Uzbekistan: 40 Days of Silence

(2014; writer/director: Saodat Ismailova; language: Uzbek; original title: Chilla; co-production with Tajikistan, the Netherlands, Germany and France)

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Teenage Bibicha (Rushana Sadikova) undertakes a vow of silence – the titular chilla for a 40 day period. She moves in with her grandmother Bibi Soadat (Saodat Rahminova) in Bibi’s isolated mountain home, along with her worldly aunt Khamida (Barohad Shukurova) newly returned from ‘the city’, and Khamida’s illegitimate young daughter Sharifa (Farida Olimova). Through the subtle interactions between these characters, and meditative sound and imagery, the film examines the lives and choices of the three generations of Uzbek women as they negotiate the forces of tradition and gendered power structures.

My brief research into the Uzbek film industry turned up a decent number of well-received films from the Soviet era, and more modern hits such as Abdullajon (a science fiction comedy film which looks kind of fun), but unfortunately both the Soviet era classics and the post-independence productions are difficult to access with English subtitles. So, as is increasingly becoming the case, I let availability dictate and went with the Uzbek entry in my local film festival. As I’m also keen to include films helmed by women, and those with a clear focus on women’s lives, 40 Days of Silence seemed like a great choice for the blog. I was therefore a little disappointed to learn as the closing credits rolled that it was actually filmed in neighbouring Tajikistan (more photogenic? Cheaper? who knows…). But culturally and narratively the film seems solidly Uzbek, so I’m still going to use it here.

The film starts in a redly-lit basement with an oppressive metallic soundtrack. A stressed-looking Bibicha is surrounded by ghost-like apparitions of her family members, who debate whether or not she will survive her chilla. It is unclear why Bibicha is undergoing this ordeal, nor in what sense is poses a danger, but her undertaking is met with grave respect. (My initial thought was that she was pregnant, but this proved not to be). After this dramatic beginning, the rest of the film then resolves into a state of apparent calm, albeit one charged with tension and unease. The homely comforts of the women’s remote peasant life are overlaid with something unspoken and hard to pinpoint, a chronic and stifling atmosphere of oppression that bears relentlessly down on them.

40 Days of Silence is very much a festival film; it’s poetic, exploratory, and without much narrative drive or tension. In a lot of ways it felt like a film that wanted neither to show nor tell, but to use all the devices available to the medium to evoke a sense of the women’s lives and psyches on an almost tangible level. Some of these devices were more effective and well-executed than others – I personally was not a fan of the swirling blurred visuals used at one point, symbolic as they may be. Much more effective was the sensitive interplay between sound and image throughout the film. The central protagonist’s silence is most obvious aspect of this – her lack of dialogue forces the viewer to broaden their sensory awareness, taking in visual and auditory clues that combine to create a visceral experience of atmosphere, as opposed to plot or verbal forms of sense-making.

I’ve seen other films about vows of silence, and these tend to get their drama from instances where the protagonist really needs to talk. Few have captured the yawning stretch of isolation and dull introspection that such a vow might entail, a form of self-imposed solitary confinement. 40 Days of Silence conveys this through heightened attention to the mundane details of life at Bibi Saodat’s home – the fizz of rain leaking through the roof and landing on the heated hearth. The cacophony of goats going at the bare branches of the winter trees. The obscene guzzling of one bold goat who climbs onto the table to consume leftovers from the women’s dinner. The rasp of Bibi Saodat’s hands stroking those of her granddaughter. In contrast, the discordant tones of Aunt Khamida’s constant cell phone use become an unbearable agony, a comment perhaps on encroaching modernisation? And subtly invading these moments of quiet and stillness was a murky and disturbing soundtrack, like a white noise inside Bibicha’s head, charging the apparent normalcy with a lingering threat.

Reviewer Patrick Gamble put all this more concisely and poetically: “Dark, haunting scenes of personal reflection are accompanied by the throbbing, ominous vacuum of nothingness, and from the onset the audience find themselves in a nightmarish landscape where the pain and suffering of the past coexists with the present. By positioning us within the subjectivity of Bibicha, all other senses are sharpened. Ismailova utilises dense layers of sound, overlaid visuals and extreme close-ups to give a poetically tragic edge to what is, for Bibicha at least, already a sombre existence.”

Even Bibicha’s characterisation must largely be intuited from sensory cues – while Sadikova gives an impressive performance in what must have been a challenging role, her face is often partially or entirely concealed. The symbolism is understandable given the themes of women’s oppression and limitation, and in the context of debates (verbalised at one point in the film) over whether or Uzbek women should engage in the (as I understand it, non-traditional) practice of wearing a veil – a signal of the tensions around the meaning of Islam in an independent Uzbekistan. But even if symbolic, I kept feeling that if I couldn’t hear the actress speak, I at least wanted to see her. I was unwillingly distracted throughout much of the film by boredom stemming from not knowing what was going on, who was feeling what, or why. I put this down not to any of the performances but rather to the film’s experimental nature and its preference for layers of symbolism over anchoring these to narrative or characterisation.

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At times the camera broke away from the purely domestic, revealing wide vistas of Bibicha’s mountainous surroundings. But where shots such as these are often associated with freedom or the space to ‘find oneself’, in Ismailova’s film they do the opposite, intensifying – rather than relieving – the atmosphere of suffocation and confinement. We watch painfully as a barefoot Bibicha climbs a looming mountain of sharp shale; a cluster of buildings is an island in a looming veil of clouds; a forest of black twigs brings to mind the impenetrable isolation of the Sleeping Beauty; a blizzard rages. Outside her grandmother’s home, or in, Bibicha is hemmed in by the weight of her limited opportunities.

Although the source of Bibicha’s oppression are not explicitly stated, they are hinted at: poverty, isolation and an uncertain future, yes, but also gender and tradition. (This is perhaps unsurprising, given Uzbekistan’s record of women’s rights abuses). No men are seen on screen, but their presence is felt. At one point a radio interview plays, a woman twice a child-bride discussing the abuse she had suffered at the hands of her husband. Bibi Saodat groans, I know this so well. And yet she too is a bearer of tradition – her rhythmic voice extolling the iron will of the way of things. ‘The ghosts in your past define your present,’ Bibicha is told. At a party Bibi Saodat makes a toast to the fulfillment of the younger generation’s dreams, and I wonder what these could be. What were Bibi Saodat’s dreams, and what does she wish for her grandchildren? The film left me yearning to know more – what do women dream of in contemporary Uzbekistan, and how likely is it that those dreams are fulfilled? 40 Days of Silence made palpable rural Uzbek women’s oppression, but did not actually reveal much about their inner lives. I would have liked to know more about how Bibicha came to undertake her chilla and what it means for her – is it atonement or redemption, or is it a way to exert her will?

Director Ismailova states that40 Days of Silence is a story about women confronting crucial decisions: motherhood, the weight of tradition, homeland, sexuality, emotional expression, religion or self-destruction in modern society. The characters are inspired from situations lived by those who are close to me. Aside from women’s issues, I would like to explore an idea of lost identity, of living a complex re-evaluation and transformation of human values in a society deeply rooted in Islam, a society that was reshaped by communism and has recently become independent. How does this transformation ‘echo’ in women’s destinies, and in the way they perceive and confront their lives? The film is an experiment in approaching and beginning to unveil the blood-and-guts realities of Uzbek women’s intimate relations.”

And while much of this ambition is present in the film, particularly the notion of echoes of the past, I’m not sure that all of it was successfully realised – at least for a viewer like me with little to no prior knowledge of the country. The picture of Uzbekistan I got from the film – beyond the fact that it looks like Tajikistan – is one of a country undergoing changes, but where layers of historic trauma weigh heavily. Women’s existence seems to be one of little joy, little hope, and little room for change. While Ismailova’s film is admittedly experimental, and was at times very successful in evoking a sense of its characters’ psychological, cultural and geographical environs, I couldn’t help feeling it might have gone deeper into certain issues – particularly the role of women in independent Uzbekistan, and how this intersects for instance with nationhood and religion.

This article from Human Rights Watch, although somewhat dated now, offers an interesting introduction to some of the issues that the film appears to take up, but which I could never fully grasp while watching it.

Uzbekistan, which became independent in 1991, is a young state with claims to an ancient past. The desire to reanimate and reinvent national tradition, and thus to solidify the newly independent state’s claims to nationhood, has complicated women’s exercise of their human rights in the post-Soviet era… As in many post-communist societies, attitudes regarding women’s roles in society and the workforce, and the structure of family, grew more conservative during the turmoil that followed the break-up of the Soviet bloc. Social scientists have noted that ‘one of the more fully elaborated and vigorously promulgated components of Uzbekistan’s new national ideology is an imagined pre-revolutionary past in which the restriction of women to the private sphere supposedly enriched the lives of women and the entire nation.’ … This position is further complicated by the government’s contradictory stance toward Islam, which it also promotes as a facet of national culture and identity, but suppresses when it challenges state authority. Statements by government officials portray Islam on the whole as an encroaching threat to women’s exercise of their rights, ignoring facets of the region’s own Islamic heritage, such as the jadid movement, supportive of female emancipation.

Shoutout: Zulfiya

director’s short film about the dried up Aral Sea. Glimpse of similar rhythmic film-making, interaction between a largely silent female protagonist and her harsh surroundings, the danger of men, and tragedies of Uzbekistan’s history and present.