You Are Not an Orphan

09/25/2011

Soviet Union / 1963 / Russian

Directed by Shukhrat Abbasov

With Lyutfi Sarymsakova, Abid Dshalilov, Gena Tkachenko

Still from 'You Are Not an Orphan'While identifying a film done in the Soviet Union as propaganda is irrelevant (few were able to be produced without at least nominally being just that), the propagandistic elements of such a film do take on importance when discussing the varying ways and levels in which it was meant as a conduit for public doctrine, as well as how it does or does not subvert the attitudes it is meant to convey. A compacted fairy tale aimed at Central Asian people of the republic, You Are Not an Orphan is an example of a hardworking picture that dutifully perpetuates such conventional pretensions as internationalism, tolerance, and gleeful cooperation, but takes with it dimensions and scenes that also interrupt, confuse, or outright negate these stock messages. Set during World War II, the film tells the story of an Uzbek married couple who, while their grown son is off fighting at the front, voluntarily house twelve war orphans of different ages and ethnicities. It both condemns and celebrates the family unit, as well as other traditional values that government authorities worked for a long time to replace with modern communist ideals.

We meet this gang of many hair colors and one language as they play a spirited and rather intense game as soldiers, the children chasing a lone boy through the streets. They pass by a man missing a leg who could very well be a veteran, but they are too engaged (or too desensitized) to notice such echoes of distant horror. The boys brandish wooden guns, dressed in D.I.Y. fascist garb, the Jewish boy among them, Abram, portraying the Hitler-in-combat. He sneers German film dialogue at the child whom they corner, but the words resonate with the suppressed pain in the back of his own mind, and he blacks out in the midst of his dramatic simulation. The mother, Fatima-apa, happens upon them and blames the other children for the boy’s unconscious state, which she assumes they caused, although the whole incident seems deeply masochistic, Abram having brought it upon himself. The children, coming from various distressed places, have firmly-held beliefs of a common enemy, fueled by entertainment, newsreels, and prejudices.

After this surreal start the rest of the film progresses as a series of episodes meant as morality lessons based in group cooperation. Individual goodness and badness are always measured and refracted in terms relative to the functioning of society. The children in aggregate are fantastically self-sufficient, cooking for themselves, repairing clothing and shoes, and generally picking up the slack like industrious little workers where their busy foster parents cannot.

There are two separate scenes early on that work to establish the role that the two parents play in the lives of their international collection of children. The first is when Fatima-apa, the mother, is in the market and she identifies a teenage Tatar boy, Renat, who has just stolen a melon from someone’s cart. The young man is forcibly dragged by a soldier toward the police station when she decides to intervene on his behalf and declare him her son. This scene shows her exerting authority or, more accurately, ownership over the boy, and shunting him into the straight and narrow without imparting to him the need for empathy – a practice that doesn’t set her apart from any other parental figure, or any cop for that matter. The second telling introduction concerns the father, Mahkam, a blacksmith by trade. While the family is all seated together in the courtyard of their house a boy named Kolya arrives at the doorstep, completely covered in grime, seemingly having traveled a long way to get there. Seeing the poor boy from Smolensk coated in the black accretion of war, the father bids one of his adoptive sons, a blonde Russian named Vanya, to help clean him off. At first Vanya refuses, despising the new outsider, but Mahkam forcibly has him wash Kolya in the tub. The children, like citizens in Stalinist society, are guided in the only ways that make sense under the difficult circumstances: force, deprivation, coercion – and are expected to function on a moral and rational level dictated expressly by the need for them to contribute to the group’s well-being.

Still from 'You Are Not an Orphan'The unruly malcontent of the family, Vanya, makes a scene at the dinner table, complaining that the food is not substantial or satisfying. In response to his outburst each kid gets up and gives him their bowl of soup and walks away from the table, until he is left alone surrounded by a dozen bowls of soup. Even though it makes them hungry to do so, their aim is to make him feel even worse. Subsequently Vanya attacks Sarsenbai, a somewhat older Kazakh boy who is one of the ethical lynchpins of the group. Mahkam breaks up the fight, scolds Vanya and tells him to leave the house if he refuses to live harmoniously with the others. Vanya leaves but quickly realizes he can’t make it without the group and visits Mahkam at his shop to ask for forgiveness. The father does forgive the contrite Vanya, but does so without evidence that the boy will make an effort to get along with the others. It seems he mostly just wants to see the children work problems out among themselves, as though it were the working out process that really forms them and makes them cohesive with one another.

Some of the kids saw their parents killed, others only heard that it happened. It is left to the imagination how they all ended up in Tashkent. Several are understandably riddled with cynicism and abandonment fears; Renat says to Lyana that once the Mahkamovs’ son returns from the war the couple will ditch the orphans, that they just use them for the bread cards. Lyana points out how much the adoptive parents sacrifice for them, and we see images of their mother standing in a bread line in the pouring rain. They must sacrifice along with her, the fact that she is not any biological mother of theirs making their sacrifice all the more pure and correct.

Family and nation, the former often functioning as a microcosm of the latter, is a persistent theme throughout Central Asian films. While it is too much of a simplification to assume that family was everything before the Soviet era and that the state was everything during it, the dichotomy of those two aspects of life seems a defining one in the rough and forceful push into modernity that much of agrarian Russia and Central Asia encountered with the birth of the Soviet Union. In truth of course, during both periods there was a complex interplay between the two, that complexity not being particular to a time but ongoing, even during independence. In the capitalist West it feels as though we are constantly striving to make our communities resemble a family. You Are Not an Orphan seems more in favor of making families more like communities. The Mahkamovs of the film seem more like a social experiment than either a family or a commune.

Still from 'You Are Not an Orphan'The film presents an interesting variation on common representations of the state as a primary or parental force in people’s lives. Gulnara Abikeyeva points out that the things Fatima and Mahkam mainly provide are discipline and perspective to their young charges, leaving the children alone to negotiate the moral complexities of growing up. Imparting tenderness and philosophical ideas to them is something that the parents (and by extension, the state) shy away from, and trusting in the supposedly inborn strength of character that the children display when left to fend for themselves. If the family is a microcosm of the nation, with the Uzbek parents playing the scaled-down version of the establishment, the children themselves constitute a family in miniature, one that shows the turmoil of the world at that time writ large. The dire situations they all share, and the requirement to work together, is what forms their love for one another (more akin to basic humanity), distinct from the rather blind and arbitrary love between blood relations.

While the degree of individuality and personal identity suggested by national sovereignty is being subsumed in favor of the merged single-pointedness of the Union, director Abbasov is also conveying the notion that there are values innate in Uzbek culture that children from all corners of the globe could do with understanding. For the tenth birthday of Dzidra, one of the girls in the family, Fatima sells her sewing machine to the next door neighbor and buys the girl a shafiq. This important component of womanhood where the family lives is not only culturally specific but, when given to Dzidra (who is meant to come from the Balkan region and, as the blondness of her hair suggests, is not meant to be from a Muslim family) provides a visible manifestation of being indoctrinated into the way the family does things. Being more the same than they would on their own in the savage world, the children still retain the elements of stereotypes that make each of them unique.

Although the family, somewhat utopian and formed by good will, is like a workers’ unit (all diligent ethics and dedication to the survival of the group) there are numerous cues throughout the film pointing to a certain friction between values of the family and those of the state. Without ever going so far as to call the two forces irreconcilable, Abbasov shows how encounters between the selfish heartache inherent in the traditional family unit reinforce the trusting and selfless bond the children have with one another. While all but the two eldest children are at the movie theatre a woman shows up claiming to be the mother of Dzidra. Lyana runs through the city to go fetch her and comes back with the whole group, Dzidra weeping with happiness and they along with her. When they arrive it is immediately apparent that the poor woman has made a dreadful mistake and she leaves the house and the Dzidra as quietly as she appeared. As the two parents are out working and getting groceries, respectively, the children gather around to comfort the stunned and broken girl, and show that they have evolved to no longer trust families that aren’t as genuine and interwoven as their own. The Mahkamovs (thought of as including the dozen children) represent a combination of traditional communal values and Soviet notions of fraternity.

Still from 'You Are Not an Orphan'The film’s use of the Uzbek concept of mahallya, or tight-knit community, both emphasizes its localness to the setting and its target audience (it apparently played in other parts of the country but met with little popularity), and also locates it firmly within dominant themes of Soviet cinema. On one hand it is set apart and, on the other, doesn’t stray far from its prescribed subject matter. Applying an ideal from the consciousness of his own people to the national imperative of survival through parity, Abbasov creates an unexpected sense of dissonance within his story. While the two ideas are not utterly incompatible, they do seem to mutate one another when held with such proximity, and end up carrying quite divergent connotations. Soviet values come to resemble Uzbek values, and vice versa, thus both come off as rather self-negating. The filmmaker is positing that they are mutually affirmative, and uses them to support one another, while ignoring their very differing provenances. Although limpidly heartwarming and successfully eclectic, the film also works off of hackneyed assumptions regarding tradition, that it necessarily holds a degree of wisdom that can benefit modernity, and that the two are always compatible with a bit of can-do spirit. It inadvertently subverts its own message by failing to reconcile its dual conceits.

Each of the children represents a separate group within the republic and each is meant to seem like a strong and formidable character on his or her own, but also cannot do well outside of the group. Nationhood, defined by the possibility of self-sufficiency and inextricable from socially-inherited notions of what constitutes one’s culture, is suggested in each child’s struggle for identification with the greater community. Abbasov’s cinematic statement perplexingly drives home the idea we don’t need a family to be human beings, but proceeds to draw each of his individual characters in the context of a big, mismatched family, an ideal of group cooperation. And while the film is too narrowly-drawn to be a full-fledged Trojan Horse of ideological subversion, it is, at the very least, a curiosity for how it carries two distinct messages nested within one another – messages that are meant to be complimentary and each incomplete without the other, but at the same time resonate as deeply contradictory.

Abikeyeva writes that this film is emblematic of the Central Asian ‘thaw’ period, which waned in the early 70’s around the time of the Turkmen film The Daughter-in-Law (done in 1972, and which was screened relatively widely in Europe and North America) and seemed to have frozen over again by the time Kazakh filmmaker Bulat Mansurov’s Kulager (the first version of which was also completed in 1972) was mostly repressed by censors – although it did see its share of screenings within the U.S.S.R. Uzbek director Ali Kamrayev’s Without Fear (again, from 1972) is an exemplar of the socially iconoclastic mixed with the politically subversive, managing to pull the communist authorities’ table cloth out from under their carefully-laid ideological cutlery without disturbing a single knife or fork. Coming at the beginning of the thaw, nothing so daring is attempted in You Are Not an Orphan. The appearance of inclusiveness through community – unmistakably Soviet in ideology – is free enough to push for forgiving Germans, something that would have been unthinkable ten or even five years earlier. There is an openness of depiction here not bound to the tacitly-accepted politics of the postwar period that, if it plays by the rules of ideology, acquires a freedom of expression that would mark the time spanning the early 60’s to the early 70’s, and that wouldn’t appear again until the fall of the Soviet Union.

This is a paradigmatic text for the identity formation of a nation within a nation, extending a localized mark of identity (in this case, mahallya) to the ideal way that the entire republic should function. Director Abbasov is trying to impart an innately Uzbek view of community, pulling in self-regulating morality, maternal sensitivity, and a large dose of self-reliance under the dominant Soviet themes of inclusiveness and pluralism. He is putting forth that the Uzbeks have something to offer Soviet society and also, by extension, he is using the Mahkamovs as a model of tolerance for Uzbek culture to look up to. In rethinking both the tenets of his own culture and the ways in which dominant society can work, he accentuates the division between the two while also imagining a point of convergence antithetical to both cultural demarcations and the omnipotence of an all-encompassing state – a simultaneous effacement of unified identity as well as petty national borders. In suggesting that traditional ways are the original socialism (and maintaining Stalinism as the new orthodoxy) Abbasov makes the sentiment of his film both seamlessly dual and hopelessly bifurcated, all in a single motion.

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