The opening scene of Sergey Dvortsevoy’s film Ayka sets the scene for a tough, realistic tale. A flickering image of newborn babies awakens Ayka, a Kyrgyz woman, from her hospital bed in Moscow. As she goes to the restroom to get changed, her plan is clear: abandon the baby she just gave birth to. Her dreams of success, of emancipation from an unwelcoming world, ride roughshod over her own health and her newborn child. The warmth of motherhood transitions to the agony and frost that make up Moscow’s winter season as the viewer runs and stumbles with Ayka, who picks up some icicles from the street to numb the pain in her abdomen as she gets to work in a dodgy chicken packing shop.
This, then, is the life of an undocumented migrant in Moscow, one whose registration card has expired and is thus at the mercy of both rogue bosses and violent police officers. Studies show that between 8 and 10 million foreign workers live in Russia, most of them hailing from Central Asia. While specific sectors attract certain types of migrants, men and women from the post-Soviet south interchangeably take up jobs in cleaning, hospitality and other services. Increasingly stringent residence rules have made it easier for foreign workers in Russia to become illegal. And the recent economic crunch in Russia has not halted the arrival of labourers from Central Asia. Money transfers from migrant labourers in Russia sustain the economies of the poorest Central Asian countries; Kyrgyzstan remains one of the most remittance-dependent countries in the world.
Playing out this premise, Ayka depicts real-life repercussions of this migration wave. Migration-related hardships – scarce salaries, irregular jobs, harsh border regulation – pit mothers against their own children in what Dvortsevoy describes as an “anti-life” scenario. In 2010, after reading that hundreds of children were being abandoned in maternity wards in Moscow, Dvortsevoy decided to tell the story of a migrant from Kyrgyzstan who feels she has to pick between taking care of her baby and pursuing a career. Kazakh actress Samal Yeslyamova, who plays Ayka, won the highest prize for best female role at this year’s Cannes Festival – the first from the former Soviet Union to win the award. Speaking to Open Democracy on the sidelines of this autumn’s Almaty Film Festival premiere, Yeslyamova described Ayka as constantly struggling for emancipation. “She’s very ambitious and has a very strong character. She walks away from her own child because she wants to be independent. She tells her sister that she doesn’t want to go back to Kyrgyzstan because she doesn’t want that kind of life,” Yeslyamova says, hinting that this attitude is not uncommon among migrant workers.
Back at her occasional job, the pool of blood from the butchered chickens is soon accompanied by the drippings of blood from Ayka’s womb. These crude parallels keep viewers uncomfortable throughout the length of the movie. The thumping of closing doors and stomping of feet and punches are the most vivid part of the soundtrack, together with the perpetual melody of her phone’s ringtone, which she leaves unanswered for long stretches because she knows that to pick up would only bring more trouble.
The red of the blood contrasts the white of the ubiquitous snow and the milk that soon starts to drip from Ayka’s breasts, keeping her in constant pain. Her squalid conditions leave her life hanging from a thread, until she is finally helped by a fellow Kyrgyz migrant, a cleaner at a dog shelter. She finally eats and drinks some warm tea. Turning on the radio, the notes of “Cry, Baby!” by comedic pop-star Artur Pirozhkov finally break her grimace of pain into a relieved smile. For Ayka, the first, brief moment of happiness arrives an hour into the movie.
Yeslyamova says she essentially broke character during this scene, but that doing so brought her performance closer to reality. “Even though she was confined to a small room, she could finally have a moment of happiness because she had found some work to do. When the song came on, I found it funny and I really started to laugh and dance.”
The contrast between the abandonment of a child and the meticulous care for the dogs’ health starkly makes the point that Ayka and her son’s lives are, quite literally, worse than that of an animal. As Dvortsevoy said in Cannes in May, the unnatural act of leaving a child behind is “what happens when relationships between people and their environment break down to the point that the individuals themselves become morally damaged.” This premonition of inhumanity and moral degradation runs throughout the film. Ayka knows that her precarious life is in danger due to a debt with some Kyrgyz mobsters, who pursue her through wintry Moscow and back home in Kyrgyzstan’s Chuy Valley alike. Violence and rape caused her pregnancy, and she is consciously leaving her unnamed child to a life of further strain.
Ayka will not show it until the final scene, but she is crushed by having to choose between raising a child and pursuing her dreams of escaping poverty through business (she sleeps with a textbook on how to start a business besides her rugged pillow). The parallel narratives of financial and personal ruin are brought together in the closing scenes, as Ayka carries her five-days-old baby out of the hospital towards the mobsters, who will accept the infant in lieu of cash to pardon her debt. In a last escapade, Ayka makes a sharp turn into a building hallway, letting her tears flow as she breastfeeds her son. The final cut to black leaves the viewer suspended in the sourness of the preceding 90 minutes.
The full sensorial participation in Ayka’s life is an uncomfortable as it is vivid. Yeslyamova explains that the film’s intimacy and its succession of harsh contrasts are supposed to show the power of nature over free will. “We always tried to portray Ayka’s dream of success as her driving purpose. But the idea of the movie is that nature is stronger than your dreams, your efforts, your plans. You cannot resist nature. This is also why we waited for a harsh snowfall to shoot. Even the weather rebelled against the choice of a mother who abandons her child. With the fading of the snowstorm we wanted to show that Ayka was also changing.”
Ayka’s unflinching depiction of migrant life in Russia is a fresh example of Dvortsevoy’s attempts to show Central Asians’ true experiences with poverty, bureaucracy and racism. The style may be different, but the director draws on his achievements with 2009’s Tulpan, a love story narrated through the lens of life in the steppe – also presented at Cannes, where it won the Un Certain Regard prize. Perhaps the most consistent note in the film is its critique of the myth of personal success. Ayka is the story of those who struggle in vain in the rat race towards personal wealth. At one point Ayka attends a talk by a motivational speaker, whose scripted liberal refrains echo the bluster of pyramid schemes. Dvortsevoy and Yeslyamova show us a world in which the consequences of these failed platitudes extend even to the primal bonds of motherhood.
Prior to the Almaty screening, the Shymkent-born director said he hoped his film touched the souls of the viewers. He got his wish: the Kazakh upper-middle-class audience was taken back to harder times, if only for 90 minutes.