Angel On The Right (Fararishtay kifti rost)
Tajikistan (2002) Dir. Jamshed Usmonov
This is a double first for yours truly – not only is this the first time watching a film from Tajikistan but this is the first time I’ve ever heard of the country! Genuine unchartered territory here for me!
Set in the impoverished Tajik village of Asht, remorseless criminal Hamro (Maruf Pulodzoda) returns from Russia after a decade away to visit his dying mother Halima (Uktamoi Miyasarova). For Halima to pass on with dignity, Hamro has to have the house refurnished to sell on afterwards but his bad reputation and attitude, along with the string of outstanding debts, are not forgotten by the other villagers.
As if Hamro’s troubles weren’t already piling up, he learns of a son Yatim (Kova Tilavpur) whom he sired before fleeing to Russia, thrust upon him without warning as the poor lad’s mother died when he was one. Then he discovers that Halima wasn’t dying after all, so selling her house to pay off his debts won’t happen.
Erroneously billed as a black comedy in some listings, this relentlessly bleak film is really nothing to laugh about at all, not even Halima’s miracle recovery feels like it is played for comedy. In his second film Tajik writer-director Jamshed Usmonov returns to his own hometown for this fable of corruption, community rejection and possible redemption based around an old Islamic belief.
The tenet is that on one’s left shoulder sits a bad angel who registers all bad deeds we commit while on the right is a good angel who does the same for all noble actions. On Judgement day, the balance between good and bad will determine which one of the two afterlife destinations a person will be sent – up or down.
Now, “possible redemption” might be a spoiler but this is said with good reason as Hamro is far too selfish and brutish to be an anti-hero with the slightest chance of changing his spots. He admits that he wouldn’t have come back for mother if she wasn’t dying and refuses to acknowledge his paternity of Yatim, treating like a slave when he’s not treating him like a nuisance.
But as we explore the surroundings of this poor town, Hamro is really no better or worse than any of the others. The mayor (Mardonqui Oulbobo) is as corrupt as they come – he in fact hatched the fake death plan with Halima in the hope it would Hamro would redeem himself upon his return. Debt collectors regularly beat the tar out of people for non-payment while smuggling drugs into Russia is a last ditch attempt to gain quick income for the really desperate.
Hamro’s departure came after a stint in prison while he worked for mob boss during his decade in Moscow, so he has some serious form which makes him both feared upon his return and a target for the other hoodlums. But it is an interesting environment these people live in and it truly is a survival of the fittest and dog eat dog – possibly literally for wall we know.
One unique facet is the battering method used when a quoted or even an agreed price is not deemed satisfactory. Through an exaggerated and forced handshake the one who can gain the most physical leverage and make the other submit walks away with a much better than before. Failing that, a convincing threat of violence with a menacing outburst in demonstration is also very effective.
The morality of the tale isn’t introduced until the final act, following a peculiar exchange between Halima and the mayor which was either a dream of real. While the 88-minute run time is rather brief, the story isn’t too overburdened with spurious threads and congruent subplots that Usmonov couldn’t have used them on a more sustained basis throughout.
What we have is essentially 70 minutes of piling up Hamro’s troubles and sixteen minutes (sans credits) to dig the soil to plant the seeds of a resolve which is flung at us with some haste. But, a last minute request from Halima to young Yatim leaves us with a poignant and rather sad denouement which superficially doesn’t bode well for the immediate future but doesn’t completely close the door on a positive resolve either.
Perhaps the intention was not bludgeon us with a heavily didactic yarn, especially with the shaky ground one walks on when discussing Islam. That said it doesn’t feel like religion is the driving force behind this – more Usmonov’s way to highlight the plight of his hometown to the world. In that respect no obvious time period suggested, the lack of mobile phones, computers, TVs and such at least ruling out the past decade.
The cast is made up of non-professional actors and all locals of the village of Asht, lending the film immediate credence and a naturalistic aura. This is revealed in the way some of the actors deliver their lines in stilted or rushed fashioned when they are not waiting for the turn to speak. Only Maruf Pulodzoda has continued to purse acting under Usmonov’s direction.
Whether this is a genuine portrait of Asht and Tajikistan in general we may never find out but it certainly is an eye opener. Usmonov has captured the unique spirit and the immersive sights and sounds of an equally unique community, while the story has all the constitute elements to make a universally adaptable drama – but only if it can be translated with the same credibility and evocative potency of the central plight.
By now you have probably deciphered to whom the title Angel On The Right refers but this takes nothing away from the revelatory experience this film provides for those of us on this side of the word, and it is difficult not to feel like we take too much for granted with our material possessions compared to whole communities who have to struggle for the basics.