Issue 30 (2010)

Yusup Razykov: Gastarbeiter (Gastarbaiter, 2009)

reviewed by Otto Boele © 2010

razykovYusup Razykov’s latest film Gastarbeiter is likely to give rise to two misunderstandings; first, that it is based on Eduard Bagirov’s 2007 novel of the same title (according to the director, a widespread assumption that is hard to dispel); and second, that it is a film about underpaid workers from Central Asian and other former Soviet republics trying too eek out a living in Russia. Although the film is set partly in an environment of Uzbek and Moldovan fortune hunters and shows the harsh realities of their daily lives (loneliness, exploitation, police harassment), this mainly serves as a backdrop for the two main characters who do not conform to the standard image of the migrant worker. “Grandpa” Sadyk, a silent, old Uzbek, who travels to Russia to find his missing grandson; and his chance guide, Vika, a Moldovan prostitute, are the central duo of this gripping and eventful road movie that offers a rich sampling of the former Soviet Union’s ethnic and linguistic diversity (in the film no less than six languages are either spoken or sung). Coming from different cultures and representing different age groups, Sadyk and Vika can be understood as embodying the sobering experience of minority peoples (malye narody), who, as Razykov put it in an interview, “still cannot find their place after the break-up of the Soviet Union” (Sycheva). While the Russian Federation has experienced spectacular economic growth in the 2000s and can stand on its own, other former republics have fared worse, remaining dependent on Russia as an economic powerhouse.

gastarbeiterIn the film, this dependence on Russia manifests itself largely through the nexus of labor migration and drug trafficking. Having learned that his grandson Oman has disappeared in the Moscow region where he was working on a construction site, Grandpa Sadyk decides to solicit help from Karim, the local mafia boss, who regularly sends young men to Russia for work, while simultaneously using them as drug runners. Unaware of, or indifferent to, Karim’s shady business, Sadyk agrees to deliver a package to Moscow (containing hash, it later turns out) in return for a plane ticket and a place to stay. At a Moscow airport, he is picked up by Obid, a russified Uzbek and his “woman,” the chain-smoking prostitute Vika, who drive him to a dilapidated apartment crammed with Uzbek workers. Vika is literally the odd girl out here as she is the only woman in an entirely male community and works hand-in-glove with the police, tipping them off about the drug deliveries from Uzbekistan. Special forces raid the apartment and Sadyk is arrested, but the police soon decide to let him go out of respect for his exceptional combat merit during WWII (going through Sadyk’s personal belongings they find a number of war decorations, including a medal for “The Defense of Moscow”).

Upon leaving the police station, Sadyk encounters Vika again. Although he is clearly disturbed by her obnoxious looks, Sadyk accepts her offer to spend the night with a Moldovan relative who lodges workers from Kishiniov at her dacha. Vika and Sadyk arrive at an awkward time, however. The men staying at the dacha have not found work in Moscow and are now forced to return to Moldova empty-handed. The camera lingers extensively on the demoralized workers as they have supper on the porch and break into a cheerless sing-along, reminding us of a similar scene in the Uzbek apartment just before it was raided by the police. By allowing us to witness how these workers sing their national songs to vent their grief, Razykov makes these live and “authentic” performances stand out against the only Russian music in the film (which is, significantly enough, played on the radio): the national anthem, more in particular, its first lines containing the words “Russia—holy empire” (Rossiia—sviashchennaia nasha derzhava), which replaced “indestructible union of free republics” (Soiuz nerushimyi respublik svobodnykh) in the original. In this manner, Razykov suggests that Russia’s appropriation and russification of the Soviet anthem is not so much a form of “restorative nostalgia” (Boym), as one may be inclined to think from a Russian perspective, but an act of national selfishness that denies the very idea of solidarity and friendship between the (former) Soviet republics.

Because he is not making any progress and is bereft of support from his countrymen, Sadyk asks streetwise Vika to help him find Oman. She agrees, but not out of sympathy for the old man. Convinced that his grandson has made it big in Russia and therefore prefers not to return to his fatherland, she fosters vague illusions of somehow cashing in on the situation and joining a friend in Bucharest. She even tries to con Sadyk by keeping his war medals for herself (which he asked her to flog), while claiming to have sold them at a disappointingly low price. Although Vika later feels remorse over her dishonesty and starts walking the streets again in order to pay for the single hotel room they share, Razykov makes sure not to turn his film into a sentimental feel-good movie. When Sadyk locates his grandson and says goodbye to Vika, they part in the most prosaic manner, with Vika asking for a small souvenir and then misinterpreting Sadyk’s silent rummaging around as a rebuff. When he finally produces a small clay flute and wants to present it to her, she has already left.

gastarbeiterProviding the only non-diegetic music in the film, the homemade clay flute is clearly more than a prop designed to enhance the couleur locale. The instrument plays a crucial role in the denouement of the story when Sadyk wanders round in Serpukhov, where Oman has reportedly disappeared, and suddenly hears its distinctive sound at a local market. He spots a Russian toddler playing the flute and being dragged along by his impatient mother who was introduced somewhat earlier in the film as Katerina, the wife of a Russian convict, and, it now turns out, Oman’s lover. Apart from leading Sadyk to his grandson, the flute also performs a symbolic function in that it unites people along generational and ethnic lines. In Sadyk’s family, the craft of making small clay flutes is something of a tradition, we are told, and Oman seems to be well aware of that, having given a flute to Katerina’s son Igoriushka. Since Igoriushka never parts with the instrument and, by inference, seems quite happy with his Uzbek stepfather, we may conclude that the ethnic tension, which stands out so prominently in the rest of the film, is in this case resolved.

Despite the suggestion of ethnic reconciliation, the end of Gastarbeiter is somewhat ambiguous, echoing Razykov’s statement about the position of minority peoples and their continuing dependence on Russia. Having located his grandson’s whereabouts, Sadyk seats himself in front of Katerina’s house, but he never approaches her and finally leaves without having seen Oman (who happens to be away on a job and does not make a single appearance in the film). Although it is not entirely clear whether Sadyk ever wanted to persuade him to return to Uzbekistan, he eventually seems to acquiesce to his grandson’s decision to walk out on Agul’, his fiancée, and start a new life in Russia. Cutting back to Uzbekistan, Razykov then shows why Oman was so anxious to escape. When Usman, his main rival in the village, finally succeeds in persuading Agul’ to forget her fiancé and marry him instead, he (Usman) has no option other than to go on a fishy assignment for Karim—something he has refused thus far—in the hope of raising enough money to start a family. Oman’s future in Russia may be far from certain and possibly replete with harassment by the police and the local population, but it still is to be preferred over returning to his fatherland. Thus, while we may feel happy for Oman and Katerina, who is determined to hold on to her non-drinking, hard-working and too-good-to-be-true Uzbek lover at any price, the desperation of Oman’s relatives, especially his mother, makes this seemingly happy ending turn sour.

Owing to the abundant use of hand-held cameras, the almost total absence of non-diegetic music and the careful selection of visually unappealing locations (run-down apartments, highways, railway stations, and a nondescript cafeteria), Gastarbeiter has an appropriately low budget look, but this visual austerity stands in sharp contrast with the film’s oversaturated storyline which contains too many accidental occurrences to be totally convincing. After Sadyk and Vika leave Moscow, they pay a visit to a certain Pogodin, a retired military prosecutor who, in 1946, had Sadyk sentenced to sixteen years in a prison camp on charges of high treason for “surrendering to the enemy.” By adding this particular detail to Sadyk’s past, Razykov seems to remind us that the horrors of WWII and Stalinism, including the harsh treatment of Soviet POWs upon their return home, was a shared experience that afflicted Russian and non-Russian soldiers alike. While this is a legitimate point, Sadyk’s decision to call on his former tormentor and enlist his help in finding Oman is insufficiently motivated. Perhaps Pogodin’s willingness to help an old victim by calling in his grandson Kirill’s detective agency is predicated on a desire to relieve his conscience (eventually he kills himself), but it is unlikely that Sadyk could have reasonably anticipated such an outcome.

gastarbeiterEven if psychologically unconvincing, the episode with Pogodin is absolutely vital in terms of plot development. After pulling some strings with the immigration service, Pogodin’s grandson succeeds in retrieving Oman’s passport, which plays a decisive role in the film’s surprise finale. Alarmed by Sadyk’s presence in the village and outright horrified by the prospect of losing Oman (whose child she is expecting), Katerina decides to set fire to the ramshackle lean-to in which Sadyk spends the nights. Unbeknownst to Katerina, Sadyk has already left and thus survives the assault, but he returns the next morning to give Oman’s passport to her. Bewildered and relieved that her murder attempt has failed, Katerina goes inside to fetch her would-be victim a glass of water. The final shot shows Sadyk sitting in front of the house and having a vision of Oman as a boy playing the flute against a background of green and snow-clad mountains (the only “beautiful” shot of the film). Sadyk slowly collapses and dies.

Several critics have reproached Razykov for “embellishing reality” (Timasheva) an accusation that no doubt refers to Sadyk’s serene death and the selfless character of the mission on which he claims to have embarked “out of pity for Oman’s mother.” In an attempt to counter this criticism, Razykov has described himself as an “optimistic pessimist.” This self-assessment seems fairly accurate considering that most other characters pursue their own interests while retaining their personal integrity. Oman leaves his fiancée and fatherland, but he does so in order to escape the clutches of the mafia and start an honest life in Russia. Katerina makes an attempt on Sadyk’s life, but even this desperate act is somehow offset by her genuine relief over his survival and her own miserable life before she met Oman. The pessimist in Razykov wants us to remember the misery and social squalor of Oman’s native village; the optimist permits us to view the relationship between Oman and Katerina as a triumph of love over prejudice and ethnic bigotry.

Otto Boele
University of Leiden

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Works Cited

Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2001)

Sycheva, Alena. “Ia ne mogu nazvat’ kartinu, kotoraia dlia menia po vazhnosti oshchushcheniia i pokaianiia segodnia stoiala by riadom s ‘Gastarbaiterom’”, Interview with Razykov. ProfiCinema, 1 June 2010

Timasheva, Marina, “Kinotavr—bez peremiriia”, Program Poverkh bar’erov, Radio Svoboda, 17 June 2010

Gastarbeiter, Russia, 2009
Color, 88 minutes
Director: Yusup Razykov
Screenplay: Yusup Razykov
Director of Photography Mikhail Iskandarov
Production Design Svetlana Smirnova
Sound Anastasia Anosova
Editing Denis Luzanov
Cast: Bakhadyr Boltaev, Dar’ia Gorshkaleva, Natal’ia Grebenkina, Rano Shodieva, Aleksandr Pashutin, Mikhail Samokhvalov, Ivan Ryzhikov, Djalol Yusupov, Farkhad Abdullaev, Dil’murad Masaidov, Feruza Ruzieva.
Producers Vladimir Malyshev, Andrei Malyshev
Production AMA, with participation from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation

Yusup Razykov: Gastarbeiter (Gastarbaiter, 2009)

reviewed by Otto Boele © 2010

Updated: 02 Oct 10