Issue 63 (2019)

Sergei Dvortsevoi: Ayka (aka My Little One, 2018)

reviewed by Stehn Mortensen © 2019

aykaIn 2010, Russian-Kazakhstani director Sergei Dvortsevoi read in the newspaper that close to 250 babies had been abandoned by Kyrgyz women in Moscow maternity wards. Indeed, Rossiiskaia gazeta (Ignatova 2010) estimated that migrant women coming from the former Soviet republics had given birth to 90 per cent of the 460 abandoned children that year. А similar piece later appeared in Komsomolskaia pravda, with the incendiary heading “Russia is turning into a maternity ward for migrant workers” (Alekhina 2012).

Dvortsevoi says he could not comprehend such news stories, having grown up in Central Asia, where he knew women to be fiercely maternal. How, he asked, could these mothers be driven to such lengths that they would even consider giving up their babies? Dvortsevoi would spend the next years answering this question with the film Ayka, which took six years to make, shooting over the course of four winters, with a great number of different collaborators. Producers and actors changed over time. He also interviewed women with similar experiences. Many of the actors were amateurs, i.e. real migrants who were staying in Russia illegally, some of whom were arrested or deported as the film was being made, rendering much of the material unusable, since they were unavailable to see the project through.

aykaAccording to Dvortsevoi, most of the content in Ayka was made up as they went along. The majority of the script is allegedly improvised. Before the camera would start rolling, Samal Yeslyamova—who also had to learn the Kyrgyz language for the role—would immerse herself completely in the mindset of her character, letting the rest unfold by itself. Dvortsevoi’s method of improvisation makes for a compelling attempt at merging reality with cinematic fiction, no doubt owing to his past life as a documentary filmmaker. He never starts a project with words or a story he has concocted. Many critics have mentioned the film Rosetta (1999) by the Dardenne brothers as an obvious point of reference (Dolin 2018), likewise featuring a young woman suffering much hardship. The director, although admitting his intimate knowledge of the Dardennes’ work, refutes the need to look to other films to get a grasp of Ayka. The best stories are real-life stories, he claims, they are all out there waiting to be told (Festival de Cannes Press Conference 2018).

aykaThe film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2018. For her stunning performance, the lead actress Samal Yeslyamova won the award for Best Actress. The film also received the Grand Prix at the Tokyo FILMeX IFF in November 2018. Ayka has been submitted as Kazakhstan’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film in the 2019 Academy Awards and has reached the December long-list. This is Dvortsevoi’s second fiction film, following his debut feature Tulpan (2008): a wistful yet delightful depiction of a lonely bachelor in the desolate steppes of Kazakhstan, in which Yeslyamova also played a part. Whereas the distant big city figures as a frightening last recourse for the bachelor in Tulpan in his search for a wife, in Ayka we face a positively hellish vision of Moscow.

Ayka traces a heart-wrenching week in the life of a 25-year-old Kyrgyz migrant who has just given birth. Trapped like an animal and badgered by the Russian nurses, Ayka Talaibekova narrowly escapes the maternity ward and scurries out into the snowstorm to get back to work at a poultry processing unit, leaving her crying newborn behind. She is treated in kind as she herself is deserted by her boss who takes off without paying her or the other women who have been boiling and plucking chickens for days on end. It soon becomes clear that she is not just running from her responsibilities as a mother, but also from a gang of Kyrgyz criminals whom she owes money that she had borrowed to fund a sewing business, an unattainable dream to which she still clings. But at what cost? The relentless ringing of her cell phone throughout the movie signals the impending tragedy.

aykaAt one point, the police raid the ramshackle apartment where she and other illegal migrants are staying, leaving some in a pool of blood. But the real horror ensues the moment when the Kyrgyz mafia shows up at her doorstep. As such, the film not only problematizes the inhuman treatment of many migrant workers in Russia, but also opens discussions about the cruelty and brutality that fellow immigrants exert on one another.

Despite her efforts to pull herself together, her body soon begins to revolt by constantly reminding her of what it has just undergone: she keeps losing blood after the birth, while her breasts ache with no baby to feed. In her fruitless search for employment, she stumbles upon a veterinary clinic, where a compatriot cleaning lady takes pity on her. But her maternal woes are also here made palpable by the woman’s little son, who, it appears, lives in neglect in the clinic’s broom closet while his mother is bossed around by a demanding Russian veterinarian—mirroring her own situation, having to work at the expense of her child. At the clinic she is witness to a litter of newborn puppies suckling an injured bitch. The sequence is juxtaposed with one in which she has to empty her own breasts to ease the pain. The fact that the veterinarian is far kinder to the dog than to his migrant employees is telling. But it is equally striking how the most wretched creatures around her are able, somehow, to care for their young, while she has opted to leave her own offspring in the care of complete strangers.

aykaThe film portrays Ayka as a wounded animal trying desperately to survive the hunt. A similar device can be found in Tulpan, where the survival of herd and herdsmen are inexorably interwoven: a ewe gives birth to a stillborn, and they desperately try to blow life back into the tiny dead lamb. But this proves “useless,” the shepherd concludes. While this is but a fleeting moment of grief, Ayka’s trauma is only reinforced and intensified throughout the film, drawn out until it becomes almost unbearable to watch.

Whereas in Tulpan Dvortsevoi had fixed his gaze on the endless winds blowing life into the sand and dust on the great steppes, the whirling snow is the only continuity that ties Ayka together into an aesthetic whole, while also propelling the story forward. The action was actually supposed to take place during the spring, but when the snow suddenly started falling, it added something new and unexpected, says the director (Festival de Cannes 2018). In Russian culture, a snowstorm usually indicates a great upheaval in someone’s life, often in the form of evil spirits trying to push the wanderer off course. The feeling of losing one’s way is acutely present in the film. Though she is determined to start her sewing business, the path forward seems anything but clear in Moscow’s violent snowstorm, in which xenophobic nurses, exploitive employers and brutal moneylenders lie in wait at every corner, reducing her dream of a new life in Russia into a veritable nightmare.

aykaDvortsevoi says he wanted to create a Madonna figure in the snow (Festival de Cannes 2018). This makes sense if we see this sad, yet resilient woman wading through the snow as embodying an ominous foreboding; the Madonna in Christian iconography looks at her child with sorrow in her eyes, burdened by the knowledge of what lies ahead for her son. Somehow Ayka, too, knows from the outset that she will be compelled to sacrifice her child in order to overcome her predicament. In the end, Ayka sells off her newborn baby to pay off her debts. It is somewhat ironic, then, that a film that derives so much of its impetus from spontaneity and improvisation, ends up being predictable to such a degree. We understand far too early that this can only end badly.

The film is fascinating yet distressing to watch. Ayka’s indefatigable, heavy breathing, interspersed with the honking sounds of Moscow’s traffic, permeates every scene, mostly made up of close-ups of her face. Dvortsevoi’s cinematic language is consistent but sparse: each take seems to harness a harrowing and excessively naturalistic impulse. As such, the film is a powerful wake-up call for Russians in Moscow living a charmed life, oblivious of the tragedies occurring all around them. And even if Ayka’s unspeakable choice remains a mystery to the very end, the empathy with which Dvortsevoi tells her story elevates the film in a way that precludes any recourse to judgment. Ayka seems above reproach—not just given the gravity her situation, but also in the way she refuses to compromise on her desire to be independent. She will stop at nothing.

Stehn Mortensen
University of Bergen

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Works Cited

Alekhina, Iuliia. 2012. “Rossiia prevrashchaetsia v roddom dlia gastarbaiterov.” Komsomol'skaia pravda 13 August.

Dolin, Anton. 2018. “‘Aika’: gumanitarnaia katastrofa v sobianinskoi Moskve: V Kannakh pokazali fil’m Sergeia Dvortsevogo o kirgizskoi migrantke.” Meduza 19 May.

Festival de Cannes. 2018. Conference de presse: “Ayka, Sergei Dvortsevoi.” YouTube 18 May.

Ignatova, Ol’ga. 2010. “Gastarbaiter-sirota: Migranty uezhaiut, brosiv rozhdennykh v Moskve detei.” Rossiiskaia gazeta 29 March.


Ayka, Russia, Germany, Poland, Kazakhstan, 2018
Color, 100 minutes
Director: Sergei Dvortsevoi
Script: Sergei Dvortsevoi, Gennadii Ostrovskii
Cinematography: Jolanta Dylewska
Sound: Martin Frühmorgen, Joanna Napieralska
Editors: Petar Markovich, Sergei Dvortsevoi
Cast: Samal Yeslyamova, Sergei Mazur, David Alaverdian, Viacheslav Agashkin, Anastasia Marchuk, Zhypargul’ Abdilaeva, Askhat Kuchinchirekov, Azamat Satinbaev, Andrei Koliadov, Polina Severnaia, Aleksandr Zlatopolskii
Producers: Sergei Dvortsevoi, Gulnara Sarsenova, Thanassis Karanthanos, Anna Wydra, Martin Hampel, Michel Merkt
Production: ARTE, with Eurasia Film Production, Juben Pictures, Kinodvor, Otter Films, Pallas Film, Polski Instytut Sztuki Filmowej, ZDF/Das kleine Fernsehspiel.

Sergei Dvortsevoi: Ayka (aka My Little One, 2018)

reviewed by Stehn Mortensen © 2019

Updated: 2019