Issue 54 (2016)
Denis Shabaev, Not My Job (Chuzhaia rabota, 2015)
reviewed by Elise Thorsen© 2016
In the minimalism of its cinematic apparatus, restricted to the one-man crew of Denis Shabaev and to proscenic material without extra-diegetic soundtrack or commentary, Not My Job reflects the imprint of Marina Razbezhkina’s documentary school. So, too, does Shabaev’s choice of subject hail from the human material of the protean street and social fringe that is typical for this school of documentary. Shabaev draws us into the life and aspirations of Farrukh Gafurov, a Tajik migrant worker cum aspiring actor in the shantytown outskirts of Moscow.
The unusual combination of struggling actor and migrant worker from the very start sets Farrukh apart from his family, whom he has just joined as the main body of the documentary begins. His two brothers appear as social types more readily associated with a marginal population. Faridun, the elder brother, is frequently seen praying on a different plane in a shot as action unfolds for Farrukh, and appears naturally to embody the touchstone of tradition. His younger brother Faravon, on the other hand, is the model of a disaffected youth who sees no future for himself in Moscow, whether he attends school or not, and immerses himself in the adolescent community and spectacle of football. By contrast, Farrukh has an idealist streak, desiring to use this opportunity in New Moscow to change perceptions of Tajiks as a people beyond the homo economicus that he sees them reduced to. Indeed, he ignores this economic imperative for his own wife and children in Dushanbe for the sake of the possibility of being their hero. While egoistic, this insistence on his own centrality in a potentially bigger story allows Farrukh and the camera to resist exotic cultural abstractions or sociological lecturing that the subject matter of migrant workers might invite.
Still, life at the margins is frequently the stuff of tragic narratives, and Farrukh’s cinematic aspirations drive him to put himself further on view when circumspection would be safer. If nothing else, the glimpses we get of the character parts he plays in gangster films and procedurals attest to the danger of visibility. It is a relief that Farrukh’s eventual bad luck is banal rather than catastrophic: he gets the rap for a collision on the road and, with that blot on his record, gives up both career and paying job to return to his family in Dushanbe.
In a heated conversation with his parents over his pursuit of an acting career, he presciently notes that he struggles “with life.” Shabaev’s masterful editing underscores this fact, revealing an impersonal order in the cinematic environment, the omnipresent substrate of life against which Farrukh has struggled. Periodic pillow shots of environmental motifs emerge early as a device in the film, intrusively enough to notice and, eventually, to recall as the actual shapers of the course that Farrukh’s life takes.
Airplanes crisscross the sky over serene urban landscapes as a frequent reminder of the flow of people connecting Russia and Tajikistan and of the fact that Farrukh’s place of residence is hardly stationary. Shots of individuals in prayer underscore the ordinariness of acts of faith in the migrant community, but are also striking in their visual isolation. The sense that Tajiks and Central Asian traditions do not quite have a place in Russia, though, arises from a contrapuntal moment of mass prayer for Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan; the stationary helicopter looming over this gathering marks it as out of place by virtue of its contrast with the airplanes that, one suddenly remembers, keep Tajik migrant workers from being settled in one place long enough for this to be more than a temporary occurrence. More subtly, multiple shots through a windshield spider-webbed with cracks as Farrukh goes from job to job shift in memory from naturalistic detail to harbingers of his car crash.
While such motifs create the environment that seems to predetermine the final outcome, there are complementary symbolic motifs of the attempt to define one’s own life. Figures in the film wash things a resonant three times, pouring cold water over their footballs, their shoes, their bodies and rubbing with their hands. In this makeshift way, all of the Gafurov brothers attempt to clean the slate for the stories they want to tell: of socio-economic stability, or of respect for tradition, or of a new beginning for Farrukh after prison. While all things become visibly better as a result of the effort, the white leather of the ball is nonetheless stained, and it is unlikely that the dress shoes made it across a muddy field unscathed. Similarly, Farrukh, having been released on amnesty, is in a better position than he could otherwise be, but cannot erase the effect of his arrest on the life plan he had tried to follow.
Finally, a self-reflexive camera persistently recurs. Guests record a wedding on their iPhones, the family lends narration to the reels of an unknown Soviet family’s home videos rescued from the scrap heap and toys with the ancient recorder that made the videos, and Farrukh’s acting is on display at all stages from audition to final production. The sheer number of times that a “film” is made in the film testifies to its artfulness, and concedes that Not My Job’s narratives come into existence through force of will.
What happens without the structure offered by such willful personal narratives, though, is illustrated by the family’s mother when Farrukh is in prison. The material of life on screen is reduced to managing a routine, falling into the never-ending domestic tasks of washing and feeding or getting the road cleared of snow until the next time it snows. While she never complains, the degradation of her life seems to become clear in a late episode in the film, when she intercedes in an emotional fashion on behalf of an abandoned piano before her sons can destroy it for saleable scrap. While the forces of nature have warped the piano’s frame, and it may be most useful in parts, she desires that its artistic form be respected, as scarred by experience as it may be. In respecting her wishes, Farrukh redeems a narrative of artistry and biography above the routine management of the difficult environment.
This editorial artifice is capped by a highly effective frame for the film as a whole. The film does not, in fact, begin with Farrukh, but rather with a clerk in the office of the Russian Federal Migration Service in Dushanbe in charge of interviewing and approving applicants to the Resettlement Program. Although the program has for Tajikistan been an important mechanism for granting legal status to migrant workers with no deep roots in Russia, the nature of the program still requires explanations for what draws these people to Russia. In the series of interviews that begin the film, Farrukh’s among them, any number of possible idealistic and pragmatic narratives occur that all point, in their fashion, to the same end of Russia.
After this rather claustrophobic opening sequence of medium close-ups on faces, the focus shifts to show the cityscape of Dushanbe, a normal, perfectly modern urban setting over which the airplane that signals the constant flow between Tajikistan and Russia first begins to fly. The shift to the desolate space on the outskirts of Moscow is shocking; Farrukh is truly arriving in a place that is yet unformed, where maybe he can construct something new for himself.
The result of this attempt at self-construction and the culmination of the documentary’s construction can be found in the closure of the overarching frame. As Farrukh makes the days’ long journey by train to Dushanbe in platskart, we see another sequence of shots in close quarters. Where individual aspirations for Russia had been highlighted in the beginning, here it is the impromptu community that becomes prominent. Where the required mastery of Russian was a persistent question in the FMS office, here they speak Tajik. However, the opening and ending sequences share an orientation toward aspirations and fantasies that the speakers will find a place to belong—the occupants of one compartment, for example, assure Farrukh that he can leave his criminal record behind and are certain he’ll find a job at home to support his family, in spite of the poor salary in Tajikistan.
Though the construction of the film and frame seem to leave little doubt that creating a meaningful life is a thanklessly difficult and never-ending task, Shabaev seems content to leave his hero at a moment of reprieve in a context where he belongs, in the arms of his wife.
University of Pittsburgh
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Not My Job, Russia, 2015
Color, 70 min.
Director: Denis Shabaev
Scriptwriter: Denis Shabaev
Cinematography: Denis Shabaev
Editor: Denis Shabaev
Sound: Iurii Geddert
Cast: Farrukh Gafurov, Faravon Gafurov, Abdurakhmon Gafurov, Faridun Gafurov, Shakhlo Khodzhiboboeva, Viacheslav Ponomarev, Dmitrii Blinov, Zakhit Iusupov, Batyr Norbekov
Producer: Marina Razbezhkina
Production: Marina Razbezhkins’s Workshop
Denis Shabaev, Not My Job (Chuzhaia rabota, 2015)
reviewed by Elise Thorsen© 2016