Asif Rustamov: Down the River (Axinla ashagi, 2014)

reviewed by Aliya Dadashova © 2018

Man like Water

Even if with interruptions, Azerbaijani cinema nevertheless has a constant topic: the theme of father and son. This is a universal theme, but Azerbaijani cinema focuses on the topic more successfully than on any other theme. The reason may be that a patriarchal, authoritative rule is characteristic for the national model of the family, and in this small authoritative state the father is the main person.

down the riverFrom the very first frames Asif Rustamov’s film Down the River refers to its predecessors: through the music and images it evokes the Azerbaijani film The Mad Kura (Däli Kür, dir. Guseyn Seyidzade, 1969). We recall Aladdin Abbasov’s character Cahandar aga, who brings home a second wife while his first wife is still alive, and faces a conflict with the son. In the list of filmic predecessors there are many other father-figures, from Rustam in Great Support (Böyük dayaq, dir. Hebib Ismayilov, 1962) to Yaqub from the short film The Swing of the Coffin Maker (Die Schaukel des Sargmachers, dir. Elmar Imanov, 2012).

Ali (Namik Agayev), the protagonist of Down the River, is a rowing coach. His team, which includes his son Ruslan, will participate in a very important competition. The film acquaints the viewer with the strict, selfish father, then the husband who is fed up with the home and his wife Leyla, then with the man who is looking for rest in the embrace of his Polish mistress Sasha…

The viewer’s acquaintance with Ali continues until he receives a message about his son’s death after he had expelled him from the team on the day of the competition. Then Ali begins to look inside himself: this is a different Ali, whom he had not known before. This process of getting to know himself continues until the end of the film, and culminates in a scene where he looks down the flowing river with a blood-red mouth and innocent face.

While Ali is looking for the body of his son who allegedly drowned himself in the river, he is actually looking for the father inside himself; he interrogates him and talks with him. The film suggests that the phrase “to become a father” should be used not only when a child is born, but also when a child dies—and maybe it is even more relevant in the latter case.

down the riverThe protagonist wanders through the depths of the labyrinth of a water-processing station, between curved and straight pipes. The filmmaker does not accentuate these metaphorical images of a maze; on the contrary, they are within the action. Overall, in Rustamov’s film metaphors do not interfere into the frame, but they flash before our eyes in a natural and casual way. Thus, for example, in the episode when the mistress offers Ali the life he wants and he refuses, whilst in the distance a ship decorated with bright lights sails past, as if promising happiness; or when the tension between him and his wife reaches a dramatic peak, and a rotten pipe in the toilet bursts from the water pressure… Then Ali can no longer bear the pressure and starts to break things around him with the key he holds in his hand. This is a protest against himself: the fear to learn something about himself and to be carried away by the current. Because the situation is not as one-sided as it first seemed.  

In Ali’s family everyone protects their own happiness, so to be happy together is impossible. Ali and Leyla and Ruslan are very distant from each other; they live in different worlds, and when these worlds come closer to each other, the trouble starts.

If the father complicates the life of his son and doesn’t allow him to be himself, then the son also represents a hindrance for the father to lead his own life. When the mistress accuses Ali of cowardice, he answers: “Apart from a wife, I also have a son.” (And maybe therefore he pressurizes the son? Maybe that’s how he vents his anger towards the son?). The son’s existence forms a barrier for the father’s happiness, but his death turns into an even bigger obstacle. Ali’s face says: paternity is a never-ending hell. And it has nothing to do with love for a son.

The dream when Ali sees himself tangled in a net is a sign of his concern about the drowned son, his state under water. But this dream is also a subconscious image of Ali himself: trying to release himself, he gets more tangled the more he flounders.

Meanwhile the mother in this tragedy is not forgotten. She, too, put the relationship with her husband first, because the tension is there; her disputes with the husband move everything else into the background. Then she admits: “I was always afraid to lose you, but it happened the other way round: I lost my son…”

Suffering from the loss of her son, Leyla (Mekhriban Zeki) nevertheless finds the time for a meeting with her husband’s mistress. In her house she looks down from the window and shudders from the picture she sees: the teacher picks a child from the pool, rescuing him from drowning. Leyla closes the curtains: she banishes the pain that she couldn’t save her son. With the help of silent, measured speech, the actress loads her pauses with meaning: showing the stiffness between Ali and his family falls entirely on her. The pauses, which are filled with unspoken words or with offenses and charges, show precisely the atmosphere in the house.

down the riverIn the Down the River the acting is capable of carrying the dramatic weight. No component of the film surpasses another: settings, music, and emotions are precisely balanced and calculated. This accuracy makes the distance between viewer and events not too close, but also not too distant. The cinematographer (DoP Ayhan Salar) has refrained from close ups. The musical composition contains elements of history, but doesn’t leave room for sentimentality. The music neither loads the viewer with sentimental experiences, nor does it evoke tears, but strengthens the power of the film and maintains the dramatic tension. The cool style of the film—the music, the acting, the measured settings—doesn’t allow the viewer to stray. 

The spectator, who perceives the intensity of the situation more than the protagonist’s suffering, has to analyze this weight and divide it up. Otherwise, a viewer identifying with the protagonists and thinking that “this can happen to me,” would be even more strained, which would cause unnecessary tension. But the film does not aim to press on tears.

Although in Down the River there is one, hardly noticeable sentimental “leak”: to understand the father, to receive forgiveness for the father, he is made look as innocent as a child with blood in the mouth—soiled by raspberry juice. Enduring a huge tragedy, the hero—in parallel facing and reconciling with himself—finds harmony.

This scene of harmony is also the moment when the father reunites with his son. Following this scene, Ali for the first time quietly talks to his wife, without pressure. Apart for the social and psychological point of view, Down the River approaches the subject also from an existential perspective: the hero’s tragedy is existential. It seems that the film differs from its above-mentioned predecessors here, and the film’s title strengthens this impression.

In recent years Azerbaijani cinema has paid special attention to the topic of fathers and sons, often addressing it, as in the above-mentioned The Swing of the Coffin Maker (Die Schaukel des Sargmachers) or A Divine Animal (Bozhestvennoe zhivotnoe, dir. Yaver Rzayev 2012) and the short film Knot (Uzel, dir. Ali Iza Jabbarov, 2008). But Down the River has brought an absolutely new perspective to this subject, which allows us to speak about personality and freedom instead of traditional or national family models.

Aliya Dadashova
Translated by Birgit Beumers


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Down the River, 2014
Color, 90 minutes
Director: Asif Rustamov
Script: Asif Rustamov, Otar Pertakhia
Music: Khayyam Mirza-zade
DoP: Ayhan Salar
Production Design: Rafiz Ismailov
Cast: Aleksandra Andrzejewska, Namig Agayev, Mekhriban Zeki, Elmin İmamverdiyev , Teymur Mammadov
Producer: Mushfig Hatamov
Production: Azerbaijanfilm
Premiere: Karlovy Vary 2014

Asif Rustamov: Down the River (Axinla ashagi, 2014)

reviewed by Aliya Dadashova © 2018

Updated: 26 Jul 18