Issue 70 (2020)

Umid Hamdamov: Hot Bread (Issiq non, Uzbekistan, 2019)

reviewed by Elena Monastireva-Ansdell © 2020

Women Without Men: Labor Migration and Uzbek Society

hot bread“Uzbek flatbread symbolizes domestic comfort… We even compare Motherland to [our national] bread,”—that is how Umid Khamdamov explains the title of his gripping coming-of-age drama that seeks to bring into focus and reconstitute the meaning of family, family hearth, and national community in the patriarchal society where the majority of rural working-age men leave their economically-struggling households to earn a living as labor migrants in the near abroad (Ryzhkov 2019). In 2019, Hot Bread won the Grand Prix at the 28th Open CIS and Baltic Film Festival “Kinoshok,” additionally garnering the Best Composer award for Tair Kuziyev’s haunting, ethnically inspired music, and the Best Actress title for Feruza Saidova for her understated portrayal of a longsuffering traditional daughter-in-law. In contrast to the late President Islam Karimov’s moral censure and censorship of Uzbek labor migration as allegedly unpatriotic and economically unnecessary, the new openness under the reform-oriented Shavkat Mirziyoyev allowed Khamdamov not only to secure state funding for the film that he had sought to make since 2011, but also receive highest recognition at Uzbekistan’s national film awards (Oltin Humo) for the best film, best screenplay, and best editing. In another important development for Uzbek national cinema, Hot Bread became Uzbekistan’s first entry for the Best International Feature at the 92nd Academy Awards (but was not nominated).  

After graduating from Uzbekistan Institute of Arts and Culture in 2005 where he studied filmmaking under one of the founders of Uzbek cinema, Shukhrat Abbasov, Khamdamov worked for a few years as a director staging mass cultural events. In 2010 his short film debut Nazar, a parable about the importance of preserving hope in the direst of life’s circumstances, received much praise, including from renown veteran filmmaker Zulfikar Musakov, thus facilitating his transition to the world of filmmaking. Following his acquaintance with Ayub Shakhobiddinov, a member of the younger generation of Uzbek filmmakers also known as “founders of Uzbek Bollywood” (Abikeeva 223), Khamdamov scripted and filmed several popular commercial features that nonetheless showed his sensitivity to social problems. For example, his romantic comedy My Mom’s Dreams (2013), despite being a lighthearted story of two sisters asserting their independence as they negotiate career prospects and romantic relationships in a glamorously urban Uzbekistan, raises, no matter how superficially, a “serious” issue of gender inequality in a patriarchal system. Khamdamov’s turn to socially engaged filmmaking in Hot Bread with its particular focus on women’s roles and position in society therefore looks less jarring, realizing his professed longtime aspiration to make “serious cinema” (Ryzhkov 2019).  

hot breadHot Bread narrates a teenage girl’s (Zarina Ergasheva) journey from emotional anguish and rebellion against her traditional grandmother (Munavvar Abdullayeva) for forcefully disrupting her hoped-for reunion with her ideally-imagined “modern” mother, to finding a sense of belonging, and hard-won, albeit limited, agency in her reconfigured rural family run jointly by women and children. At the beginning of the film, Zulfiia’s grandmother takes her out of a city boarding school to bring her back “home,” to the native village. Still a child, Zulfiia is both in denial and not completely aware of her situation, in which her father left the family long ago and her mother took a menial job at a large textile factory and seeks to start a new family. Zulfiia tries to compensate by creating an ideal familial picture in her imagination. In the village, in which we see no adult men as they presumably joined Uzbekistan’s millions-strong labor-migrant army, the domineering grandmother enforces obedience and traditional rules of behavior being particularly harsh on her patiently resilient daughter-in-law, Norgul (Feruza Saidova), a proverbially humble and powerless kelin of the Central Asian traditional household. While her family is in a state of crisis – in addition to Zulfiia’s economically struggling mom, grandmother’s son and Norgul’s husband does seasonal work away from home having left behind his wife and three children—the family matriarch is bent on maintaining the patriarchal chain of command concerned as she is with preserving a sense of normalcy and tradition that Zulfiia perceives as no less than tyranny.

Grandmother’s exclusive access to the family’s only phone, which she keeps locked up in a safe, makes her privy to the disastrous changes that social dislocation—caused by capitalism and labor migration – have wrought on her family: her daughter’s hopes to remarry keep her tied to her exploitative job in the city while her gastarbeiter son has fathered a child with his new Russian wife and does not plan to return to his Uzbek family. While Norgul intuitively understands her situation and channels her efforts at caring for and supporting her children and niece, Zulfiia attempts to find all of her relatives and reunite them around the family hearth. In the process, she discovers and learns to face painful truths about herself, her family, and society.

hot breadZulfiia’s “journey to consciousness” unfolds as a series of disillusionments, shocking discoveries, betrayals of trust, and moments of enlightenment that guide her from anguish to reconciliation and from rebellion to an integration into her reconfigured community. Arriving from the city, Zulfiia enters the more traditional world of the village as a cultural outsider with a sense of “Western” superiority that is both unfairly disdainful toward her new rural home and legitimately critical of it. On the one hand, she places herself above her economically struggling villagers with the invented stories about her parents’ western-style success and callously makes money off her impoverished playmates charging them for rides on her flashy-pink rollerblades with light-up wheels. On the other hand, she struggles vigorously against her grandmother’s overbearing authority and challenges Norgul’s unquestioning obedience and dedication to her traditional domestic chores. Ultimately though, through all of her rebellious acts and peer interactions, Zulfiia is searching for—and shaping—an authentic and caring community in which she can belong.

The two major factors that impede Zulfiia’s idealistic dream of family prosperity and happiness are Uzbek patriarchy and Western capitalism. Zulfiia traumatically experiences gender inequality in her relationship with her classmate, Ahmad, and in her uncle’s treatment of Norgul. She starts to understand the darker side of the Western version of modernity when she connects her mother’s and uncle’s social dislocation and her own marginalization to the economic inequities caused by capitalism.

hot breadInteractions and negotiations with the two traditional female figures in her life, grandmother and Norgul, allow Zulfiia an insight into authentic Uzbek traditions, practices, and coping strategies that help her build up her resilience while preserving her modern sense of equality and self-worth. Zulfiia’s access via a stolen key to grandmother’s safe and a letter containing her last will is perhaps the most transformative event in the film. Addressed to Zulfiia’s mother, grandmother’s will demonstrates this matriarch’s profound concern for her daughter-in-law, children, and grandchildren. Grandmother’s traditional authoritarianism seems to be her last resort against the overwhelming social changes and global centrifugal forces that tear her family apart. As Zulfiia reads the letter, the camera gradually reveals a virtual shrine to Family that the old woman carefully constructed in her living room. Pictures of children and parents at various stages in their lives intermingle with graduating class photos, elements of national dress, and strings of dried pomegranate, an eastern symbol of family prosperity, fertility, and wealth. Modern values, such as education and belief in progress, occupy a prominent place in the display as reflected in the photo of grandmother wearing her school teacher’s suit, a shelf with books, and a pendulum clock keeping correct time in this traditional rural household that grandmother paradoxically attempts to keep timelessly patriarchal. Just like this timelessness breaks at the seams proving to be a poor solution for grandmother’s family problems, the very real historical changes wrought by globalization in the village and Uzbek society at large, call for an urgent rethinking and reform of traditional social structures.

Similar to grandmother, who decides to address her last will to her daughter as opposed to her unreliable son, her daughter-in-law Norgul moves beyond reliance on her absent husband long before she learns that he abandoned the family forever. Throughout the film, Norgul works tirelessly on upkeeping the outdoor kitchen space with its centrally located tandoor; she bakes fresh bread both for the family and for sale in a local community store; and collects, dries, and sells medicinal herbs “for calming nerves and improving memory.” Norgul’s seemingly subservient devotion to the family as a stereotypical kelin reveals its subversive power when the viewer realizes that the family survives exclusively thanks to her hard work, resourcefulness, and determination. While Zulfiia’s dramatic rejection of traditionalism and the patriarchy is largely intuitive and idealistic, Norgul’s quiet but determined declaration that her husband is “dead” frames her rebellion as a hard-lived-through and realistic judgment. The collective portrait of young men in the village only confirms this conclusion: Zulfiia finds out that her uncle had to leave the village because of his gambling debts; her male classmates engage in fist fights and disrespectful and/or aggressive behavior toward their female peers; and the brief moments of male compassion conceal self-centeredness and exploitation. Zulfiia’s coming of age, as she navigates her society’s gendered landscape, goes hand in hand with her growing appreciation of Norgul, learning from the older woman’s experiences, and embracing her as “the best mom in the world I could have ever asked for.” When, in the end, Zulfiia joins Norgul in the kneading of the dough for the traditional bread, the film presents this as far from the young girl’s taming and initiation into traditional gender roles as grandmother intended it in an earlier scene. Quite the opposite, the two women vigorously hit the dough with their clenched fists as they join forces in taking charge of their lives in the challenging world defined by traditional patriarchy, social displacement, and capitalism.

hot breadWhile the film clearly identifies the problems with capitalism and Uzbek traditionalism, and acknowledges the vital role of women in navigating these challenges, its analysis of underlying causes is more muddled and contradictory. Much of this confusion comes from the incoherent portrayal of grandmother’s character that straddles Soviet and traditional patriarchal models as both a decorated Soviet-era schoolteacher (her locked safe holds a small bust of Lenin and what looks like a Soviet socialist labor award) and a traditional authoritarian mother-in-law. The Soviet project was, in major ways, antithetical to traditional values, setting as its goal a dismantling of “backward” ethnic traditions through a range of modernizing strategies, such as liberation of women from the veil and patriarchal exploitation (including child marriages for girls), and instituting universal education. Khamdamov’s simplistic conflation of these two traditions on the grounds that he sees them both as authoritarian may be due to the fact that he belongs to the emerging generation of Uzbek filmmakers whom Gulnara Abikeeva describes as “children of independence,” or artists who “never lived to remember the Soviet era” (Abikeeva 2010, 223), which in itself gives the viewer an insight into the receding relevance of the Soviet past for the younger generation of artists. Grandmother’s trajectory from her Soviet persona promoting education to her post-Soviet identity when she becomes obsessed with marrying Zulfiia off as soon as her age allows, is puzzling. That is why the partial “redemption” of her behavior in the letter, in which she advocates for Zulfiia’s education, sounds untrue to her previously established character. This is also the reason why her incorporation into the three-generational community of women at the end of the film, right after the scene in the hospital in which she once again presses the importance of marriage onto Zulfiia, looks somewhat strained.  

Aside from lacking a deeper analysis of Soviet colonial and modernization legacy in Uzbekistan, Hot Bread makes a meaningful contribution to a growing body of films about the effects of Soviet imperialism, globalization, and labor migration on Central Asian societies, most notably, Yusup Razykov’s Gastarbeiter (2009, Russia) about an Uzbek patriarch traveling to Russia in search of his missing labor-migrant grandson; Nurbek Egen’s Empty Home (Pustoi dom, 2012, Kyrgyzstan/Russia) about a young Kyrgyz woman’s journey to Russia and France to find prosperity and freedom from the Kyrgyz patriarchy; Larisa Sadilova’s She (Ona, 2012, Russia) about a group of Tadjik migrants in Russia and the problem of their cultural assimilation; and Sergei Dvortsevoi’s Ayka (2018, Kazakhstan/Russia/Germany/China) about a young Kyrgyz woman struggling to survive economically and physically in inhospitable Moscow. In this multinational corpus of films, Khamdamov’s feature stands out as focusing exclusively on the domestic problems caused by migration and social displacement and the survival mechanisms of those left without fathers, husbands, and male labor force.

The film ends on a positive note, celebrating Uzbek women’s resilience, intergenerational cooperation, and collaborative creativity away from oppressive patriarchal norms. Tair Kuziyev’s award-winning music reinforces this sentiment by its skillful incorporation of two female vocal parts throughout the narrative, an idealistic soprano and a more mature mezzo, at first sung independently, later interlacing and supporting each other.   

Elena Monastireva-Ansdell
Colby College, Waterville, ME

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Works Cited

Abikeeva, Gulnara. 2010. “Uzbekistan: ‘Chopping Board’ or Serious Cinema?” Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema 4 (2): 221-26.

Ryzhkov, Lev. 2019. “‘Kinoshok’ po-uzbekski: Umid Khamdamov o fil’me ‘Goriachaia lepeshka’.”, 14 September.

Hot Bread, Uzbekistan, 2018
Color, 87 min.
Director: Umid Khamdamov (Umid Hamdamov)
Scriptwriter: Umid Khamdamov
DoP: Dzhahangir Ibragimov (Jahongir Ibrohimov)
Costumes: Mastura Khamroyeva (Mastura Hamroyeva)
Production Design: Alisher Umrzakov (Alisher Umrzoqov)
Composer: Toir Kuziyev
Sound design: Furkat Khasanov (Furqat Hasanov)
Cast: Zarina Ergasheva, Feruza Saidova, Munavvara Abdullayeva, Lola Eltoyeva, Laziz Ravshanov, Dildora Umarova, Komila Hasanova. 
Production: Uzbekkino National Agency, Uzbekfilm

Umid Hamdamov: Hot Bread (Issiq non, Uzbekistan, 2019)

reviewed by Elena Monastireva-Ansdell © 2020

Updated: 2020