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In My Dreams I See Dushanbe

Interview: For emigre Tajik filmmaker Mairam Yusupova, returning home is like stepping into an electric field. by Gulnara Abikeyeva 26 November 2003
Mairam Yusupova is a female director who doesn't make “female” cinema. This probably came about because she had no choice but to create her films during a period of great suffering for her people. In her feature films, she is an observer and a philosopher. In her documentaries, her trademark is her piercing gaze leveled at reality and her all-understanding silence. In both, her images are more expressive than any words.

Yusupova was born in Dushanbe. She graduated from the VGIK film school in Moscow, and has made more than 30 films. Since 1992, she has lived in Moscow and worked in television. Her films include:

The Window, short narrative film, 1989
The Time of Yellow Grass, 1991
The Business Trip, documentary, 1998
Mardekeri, documentary, 2002

Gulnara Abikeyeva: How would you describe the situation in Tajik cinema at the beginning of the ’90s? Was there a sense of euphoria from gaining long-expected independence? Did it open unlimited possibilities for filmmakers?

Mairam Yusupova: The euphoria, actually, was already gone by then. More that that, there was a feeling of an inevitable end. I think one can sense it in the films of that time, in The Time of Yellow Grass, and in [Bakhtiyar Khudoinazarov's] Bratan.

GA: Why? Did you feel war in the air?

MY: Absolutely! There was a feeling of great worry. Something was happening and we didn't know what. Was it a war coming, or just some foolish changes?

GA: Mairam, when I watched your film The Time of Yellow Grass, I was astounded by your foresight--your prophecy, if you allow me to say so. The film was finished and released in 1991, which means it was in production in 1990, but the events in the picture already, in some way, foretold the war. Why did you decide to make this film?

MY: I am still asking myself where this idea came from. Before this picture I made The Window, my debut short film that I shot in the same village. This mood of a mountain village's deterioration was presented in my short film.

The story of creating the second film, The Time of Yellow Grass, was pretty strange. I met my friend Lesha Katunin, who had a treatment for a Moldova-based film: a group of Moldovans are drinking wine in a blossoming garden, and meanwhile a corpse is lying among the trees.

For some strange reason this treatment inspired The Time of Yellow Grass. I cannot say that it was the dream of my life to make this film. It was an impulsive gesture, as if it descended on me from high above. Some people say that God works in mysterious ways. I cannot answer the question where it came from. It was meant to happen and it happened.

GA: When I think about your film, for some reason, I always compare it to Little Angel, Make Me Happy by Usman Saparov. There is a scene [in Saparov’s film] that shows what happens in a German village where there are no adults left, and four children are dragging the corpse of a woman to bury it. This inhuman scene shocks a group of Turkmen migrants. They send the children away and bury the dead woman themselves. It is the same way in your film: the tragedy peaks in the fact that nobody wants to bury the young man--nobody cares.

MY: The whole film is built on this. Because of this dead body, the true characters of all the villagers come to light.

GA: In Muslim culture there is nothing worse than not being properly buried, is there?

MY: A funeral is not the goal in itself. It's rather a symbol of people's attitudes towards each other, towards God, their relationship with the universe. When one lives a life by being caught up in one's own struggle, when one doesn't see what is happening all around, when one doesn't wonder what is happening in our spiritual universe--this is when an individual starts to degrade.

I wanted to show this little mountain village, where everybody is caught up in his own trivial pursuits and pitiful problems, and nobody feels connected to the rest of the world. And this stranger coming to the village, alive or dead, is necessary to reveal the remaining humanity in the people. We even joked a lot about this. The actor who played the dead man used to say, “Let them bury me, and after that I will rise and go to another village …”

GA: It's true. The events in the film develop in a way that, at first, the villagers try to get rid of the body--but after they fail a few times, they find themselves observing the Muslim burial traditions of respect for the deceased.

MY: When they start to follow the burial traditions and pay their respects to the deceased stranger, the villagers discover that there is a higher universe and more meaningful relationships. This is what I made my movie about!

GA: In 1998, at the Eurasia Film Festival in Almaty, Kazakhstan, your documentary The Business Trip received one of the most prestigious prizes. There is this feeling of a piercing pain for people who you care about, and who continue to live in Dushanbe despite the military presence, despair, and destitution.

The Business Trip
MY: Actually, it is my most personal film, even though I don't say a word about myself in it. When I was working on this film, I was crying all the time. It felt as though, after a long time, I had partially fulfilled my duty to my motherland, which I had left in reality.

It has been more than 10 years since I left Tajikistan, even though I travel there every year to bury somebody from my family. During these years I lost almost all my relatives. It doesn't matter what keeps me busy here, what I am thinking about here; in my dreams I see Dushanbe--endlessly and continually--even though I know there is no way back.

GA: After The Business Trip, did you shoot anything in Tajikistan?

MY: No. Now, with God's help, I am starting to make a film about Tajikistan. If it goes as planned, it's going to be a triptych. When I was making The Business Trip, to a certain extent it was my farewell to my motherland. I thought that then. Now I realize that no matter what, that land attracts me like a magnet. I have to work for the welfare of Tajikistan because it's the only thing that really concerns me. It is incredible! When I arrive there, instantly I want to shoot a film. Here [in Moscow], I walk around, look around, and not for a second do I feel a craving to make a film--nothing touches me emotionally. But when I am there, I feel as if I am in my kind of electric field.

GA: What future do you see for Tajik cinema?

MY: None. I don't know. Maybe [someone can] find some money and try to shoot something. It happened with The Business Trip; it's considered a Tajik film but most of it was done here, in Russia.

About the future … There is the war, and nothing one can do about it. There is such a deep chasm in everything that we will have to climb out to the surface a little bit--and after that we can think about cinema.

This interview was made in 2001. It has been condensed and adapted from the author's
The Heart of the World: Films From Central Asia, translated into English by Dana Zhamanbalina-Mazur (Almaty, 2003).
Gulnara Abikeyeva is a film critic from Kazakhstan. She earned a doctorate from the VGIK film school in Moscow, and has worked in Kazakh film and television. The Heart of the World: Films From Central Asia is her third book.
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