KinoKultura: Issue 67 (2020)

Documentary Didor (Dushanbe, October 2019)

By Gulnara Abikeyeva

This year the organizers of the film festival Didor, Safar Khakdodov and Sadullo Rakhimov, decided to make a festival of documentary cinema—and so far, it is the only one of its kind in the region of Central Asia. Founded in 2004, Didor has been taking place for 15 years, but until now it took place every other year and consisted of a competition of fiction films. This year, the “pause” year of the fiction film Didor, the accent was placed on documentary cinema.

There were two competitions, one of full-length films and one of shorts, which impressed by their variety and quality. Besides, there was a competition of Tajik documentary cinema, consisting of works of young authors; there were also out-of-competition screenings of the Uzbek film school Focus, the Russian ArtDocFest, and a retrospective of documentary films from Central Asia.

Didor borovsk effectThe full-length competition consisted of eight films; two of them, the Tajik Safarnama Travelogues: Notes on the Heritage Trail by Sharofat Arabova, and the Uzbek Heritage by Eljon Abbasov, were quite traditional and, as is obvious from the titles, deal with the cultural heritage of these countries. More unusual were the films from Azerbaijan and Russia, Birthday by Hilal Baidarov and The Borovsk Effect by Polina Zavadskaia and Julia Grebennikova respectively. However, they both films lacked script development. The Azeri film followed the method of observation: an elderly woman lives alone in a large house, never meets anyone or talks to anybody, and for some reason she does not answer the phone. The black-and-white film is interesting for its mise-en-scene and style, but it does not manage to articulate the story clearly. The observation is interesting, but insufficient in itself, preventing the author to take position. The Russian film The Borovsk Effect has an interesting hero: an artist who draws the victims of Stalin’s Purges on the walls of houses, on stones, and on fences. There is an opposition between the artist and the city officials, but this line is not sufficiently developed.

Didor mullas daughterMuch more fascinating were the films from Iran: Mullah’s Daughter by Mahdieh Sadat Mirhabibi and Hassan Solhjou, and Finding Farideh by Azadeh Moussavi and Kourosh Ataee. The first film was effectively made in Britain: even though the footage was shot in Iran in the family of the Mullah by his daughter (and professional photographer) Mahdieh Sadat Mirhabibi, it was edited by the BBC’s producer Hassan Solhjou in Britain. Although the daughter seems to accuse her father of conservatism, and herself wishes to leave Iran, the spectator’s sympathies remain nevertheless on the father’s side, because he is the only one in the family who really gets something done and fixes the life of the entire family. The second film is Iran’s current Oscar Academy Award submission, which is exceptional in that the country chose not a fiction, but a documentary film. A young Dutchwoman of Iranian origin by the name of Farideh contacts via Internet three families in Iran, who might be her real parents. Only a DNA test can establish their true relationship. The film is very emotional, as each family sincerely hopes to find a lost daughter. But the prize-winners chosen by the competition jury, consisting of the well-known Tajik cameraman Georgii Dzalaev, the Iranian producer and distributor Alireza Shahruhi, and myself, were the following two films: the Special Jury Prize went to the Kazakhstani film 13 Kilometers by Vladimir Tiul’kin; and the Grand Prix of the festival to the Afghan film A Thousand Girls Like Me by Sahra Mosawi-Mani. 

The film 13 Kilometers is about a strong man, a blind farmer who, when he lost his sight, was afraid to leave the house and go to the city, afraid of potholes and sidewalks. With blindness came poverty and loneliness. But he found the power to start a new life: he bought some sheep and became a farmer. He had a new family and two daughters, and we see in the film how this blind man walks 13 kilometers through the winter steppe. As he walks, he tells about his life, and the spectator develops a huge respect for this man. But the film is not only about him. In one of last frames he stands on a stage, and behind him is a poster with the words “25 years of Kazakh independence,” which suggests a parallel meaning: this film might be about us, about Kazakhstan, which went through the initial phase of independence like the blind hero. The country moved forward, without knowing what lies ahead, almost relying on touch. People would sing Kazakh songs and start families, building businesses and educating children, because there was no choice other than move forward.

Didor 1000 GirlsThe top film in Didor’s full-length competition was the Afghan film A Thousand Girls Like Me. The 23-year-old Khatera goes against her family’s wish and the traditions of the country when she seeks a fair punishment for her father, who for many years subjected her to sexual abuse and violence. Moreover, she sheds light on Afghanistan’s poor judicial system. When the festival Didor began in 2004, it was difficult to even assume what such a film could be made in Afghanistan, and made moreover by a young female Afghan director. Obviously, Sahra Mosawi-Mani completed the film when she already lived in Europe, and the heroine has emigrated to France, otherwise the film could not have been made or released. Yet it is quite amazing how the heroine, mother of two children born as a result of the father’s abuse, fights for justice. A film that is strong not only for its theme, but also in the way it is shot and edited.

It is telling that the three strongest full-length documentary films that I saw this year were Afghan films. Besides the above-mentioned film, there were the films Midnight Traveler by Hassan Fazili, made on three cell phones and telling about the director’s family who was compelled to illegally leave for Europe; and the film Kabul, City in the Wind by Aboozar Amini, an amazing portrait of the city through the eyes of a bus driver and three boys from the same family.

The specificity of Didor film festival is the reflection of cultural and linguistic links with both Persian-speaking countries (Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan) and Turkic-language countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan) in cinema. And, of course, the showcasing of—albeit small—achievements of Tajik cinema. A few words are necessary here about the competition of Tajik documentary cinema.

The national competition comprised eight films, and we can add here the full-length film from the main competition and a short in the shorts program, plus the opening film, Father. To the Memory of Mamatkul Arabov, devoted to the classic of Tajik documentary cinema and front cameramen, written and directed by Sharofat Arabova. Thus overall 11 films were made in 2018 and 2019. Although the quality of the films varies, this is a good number considering that these films were made not for television.

The best Tajik film was Teacher Kimiagarov (2019) by Faizullo Faizov. Although the film is about Boris Kimiagarov (1920-1979), one of the founders of Tajik cinema, the film was made on private initiative, and maybe therefore presents quite a fair story about how the creator of such films as Legend about Rustam (1971) and Rustam and Suhrab (1973) experienced difficulties and persecution. The special jury prize went to the film The Best Place on Earth by Roma Buryak—a light, impressionistic film about young people living in Dushanbe: they work, study, make things; some wish to leave and others want to stay. But on the whole, there is an impression of a kind, clever, and talented youth of Tajikistan which already today makes and shapes the country.

didor crying tanburNowadays, the future development of Tajik cinema depends entirely on its youth, its activity, talent, and willingness to take up global themes and speak in a modern language. We have already mentioned Sharofat Arabova, who makes both documentary and fiction films. There is Rumi Shoazizov, who graduated from the Moscow Film Institute VGIK and is currently making his second feature film, Parade of Grooms (Parada zhenikhov). A bright star ascended this year with Anisa Sabiri, whose film The Crying of Tanbur (Plach tanbura) represented Tajikistan at film festivals in Europe, Asia and America. Another serious film is the short Detained by Khushnuda Shukurova, a Tajik-born filmmaker who lives in America.

Surprisingly, Shukurova’s film is not about Tajiks, but about Syrians. The action takes place at JKF airport, where brother and sister have arrived for a reunion with their father, who worked as military translator for the US government. However, they are denied entrance to the country because of an order refusing entrance to the US to all Syrian citizens as a precaution against terrorism. This reflects the time when, in 2017, Donald Tramp expanded the list of countries from which citizens cannot obtain an American visa and accordingly enter the US. Under these restrictions are citizens of Syria, Venezuela, North Korea, Somalia, Libya, Iran, Yemen and Chad.

The director manages to pack a lot into the nine minutes of Detained. Everything is built on dialogue and emotion. The sister, Fatima, is the older of the two siblings; she is in her forties, and speaks competently with the border officer. Her brother Sami is just over twenty; when asked whether he has seen somebody being killed, he starts telling the story of his mother’s death: their home got bombarded when he left to fetch water. Fatima is appalled by the injustice of the system that does not allow them into the country where their father worked for the US army. After a wave of tragic memoirs, Sami simply resigns and signs the papers; he and his sister will be deported and entry into the country is closed to them forever, says the border guard. Meanwhile, the father waiting in the arrivals hall will never see his children. A very local, precisely constructed story with a superbly written dialogue and careful frame construction, the film opens up a new name in Tajik filmmaking, and we may hope that Shukurova may make a film one day in Tajikistan. 

At the end of the film festival Didor there was a sense that it had started in time, in that it presented an educational platform and a showcase for young Tajik documentary filmmakers. And that is always, in my opinion, the main task of a film festival. Of course, Didor has been busy bringing together the region already for 15 years, and in its own way is a unique and solid film festival.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Gulnara Abikeyeva

Gulnara Abikeyeva © 2020

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Updated: 2020