Gastarbeiters in kino: Russia's invisible class gets its big break

At the recent Kinotavr film festival — "Russia's Cannes" — the main competition featured no less than three films dealing with the hitherto ignored plights of Russia’s migrant workers. For various reasons, all three films fell short of painting a realistic picture of the situation. But their production is just the start: many more Russian gastarbeiter movies are just around the corner.

Mumin Shakirov
22 July 2010

Shivering, they cover their faces with their arms, trying to shield their eyes from the relentless streams of hot water and burning steam. Their bodies are emaciated and crooked, like strands of a long-rusted wire. They stand flaccid, helpless against the rage of the hose, which attacks them from the legs upward. This is no description of a torture chamber, but is instead a tale of the compulsory disinfection that awaits Russia’s homeless and alcohol addicted. We focus in on one man from among these almost biblical characters: a sullen and unshaven man of Asian appearance.

Shivering, they cover their faces with their arms, trying to shield their eyes from the relentless streams of hot water and burning steam. Their bodies are emaciated and crooked, like strands of a long-rusted wire. They stand flaccid, helpless against the rage of the hose, which attacks them from the legs upward. This is no description of a torture chamber, but is instead a tale of the compulsory disinfection that awaits Russia’s homeless and alcohol addicted. We focus in on one man from among these almost biblical characters: a sullen and unshaven man of Asian appearance. He is Ali, a shepherd from Central Asia. Meek and calm, like all the other characters of this Dantian Inferno, he subjects himself to this degrading sanitary work-around, without muttering any complaint. It is, we learn, his first experience of Moscow. This scene, depicted in Dmitry Mamuliya’s film Another Sky (“Drugoye nebo”), shook almost everyone who watched it at last month’s Kinotavr film festival in Sochi. People were talking about it like they would some kind of physiological ride in an amusement park. One of the more ironic film critics at a press-conference put it another way, and more succinctly — “Move over [Michael] Haneke”, he said.

Another Sky Другое небо (Russia, 2010) Directed by Dmitry Mamuliya
Гастарбайтер (Russia, 2009) Written and directed by Yusup Razykov
Backward Movement Обратное движение (Russia, 2010). Directed by Andrei Stempkovsky

Central Asian migrant workers, it seemed, were the main theme of this year’s Kinotavr Russian Film festival (at least that is the conclusion of the journalists present). Up till then nobody had actually imagined a situation where migrant workers could be lead characters of three films simultaneously. Russian cinema goers, after all, hadn’t exactly been over-exposed to the lives of the millions of Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz: people who have for the last twenty years been building Russian houses, cleaning Russian streets, trading in Russian markets and transporting Russians in gipsy cabs across the country. Migrants, it is true, make the odd appearance in obscure films, but almost exclusively as background, as an element of the social scenery. What happened at the Kinotavr film festival it in fact a miracle, and one well worth analysing. For perhaps the first time, the viewer was invited to look at the lives of people, who just 20 years ago were fellow citizens of the Soviet empire, and yet today find themselves slaves to criminal-capitalist Russia.


Dmitry Mamuliya's "Another Sky"

Dmitry Mamuliya’s film attracted the most critical attention. It is a drama of very few words, and shot in virtuoso style by Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev, who is one of the best cameramen working in Russia today (his previous credits include “4”, “Everyone dies but me”, “Paper soldier”). The story follows the sad tale of a Tajik shepherd, who sets off for Moscow in search of his missing wife. To all intents and purposes, it is a light and simple tale, but herein lies its subtlety. The author tiptoes around social drama, moving instead towards a metaphysical parable in the style of Dante and Beatrice. In his version of the myth, Moscow is becomes the contemporary inferno: a place where the life of a migrant worker from Central Asia is worth no more than a bottle of vodka. Director Mamuliya makes his hero endure the full labyrinths of this inferno: the station, which become the setting for beastly policemen to “filter” out incoming labour migrants; the hospital, which becomes a place for illness; the mortuary — a place for death; the brothel — a place to buy love. The lead of the film, Ali (played by Habib Boufares, of “Couscous” fame) must traverse this journey in its entirety in order to untangle the twisted knot of fate. In the end, he finds his wife, but loses his young son, who dies during tree felling. The behaviour of director Mamuliya bears some resemblance to that of his lead character Ali: reserved in emotions, ready to take stock, contemplative and overtly fatalist. “We live in terrifying times”, explained Mamuliya in a recent interview. “I would liken our epoch to a situation of walking through a field with big people waiting with scoop-nets, trying to ensnare us into their nets of virtue, nets of patriotism and nets of hatred”. Many critics were ready to give the film best prize, but the film — to the surprise of journalists — was awarded only the consolation prize for best musical score.

Director Andrei Stempovsky was another film-maker who latched onto the theme of migrant workers with his debut picture Backward Movement (“Obratnoye dvizheniye”). Backward Movement tells the story of a gastarbeiter boy (played by Georgy Gatsoev), who becomes witness to a racially-motivated mob attack. As the sole witness to the crime, he is targeted by a group of Russian thugs. He is saved by a mysterious shop keeper, whose own story, we learn, is disturbing and sad: she is waiting for a son who has disappeared without trace while on duty in Chechnya. The film evoked a wide range of contradictory emotions with viewers, provoking with its foggy storyline, silent, ghostly, lead characters, the senseless murders; in other words, by providing many more questions than it did answers. During interviews, director Stempovsky confused critics and journalists even further: “I do not like great explanations in cinema. It jars me when I see everything spoon-fed, when the viewer is denied the opportunity to imagine things for himself. Even if a film is complex, we must always afford the viewer space for their own fantasy”.


Andrei Stempkovsky's "Backward Movement" Photo from Kinopoisk.ru

Leaving such pomposity aside, and at the conscience of the director, we can make one firm conclusion from the film. That is that its author is intent on playing on political correctness. He does this by means of a rather deft counterpoint: the son of lead actress (Olga Demidova) is a fighter in Chechnya — possibly dead to a Muslim bullet — and yet here is she, risking her life by taking in a “foreign” migrant worker. In cinema, of course, anything is possible; reality is generally much harsher. Russia, for example, is still a place where xenophobia — if not racism — is rife. Migrant workers from the Soviet south are killed, abused, and paid pennies for hard work as road sweepers or construction workers. Involuntarily, you find yourself examining every good deed depicted in the film through the prism of disbelief and conjecture (even though, no doubt, there are good people everywhere). But where truth in art, it seemed, was lost, the truth of real life was also left behind. It came as somewhat of a surprise when “Backward Movement” received the prize for best screenplay, even though there has perhaps yet to be a more unintelligible story in the history of Kinotavr.

The third film about labour migrants was the creation of Yusup Razykov, himself an immigrant from Uzbekistan. Unlike the two films mentioned thus far, Razykov’s film does not attempt to create either parable or epos. It’s title is simple: “Gastarbeiter”. Its storyline recalls Another Sky: here the lead characte — just like Mamuliya’s Ali — sets of from Asian backwaters for Moscow in search of a relative (this time a grandson). Razykov’s film is clearly nostalgic for the Soviet past, playing on sentiment, Soviet-style “international friendship”, common history and so on. The hero of the film (Bahadir Boltaev) is a veteran of World War II, who defended Moscow against the Nazi advance, but later finds himself incarcerated in the Gulag, and suffers a double personal tragedy — the death of his wife and son. In a word, the viewer is supposed to look at the lead character’s deep wrinkles and pitiful face, and cry. But that is before Razykov injects the film with a criminal nuance, transforming the one-time war veteran into a contemporary drugs runner. Everyone, after all, needs something to live on. Unsurprisingly, our hero is soon taken in by the police; but upon seeing the old man’s war awards, a “good” sergeant lets him go. There is more. A prostitute appears on the scene to help out the old man in selling his insigna and medals, though this is only good enough to pay for his hotel. The old man is eventually forced to wash dishes in a cafe to survive; he becomes, in effect, a gastarbeiter. The next twist is that the person who sets our hero on the trail of his grandson is a former Gulag officer (conveniently the same one who sent the old man to the camp following the war). His grandson, it turns out, has found his happiness in the embrace of a Russian woman, who romantically chose the young Uzbek migrant worker over her criminal husband. And that is that: a concocted story reaches its end.


Yusup Razykov's "Gastarbeiter"

The reality of children and grandchildren travelling from Central Asia to Russia is, of course, slightly different. They travel in search of an income, work their bones to the ground, undergo abuse and pain, and scrap together money to support their elders, who live in poverty back home. For one reason or another, director Razykov has decided to depart from this standard situation, instead fabricating a tale of a mystical war veteran in search of a wayward grandson in Russia. Put more exactly, he has conjured up a scheme to remind us all of the fact  “we were born in the USSR”. Razykov says as much in his interviews:

“In Gastarbaiter, what I was trying to do was explore two ideas of a social nature. The first relates the life of the lead character, which almost in entirety, is one spent in vain. The second idea — extremely important to me — is about the “little nations”, abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

Neither jury nor film critics were caught in this trap. Nobody was consumed by nostalgia either for an empire past or for a unified Soviet family. The reality today is that few Russians believe in “international friendship”. Russia’s gastarbeiters live predominantly as slaves and illegals, and for pennies bust a gut on construction sites, sweep roads and communal areas; the more nimble trade in markets. For the cops, migrant workers are an additional source of income; for racist “skinheads” — a trophy; for simple citizens — a cheap source of labour. There is little place for sentiment here.

Did any of these films manage to uncover the phenomenon of Russia’s migrant workers (or rather distinguish their portraits)? Partly. We do see distinct images, which are sometimes rich, sometimes entirely superficial. We certainly don’t get world in its full picture, as indeed would be impossible. As the leading Russian film critic Daniil Dondurei noted “more films will follow these ones”. What he said to his fellow film critics was instructive:

 “For decades, the European cinematographer has followed the fates of immigrants from former colonies. Russian cinema is only now beginnning to take the first steps in this direction. It is an angle that will always be in demand at any film festival”

Perhaps, in time, one these predicted films will address the main question: why, in lightening speed, former Soviet nations are moving apart from one another, while, in Europe, the opposite is happening. To answer this question properly, you have to go right into into the closed world of any Tajik, Uzbek or Kyrgyz, and attempt to find out where, for them, love for one’s neighbour begins, and where spite and hatred are born. Maybe it needs us to start to recognise the gastarbeiter in all of us if we are to better understand those who are trying to survive in Russia, toiling away despite the obvious enmity that surrounds them.

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