Issue 62 (2018)

Rashid Malikov Fortitude (Sabot, Uzbekistan, 2018)

reviewed by Olga Kim © 2018

fortitudeRashid Malikov’s Fortitude is set in the Karakalpak ASSR (an autonomous republic within the Uzbek SSR) in 1989. This was the year of Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and, more broadly, the time of irreversible tectonic shifts that occurred across Soviet society. The protagonist, Saydulla—a former military officer but now a school teacher—lives alone in a dilapidated house in the middle of the Karakalpak desert. He follows his daily routine with ascetic indifference: waking up before the alarm, washing under the old metal water dispenser, feeding the dog, going  to work, coming  back, and again repeating this pattern. His dog Rambo (a name that became popular as the pirated video market thrived in the 1980s) and the ghost of his army friend who died during the Soviet war in Afghanistan are his only company.

The protagonist ’s ascetic way of life is underscored by the restrained visual style of the film. The unhurried repetition of the predominantly static, distant shots in cool color tones help to convey his indifference to the monotonous routine framed by home and school. In the course of this monotonous daily pattern, we gradually learn that Saydulla is haunted by the memories of the war in Afghanistan, that he has an unresolved conflict with his son, and that the school where he works is plagued by corruption and crumbling social infrastructure. His impending death, as Saydulla learns of his terminal cancer, urges him to act, and the narrative of the film unfolds.

While it is too late to restore the relationship with his son who feels abandoned by his father, Saydulla at least tries to amend those mistakes that his own son makes regarding his grandchildren. His disintegrated family is only part of Saydulla’s crumbling world that he delayed facing. Other traumatic encounters that had been postponed are related to his Afghan-war past. Impelled by his impending death, he finally finds courage to visit the widow of his Afghan-war friend who haunts him and to deliver his letter after an eight-year delay. But the encounter with the Afghan-war officer Nazarov, who turns out to be a traitor, is the most dreaded one, since facing him entails retribution for the friend’s death.

Around this tightly woven story of a man facing death, the film reconstructs a compelling picture of the last Soviet years in the remotest corner of the socialist empire. Saydulla’s house and every single object in it emanate the atmosphere of late Soviet byt (everyday life). The rows of handmade bricks drying in his backyard (a common sight in Soviet Uzbekistan) point to the unfinished construction of his house, which ironically has already fallen into disrepair. This sight serves as a pithy allegory of the state as a whole. But more than anything, the school where Saydulla works as a teacher of physical education appears as a miniature model of late Soviet society. The director of the school, an “emancipated woman of the Soviet East,” is unaware of how to handle the corrupt town administration in order to restore the water supply at the school. By contrast, Saydulla’s colleague, who shows off his “Adidas,” sport suit, seems to be well aware of and adjusted to the system’s corrupt mechanisms. The school meeting captures the air of the period particularly well. While the meeting appears as a typical late Soviet “ritual,” the crumbling infrastructure and the lack of resources mentioned at the meeting signal that it has become harder to maintain the appearance of stability.

fortitudeThe choice of the Karakalpak Autonomous Republic as the location for the film is significant. Not only does the harsh Karakalpak desert provide a fitting landscape for the character’s existential crisis, but it also gives a unique perspective on the Soviet empire from the periphery of a periphery. This double removal from the center—both Tashkent and Moscow are mentioned several times in the film as privileged centers—allows us to avoid a nationalist reading of the film that would cast Uzbek people as victims of Soviet imperial ambitions, especially when it comes to the conflict in Afghanistan. After all, Uzbek soldiers (as well as other Muslim Central Asians) were formed into the so-called Muslim battalions and were among the first troops who had to fight their neighbors in Afghanistan. However, by locating the characters in a Karakalpak desert, the film circumvents a default anti-Soviet nationalist interpretation, while managing to convey a sense of catastrophe on both the existential and social levels.

The attitude toward the Soviet legacy in Fortitude is ambivalent. On the one hand, the film mercilessly dismantles the corruption, fraudulence and immorality of the regime. This dismantling is epitomized in the Afghan-war episode of the betrayal and the cover up committed by Major Nazarov. The episode is shown as the protagonist’s last flashback and, in a way, explains his ascetic indifference toward his surroundings. (The episode could also be read as a succinct representation of the Soviet war in Afghanistan.) On the other hand, this dismantling is interwoven with a nostalgic tone and a bitter sense of loss of a world where “everything was forever until it was no more,” to borrow Alexei Yurchak’s felicitous title of the book about the last Soviet generation. The film’s last shot, which gradually turns into a bird’s eye view of the desert and is accompanied by music at once ominous and mournful, effectively expresses this ambivalence.

fortitudeIn this regard, Fortitude is a darker double of Malikov’s previous film The Uncle [Tog’a, 2014]. The main action in The Uncle is also set in 1989. In this film, however, the period is framed as a flashback of the grown-up nephew who recalls a summer he had spent with his uncle in Bukhara. The uncle in the film is portrayed as a trickster (a typical character of the late Soviet period), and the surrounding world largely works by fraudulent mechanisms. Since the period is portrayed as a childhood recollection, an idealized and nostalgic tone permeates the film’s take on the late Soviet period. Fortitude, by contrast, removes the rosy childhood glasses and forces the protagonist to face the dire reality.

Malikov belongs to the last generation of Uzbek filmmakers who were trained in Moscow at the Film Institute VGIK, and who worked during the Soviet and then post-Soviet periods, mainly in Uzbekistan. Fortitude was produced at the Uzbekfilm Studio and premiered at the 40th Moscow International Film Festival, where it won the Jury Prize for best film in the main competition.

Olga Kim
University of Pittsburgh

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Fortitude, 2018
Color, 78 minutes
Director: Rashid Malikov
Script: Rashid Malikov with participation of Kenes Karimov
Cinematography: Bakhodir Yuldashev
Production design: Daniyar Abdurakhmanov
Music: Dmitry Yanov-Yanovsky
Sound: Anwar Fayz
Cast: Karim Mirkhodiev, Seidulla Moldakhanov, Begzod Khamraev, Nigora Karimbaeva, Zulkhumor Muminova.
Producer: National Agency Uzbekkino
Production: Uzbekfim Studio

Rashid Malikov Fortitude (Sabot, Uzbekistan, 2018)

reviewed by Olga Kim © 2018

Updated: 2018