Thursday, May 22, 2014

Film Atlas (Uzbekistan): Man Follows Birds

Country: Uzbekistan
Title: Man Follows Bird / Chelovek ukhodit za ptitsami (1975)
On a Central Asian mountain Farukh, a kind and sensitive boy, witnesses the blossoming of an almond tree and rushes home shouting with joy. The townspeople, less than enthused at being woken by news of this minor miracle, give Farukh a thrashing, but he’s rescued by a travelling beggar. 

Later that day we see that Farukh is the object of Amandyria’s love. Amandyria is a passionate and sensual girl who desperately wants Farukh to elope with her, but Farukh lacks the confidence to take the initiative and has his drunkard of a father to look after. Besides, he isn’t entirely sure he reciprocates her feelings. One night Farukh’s father passes away and during the funeral his creditors strip their home of valuables. Meanwhile, Amandyria is locked into an arranged marriage, and can offer the newly orphaned Farukh nothing but a little charity. He decides to hit the road with his best friend Khabib and the two hike across the countryside as travelling entertainers. Throughout their journey, roving bandits plague them. 

They finally stumble upon a paradisiacal mountain lake and settle in for the summer. After a flood upstream, they rescue a girl named Gulcha, a fellow orphan, and the three enjoy a few precious months of leisure and happiness. Both Farukh and Khabib develop feelings for Gulcha, until Farukh, sensing Khabib and Gulcha’s mutual attraction, bows out and continues his walkabout alone. Soon after departing he sees a dying peacock (their symbol of a happy life and a powerful premonition) and, too late, rushes back. Khabib is slain by a dishonorable bandit lord in an underwater duel and Gulcha, horrified, drowns herself. Grief-stricken once more, Farukh despairs of coexisting in a world where cruelty and callousness reign, until he again meets the beggar who rescued him from bullies a year earlier. The man turns out to be a great warrior and Farukh becomes his disciple, committing himself to a life dedicated to defending his country.

Ali Khamraev, a prolific Uzbek director best known for comedies, osterns (Soviet westerns shot in the Great Steppe) and documentaries, departed from his usual material to make this historically-set coming-of-age drama. Man Follows Birds begins as a neorealist slice of life, transitions into a fantasy tale, is shattered in the fashion of classical tragedy and finally ascends into the realm of national myth. Farukh’s journey can be seen as a metaphor for both the passage into adulthood and the rocky road of Uzbekistani history. Farukh is constrained by the demands of community, tradition and poverty. He breaks free by running away to live in harmony with nature and other like-minded children. Their inevitable fall from Eden is precipitated by internal tension, as their friendship grows into an untenable love triangle, and is ultimately destroyed by outside forces beyond their control. The final scenes, with their abrupt shift to militancy, imply a renewed sense of personal and national identity.

Khamraev was clearly influenced by Sergei Parajanov in his use of tableaux compositions, folkloric themes and surprising bursts of color (Khabib and Gulcha sleeping on a bed of yellow apples is one of many superb examples). He regularly shows us startling imagery from Farukh’s dreams, including an otherworldly motif of characters on black backgrounds lit by projections of flowers and ferns. The climactic underwater battle, devoid of dialog, is also quite wonderfully disorienting; a scene of beauty, confusion and tragedy all stirred together.  The film is thick with these visual flourishes, but Khamraev’s underlying compassion for the children and the genuine emotion in their performances, saves Man Follows Bird from feeling like a purely aesthetic exercise. 

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