Issue 71 (2021)

Daria Shumakova: I’ll Come Back Home (Ia vernus’, 2018)

reviewed by Otto Boele © 2021

ya vernusFor some of the former Soviet republics the 1990s may not possess that ominous ring of national humiliation which it has for the Russian Federation, but in these states, too, the experience of the first post-Soviet decade often proved to be traumatic. Economic collapse and ethnic strife formed the harsh reality for many ordinary citizens, especially in the Caucasus with its checkered history of military conflict and separatist movements. It is only fairly recently that filmmakers have discovered the region’s ordeal of the 1990s as a subject in its own right. Critically acclaimed films such as Tangerines (Mandariny, dir. Zaza Urushadze, 2013), which is set during the war in Abkhazia (1992–1993), or Line of Credit (Kreditis limiti, dir. Salome Aleksi-Meskhishvili, 2014), a tragic family story of unstoppable impoverishment, offer moving and thoughtful portraits of people struggling to survive in a rapidly changing world. Closeness (Tesnota, 2017) by Kantemir Balagov, a homegrown talent of Aleksandr Sokurov’s workshop at the Kabardino-Balkaria State University, is arguably the most celebrated “period film” to date to engage with the grim reality of the northern Caucasus during the 1990s.

ya vernusA graduate from Moscow State University and the Higher Courses of Scriptwriters and Filmmakers, Daria Shumakova has an entirely different background than the young film makers working under Sokurov’s guidance and yet her debut film also explores the Gordian knot of ethnic conflict and economic hardship by focusing on an Armenian family in the aftermath of the First Nagorno-Karabakh war (1988-1994). Six years old Saro lives with his mother and grandfather in a poor village carrying out the domestic duties of an adult, his father having left for the war four years ago. Though he prays for his safe return, Saro meets his father with suspicion when he unexpectedly shows up. Saro fears he will now lose his place in the family hierarchy and will be treated as a child rather than as a grown-up. To the adults it seems that things finally go back to normal again and Saro can now enjoy the remainder of his childhood.

ya vernusYet the war still looms large in the village whose population has dwindled to a few families consisting almost entirely of women, children and a few old men. The local tobacco factory lies in shambles, the village school stands empty and dilapidated. A newly opened shop sells goods nobody can afford such as an Adidas sweat suit that is collecting dust behind the counter. Even the very effort of rebuilding the village is viewed in conspicuously military terms as if Armenia’s rural economy is yet another combat zone. “It’s like the war,” grandfather Karen explains to Saro who is raging with indignation for being told to help his mother. “Your father is at the front, we are in the rear.” 

This virtual equation of economic survival to warfare is particularly telling with regard to Saro’s father whose return to the village lasts less than a week. “Perestroika, war, you men always leave,” his wife complains just days before her husband abandons the idea of eking out a living in the village and grudgingly accepts a low-skill job in Moscow. Yet indirectly the complaint also applies to Saro who, in spite of his defying stance towards his father, clearly tries to emulate him first by toying with the idea of going to war himself and then by fantasizing about getting rich in Moscow. One way or the other, leaving seems to be the only behavioral model available to him.

ya vernusUnwilling to assume his “normal” role as the child of the family, at some point Saro decides to go into hiding, but not without leaving a note for his family in which he promises to return (importantly, the note will be found by his father).  After spending a ghoulish night in a shed full of rusty farm equipment (a testament to the region’s deep economic malaise), Saro drags himself home again only to find that his father has just left for Moscow. In the final scene we see Saro reading his own note, now as its recipient, conveying what has become his father’s goodbye message to him: “I will return.” 

ya vernusAlthough we do not get to see father and son developing a meaningful relationship, there can be little doubt that they both crave one, the exchanging of goodbye notes being the clearest indication. One of the last scenes even shows Saro preparing to water a young apricot tree (Armenia’s national symbol) and discovering it has suddenly started to blossom. An undeniable reference to Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice in which Little Man waters a dead tree in hopes of reviving it, the scene conflates images of national hope and generational reconciliation; it is on the apricot tree that Saro and his father leave their goodbye notes, which thus becomes a symbol of Armenia’s future, a national Tree of Life so to speak. The very last scene in which we see Saro being admitted to the first class at the reopened local school then enhances this symbolism. Yet even if this scene contains the promise of a new start, a return to the normalcy of growing up, the continued absence of the father makes one suspect that Saro’s earlier reluctance to “become child again” may resurface again and bring him into conflict with his teachers.

I’ll Come Back Home is a subdued, yet compelling film that treats the main characters with equal sympathy. It shows life in the early 1990s through a series of contrasts and immediately recognizable period details (white-purple sweat suits, ghetto blasters drowning out traditional Armenian flute music and western cigarette brands replacing the local tobacco), yet without the fetishism that characterizes so many nostalgic movies. Without being a true revelation, Shumakova’s debut film is a worthy contribution to the growing body of period films dealing with early post-Soviet reality.

Otto Boele,
University of Leiden

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I’ll Come Back Home, Russia/ Armenia, 2018
Color, 87 minutes.
Director and Scriptwriter: Daria Shumakova
DoP: Sergei Komarov
Production Design: Olga Sokolova
Music: Anthony Philby
Editing: Irina Bychkova
Cast: Edik Arakelian, Frunzik Amirkhanian, Nerses Avetisian, Tatev Grigorian, Mardzhan Avetisian
Production: Movses Film
Producers: Benik Arakelian, Makar Zaporozhkii, Anna Gasparian
Release (RF) 24 October 2019

Daria Shumakova: I’ll Come Back Home (Ia vernus’, 2018)

reviewed by Otto Boele © 2021

Updated: 2021