskova: The Return of Erkin (Vozvrashchenie Erkina, Russia 2015)

reviewed by Gulbara Tolomushova© 2016

This Sweet Word, Freedom!

In May 2015 the short film The Return of Erkin by Russian director Maria Guskova, shot in Kyrgyzstan, received the third place in the competition of student films Cinéfondation at the Cannes Festival. Guskova has agreed to screen the film in October 2016 in Bishkek in the framework of the Fourth Forum of Young Cinema UMUT.

maria and Denis GuskovGuskova has emphasized that she made a universal picture about a man who spent a term in prison for murder and regained his freedom. However, it was less the prison that represented a punishment for him, but the feeling of guilt before the victim’s father after his release. For the protagonist it is important to receive a pardon from the elder (aksakal) to expiate his own guilt.

In reviews critics failed to pay attention to the meaning of the hero’s name: Erkin, in translation from Kyrgyz and Uzbek, means “free,” and in the context of the film’s theme— a “free man”. Guskova shot the film in two locations: the first was a suburb of Bishkek—the prison; but the bulk of the film was shot in the small village of Masy, in the south of Kyrgyzstan near Dzhalal-Abad, close to the border with Uzbekistan. The inhabitants of Masy are ethnic Uzbeks, but citizens of the Kyrgyz Republic. In the film practically only Uzbek language is spoken, and only in the scenes when Erkin is released from the prison, the security guards speak in the Kyrgyz language with him.

We may note some personal traits in the image of the hero, which are important for an understanding of his character. Erkin is a small and insignificant man who never resists when he is beaten: he remains silent. At the same time, he has been well raised. In the scene of the dinner at work we see that he has good table manners, breaking off a chunk of the flat bread, dipping it in sour cream, and delicately putting it in his mouth. Erkin is released early from prison: he has benefitted from two amnesties.

erkinHaving returned to his native village, Erkin immediately goes to the victim’s house to ask his father for forgiveness. The old man is silent, but the younger brother of the murdered man attacks the visitor and starts to beat him up. Erkin does not even try to resist. Only the aksakal protects him from the impacts. But the son does not calm down: “You’ll answer for my brother. I’ll finish you off. You’ll regret that you ever left prison.”

Erkin tries to talk with the aksakal for a second time, having waited for the morning prayers to end, but he does not dare approach him. On the third occasion Erkin waits for the old man at the gate of his house, but the elder goes past, not even looking towards him. Their following meeting occurs at the chapel, but the elder again shows no interest in Erkin.

erkinAs the plot moves on, we never learn the reason for the murder; we can assume only that there was a serious conflict because one of Erkin’s friends, looking at his exhausted face, reassures him: “He’s at fault. In your place I’d have killed him, too.” But in another scene we learn that Erkin used to drink before he went to prison. Then it is possible to assume that the murder occurred through imprudence, without intention to kill the opponent.

Erkin gets work for a firm that processes cotton. A friend invites him to the wedding of his son. The protagonist’s life gradually seems to get back to normal. But he shuts himself off, thinking of something with great concentration. These thoughts weigh heavy on him and never abandon him. Yes, you may get out of prison before the end of the term; you may quickly find work; you may receive an invitation to a wedding; you may dance there with all your heart—but practically you may not easily receive a pardon for the criminal action.

erkinHere it emerges that Erkin’s sons left two years ago to earn money in Russia; his wife has met another man and re-married. Clearly, after Erkin’s arrest it was hard for her to live in the village. The internal pressure on Erkin must be offloaded somehow. Unexpectedly Erkin sees the murdered man’s younger brother on the market, steadfastly looks at him and leaves. Soon the brother will tell his friend: “He’ll regret that he got out of prison. I’ll finish him off.”

Eventually, the beating of the silent, obedient Erkin takes place. After the punishment, Erkin— who resists in no way—understands that he has practically paid off for the crime. But the beating was preceded by Erkin’s dance at the wedding, where he had been invited in good time. The host invites Erkin to the microphone to congratulate the newly-weds. For the first time Erkin’s face acquires precise features: he is proud and realizes the responsibility of the moment. Having wished the best to the groom and the bride, he starts dancing—first with shyness and uncertainty, but after a moment Erkin changes, starts to smile and to move more dynamically; he grasps the sense of genuine freedom, and a long heavy burden of moral guilt drops off his shoulders.

In the end, the father of the murdered man comes to the severely beaten Erkin, putting an end to the opposition.

Translated by Birgit Beumers


Gulbara Tolomushova

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The Return of Erkin, Russia, 2015
Color, 28 minutes
Scriptwriter and director: Maria Guskova
DoP Denis Guskov
Producers Denis and Maria Guskov, Rinat Muslimov
Cast: Kazramonzhon Mamasaliev

Maria Guskova: The Return of Erkin (Vozvrashchenie Erkina, Russia 2015)

reviewed by Gulbara Tolomushova© 2016

Updated: 10 Jul 16