Issue 44 (2014)

Larisa Sadilova: She (Ona, 2013)

reviewed by Elena Monastireva-Ansdell © 2014

Big Dreams and Big Love: Russia and Her Migrants in Larisa Sadilova’s She

For Tajiks too know how to love…

onaThe opening shot of a passenger plane landing in a Moscow airport in Larisa Sadilova’s social drama She meaningfully evokes her film Nanny Required (Trebuetsia niania, 2005). In the latter, the unsettling noise of heavy aircraft traffic over a seemingly idyllic suburban estate of Russia’s new rich communicated the acute societal tensions generated by the mass migrations and profound social and economic shifts of the post-Soviet era. Nanny explored the consequences of the inequitable wealth and status redistribution for the moral state of Russian society and only cursorily touched on the accompanying mistreatment of non-Russians and their exclusion from the former Big Soviet Family. Legally defenseless and manipulatively maligned, a crew of Uzbek migrant workers in Nanny, the only ethical community in the film, inhabited a makeshift hut on the edge of the beautiful estate they helped to build. In She, Sadilova zooms in on Russia’s uneasy relationship with the nearly ten percent of its population that help power the country’s economy but whom society stereotypes as alien and threatening, and abuses for personal profit. While the new focus is on Russia’s ethnic and cultural other, in the director’s own admission, the film is as much about “them,” as it is about “us” (Khokhriakova). For Sadilova, whose spouse and one of the film’s producers, Rustam Akhadov is half-Tajik, the issue of intercultural tolerance rings particularly close to home. Hailing from the provincial Russian city of Briansk, Sadilova consistently explores wider Russian attitudes and problems, thereby bringing a refreshing outside perspective to the Moscow-centric cinema industry.

Sadilova aptly articulates her dual goal of humanizing migrants and interrogating the society’s moral standards in what she sees as “modern slave trade” (Khokhriakova) through a melodramatic love story of a seventeen-year-old Tajik girl, Maya (Nilufar Faizieva). Maya comes to Russia to escape an arranged marriage and reunite with her migrant-worker boyfriend, Khamid (Makhsum Abdullaev), but is soon abandoned there when Khamid returns to Tajikistan to marry a woman chosen for him by his parents. In true melodramatic fashion, the heroine remains silent for the major part of the plot because she speaks no Russian. The film foregrounds her perspective of a vulnerable innocent using it both to place the viewer in the migrants’ shoes, and to expose the degrading nature of the migrant slave industry that feeds multiple layers of corrupt officials and unscrupulous entrepreneurs on both sides. Sadilova’s emphasis on the truthfulness of the events that, according to her, happened in her own suburban settlement (albeit with a less optimistic ending), and her use of amateur actors, including migrants, to depict Tajik characters, add poignancy and authenticity to the story.

Despite the challenge as a director of not always being able to follow her actors’ spoken parts, Sadilova confidently gives voice to the migrants by filming nearly half of the film’s dialogue in Tajik; the voice-over Russian translation also belongs to a Tajik, producer Rustam Akhadov. The Tajik dialogue in the film, made transparent through translation, plays an important role in dispelling the myth of the migrants’ latent hostility toward Russians: Tajik characters use their native tongue not to “gossip unkindly” behind their hosts’ backs, as one of the Russian characters fears, but to talk about love, relationships, jobs, and other everyday issues, just like their Russian counterparts do. In the few cases when Tajik men switch to Tajik on purpose or when they deliberately mistranslate their Tajik comments to concerned Russians, they struggle to maintain their crumbling patriarchal authority within their small expat community. They therefore express the need for privacy in sorting out their own cultural matters, while at the same time feeling uneasy about openly enforcing their patriarchal rules in Russia’s more liberated society.

The evolution of Maya’s perspective in the film reflects her metaphorical journey to consciousness of self, her native culture, and of Russia. Structurally, the film falls into two parts with roughly the first third taking place in a makeshift illegal migrant settlement outside Moscow. The director of photography Dmitrii Mishin compellingly conveys Maya’s initial perception of Moscow as a magical escape from the restrictive patriarchy back home through wide-eyed point of view shots of brightly illuminated auto tunnels and a majestic full moon shining over the city’s shimmering skyline as seen from the Moscow Ring Road. After the couple’s descent into the darkness of the migrant worker shantytown where they have to share a bunk bed in a tiny room housing three other men, Maya re-adjusts her expectations but manages to preserve her hopeful outlook. Driven, as she is, by her love for Khamid and his promise of a happy married life in Moscow, she tries to make the best of the situation. Maya’s point of view shots as she gazes curiously or pensively out of doors and windows to explore her dismal surroundings convey her rich emotional world. Akhmad Bakaev’s emotive music, incorporating native Tajik melodies and instruments, enhances the viewer’s empathy with the heroine whose feelings range from those of sadness (while observing rain falling on the shantytown’s large puddle littered with broken domestic items) to fascination with life’s promise (while watching a discarded plastic ball float in a polluted stream). The motifs of water and flowing accompany the heroine throughout the film as she carries water for the migrants’ outdoor shower and later cleans Russians’ homes. Maya’s association with water and cleansing forms a distinct counterpoint to the impure environment of Moscow’s outskirts, thus highlighting the migrants’ role in processing the city’s massive waste. 

onaIn deliberate contradistinction to the numerous glossy films portraying Moscow as Russia’s land of opportunity, its cultural and economic powerhouse, Sadilova shows the city from the estranged perspective of those living on its geographical and economic periphery. The migrants in the camp work at a recycling dump that feeds a nearby metal smelting plant. When the dreamful lovers look out onto the city’s distant suburban apartment blocks where they hope one day to reside, the smoke and the gigantic ash piles of the smelting facility obstruct their view of a “happy future” in the exclusive club that is Moscow. Mishin films the shantytown and its surroundings in a detached, almost documentary style. The metallic-blue color scheme that, according to Mishin, is meant to mimic the aesthetics of Martiros Saryan’s Egyptian paintings (Zhivova) effectively expresses the precariousness and bleakness of the migrants’ existence first in Moscow and later in provincial Russia. In this soulless palette, Maya’s traditional lilac, purple, and fuchsia dress stands out in its warmth and vibrancy.

In the camp, the migrants fall victim both to greedy local “landlords” who charge steep rent for abominable living conditions, and their Tajik entrepreneurs-profiteers who bring workers illegally to Russia and transport their hard-earned money back to their families in Tajikistan. The Federal Migration Service employees target the defenseless migrants rather than their criminal native bosses with whom the officers cooperate in extracting bribes from the workers to secure their release. Sadilova accentuates the media’s ineffectual coverage of the migrant problem through the image of a journalist who arrives in the shantytown with FMS officials. This representative of the “fourth estate” averts his camera’s eye from the officials’ corrupt actions but intrusively attempts to interview the intimidated migrants who have managed to survive the raid. The lethargic conformism of the journalist in She contrasts sharply with the local newsmakers in Sadilova’s social drama Sonny (Synok, 2009) whose assertive reporting unearths deep social traumas in the seemingly uneventful life of a small provincial town.

The distinct social criticism of the Moscow portion of the film gives way to a more reflexive and reconciliatory mood of the second part set in a provincial Russian town (these scenes were filmed in Trubchevsk, the setting of Sonny). After their Moscow camp is raided, Maya and Khamid find shelter here with Khamid’s uncle Akhmad (Rakhmat Khaidarov), a presumably legal and effectively integrated Tajik seasonal worker, who supports family back in Tajikistan and works tirelessly to obtain Russian citizenship for his eighteen-year-old son Roma (Todzhiddin Khalikov). While in Russia, Akhmad cohabits with an independent and outspoken Russian migrant worker Nadia (Natal’ia Isaeva) with whom he runs successful joint businesses in housekeeping and landscaping, and in home goods retail. Initially resisting Akhmad’s new guests, Nadya gradually warms up to Maya and soon vocally contests Khamid’s and Akhmad’s patriarchal mentorship of the girl.

In critically scrutinizing both Tajik and Russian patriarchal cultures, the film aims to resolve intercultural tensions by identifying some common values that would unify the characters. The feminine personal pronoun in the film’s title, which can be equally applied to either of the two female protagonists, highlights the centrality of feminine values in the film. Maya’s observation of her new life in Russia takes a fresh turn in the more welcoming provincial setting. Looking out of her large window in a real room that has curtains and shelves filled with books, Maya notices differences in gender relations as well as the respectful treatment of her as both a woman and a human being. If the traditional Khamid has been brought up to see Maya as his property and lies to her about the impending marriage to another woman, the more culturally assimilated Roma empathizes with Maya and treats her as his equal. Maya’s point of view shots now follow Roma and Nadia as models of new interpersonal relations. Nadia’s personal story, which Maya overhears during one of her silent observations, echoes Maya’s in its aspirations for individual freedom from patriarchal dominance. When Nadia found out that her husband was cheating on her, she left him and started a self-reliant life as a seasonal worker in another town. She refuses her father’s pleas to come back and form a traditional family with a new husband, choosing instead an independent relationship with Akhmad. As Maya’s true mentor, Nadia teaches her not to fear the men in her life and think about what is best for her. Rejecting Khamid and Akhmad’s insistence that Maya wear baggy dresses and cover her head, Nadia takes the headscarf off Maya and dresses her in a tank top and jeans. She does not merely expect Maya’s services but wishes to pay a fair fee for her work. Nadia also tells Maya about Khamid’s betrayal and takes her in to live with her when he leaves.

onaIf, in a migrant’s view, Moscow emerges as an inhospitable terrain ruled by corrupt male power, the provincial town evokes more lyrical associations with the traditional image of the caring and inclusive Mother Russia. Upon entering the wide-open expanses of Central Russia, a popular Russian folk song on the bus radio (“Oh, Someone’s Walked Down the Hill”) seems to speak directly to Maya, predicting more genuine relationships in her life. Maya’s open mind readily absorbs new intonations and influences, be it the liberating clothing or the compassionate Russian folk tune, “The Little Quail,” rehearsed in the community cultural center where she helps Nadia as a cleaner. Maya’s new Russian acquaintances, who initially display anxiety about her as a cultural alien and a competitor for work and living space, soon warm up to her as an individual and include her in the community: in addition to Nadia’s generous help, the general’s daughter gives Maya some of her clothes, and Akhmad and Nadia’s co-worker Boria (Iurii Kiselev) cheers her up and invites her to join their relaxed evening gatherings.

Ideologically, Sadilova builds the second part of the film around a communal celebration of a national holiday, Russia Day, following which Maya embraces new relationships beyond her previously exclusive devotion to Khamid. During a holiday concert in a town square, Maya frantically looks for Khamid in the festive crowd, but sees him enjoying the music with another girl. As the emotionally devastated Maya struggles to find her way out of the square, the popular Soviet-era song that is performed on stage urges those in the audience to hope and wait patiently for the fulfillment of their “Big Dreams and Big Love.” At a subsequent intimate holiday cookout in their circle of friends, Akhmad and Nadia make Tajik pilaf, and Boria invites Maya to join the communal table. Even though Akhmad feels uncomfortable about breaking the traditional gender hierarchy when it concerns Maya, at the first sound of fireworks his son turns on Tajik music and pulls Maya into a celebratory dance as if initiating her into her new bicultural community. Maya eventually gets her “big dream and big love” when Nadia provides her with a new home and Roma gets off the bus taking him and Akhmad back to Tajikistan in order to be with her. Maya ultimately finds herself and acquires a personal voice in Russia as the film’s closing titles fluently suggest: Bakaev’s cautiously optimistic music that helps communicate Maya’s emotions throughout the film here reappears with a vocal element sung in a beautiful female voice.

Sadilova’s carefully thought-through construction of Nadia as Mother Russia, the struggling post-Soviet nations’ Hope for a more enlightened way of life, reflects the complexity of the problem of migration in today’s Russia. As if preempting possible objections to her defense of migrants in the film, Sadilova depicts Russia as possessing a full command of the situation while extending its mythical compassion and love to those in need. Nadia’s eventual acceptance of Akhmad and Maya as family members comes with clearly stated conditions, such as learning Russian, and shedding their ingrained patriarchal norms and customs that are amply depicted and criticized in the film. Sadilova’s Tajik men, to be sure, never undermine Russian cultural traditions: Akhmad adjusts flawlessly to his life with Nadia and dutifully seeks to naturalize his son. However, Nadia controls the situation even when Akhmad attempts to fulfill a patriarchal role in his own cultural community, resolutely reminding him that he is not “at home.” While Nadia accepts Akhmad’s loyalty to his family back home, she makes her commanding role clear by telling Akhmad’s resistant Tajik wife that she would be dead without her husband’s Russian income. As a result of such controlling behavior, the acceptable Tajik culture in the film becomes reduced to the Tajik pilaf that Akhmad cooks for his new Russian family and the Tajik song that Roma turns on to celebrate Russia Day. As Nadia and Maya walk away from the bus that takes the Tajik patriarch back to his ancestral home, Nadia hugs Maya and leads her through an elegant alley of white birches as if setting her on a new, brighter path. Roma reunites with them shortly thereafter when he defies what little has remained of his father’s patriarchal authority by secretly getting off the bus.

Despite its ideological tensions, the film compellingly paints migrants as fellow human beings with their individual fates, hopes, and contributions to their host society. The cinematic project as a whole is a fine product of intercultural cooperation between not only highly skilled Russian and Central Asian cinematographers and artists, but also amateur actors and extras. In exploring the worldwide problem of labor and population migrations as it plays out in Russia and Central Asian republics, She joins a growing body of films that raise public awareness about this complex issue, such as Yusup Razykov’s Gastarbeiter (2009), Dmitrii Mamulia’s Another Sky (Drugoe nebo, 2010), and Nurbek Egen’s Empty House (Pustoi dom, 2012). She won the Grand Prix at the 2013 Window to Europe Film Festival in Vyborg but received a limited release in Russia in the wake of the October 2013 interethnic unrest in the Moscow district of West Biriulevo. Larisa Sadilova hopes to reach wider Russian audiences through Aleksandr Gordon’s TV program Closed Screening, in which two of her earlier films have previously appeared.

Elena Monastireva-Ansdell
Colby College

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Works Cited

Svetlana Khokhriakova. “Rabynia iz Dushanbe,” Moskovskii komsomolets, 17 August 2013.

Anna Zhivova. “‘Ona’ v novoi studii ‘Mosfil’ma’,”, 30 October 2013.

She, Russia, 2012
Color, 85 minutes
Director: Larisa Sadilova
Screenplay: Larisa Sadilova, Pavel Finn
Camera: Dmitrii Mishin
Music: Akhmad Bakaev
Sound: Abduraim Charyev
Art Director: Talgat Asyrankulov
Editing: Anvar Charyev
Cast: Nilufar Faizieva, Makhsum Abdullaev, Todzhiddin Khalikov, Rakhmat Khaidarov, Natal’ia Isaeva, Iurii Kiselev
Producers: Karen Shakhnazarov, Vladimir Riasov, Sergei Lazaruk, Rustam Akhadov
Production: Arsi-film

Larisa Sadilova: She (Ona, 2013)

reviewed by Elena Monastireva-Ansdell © 2014

Updated: 14 Apr 14