By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 4/30/22 – Screening in the line-up of films at the South East Europe Film Festival in Los Angeles on Friday, April 29 was a fine film from Azerbaijan – Sughra and Her Sons (85 min., 2021), directed by accomplished Azeri director Ilgar Nara. This beautifully shot monochrome film tells the story of a strong woman and her two sons who live in a remote village in the mountainous region of northern Azerbaijan in 1945, at a point in World War when the military powers of the Soviet Union were conscripting all eligible men of fighting age into their army to fight the Germans. Many men in the village were already gone to fight in the Russian-led Soviet army but we soon learn that a small group of deserters is hiding in the mountains near the village. The film focuses on a strong woman named Sughra (Gunash Mehdizadeh)) who is alone, since her husband is gone to fight in the Soviet army. She is raising her two sons, 17-year-old Musa (Iglar Jahangir) and his much younger brother Bahtiyar (Humbat Ahmadzade). This powerful account told from the point of view of young Bahtiyar has some striking similarities to the recent Czech film The Painted Bird, directed by Václav Marhoul and based on the famous 1965 novel by Jerzy Kosinski.
The village was transformed into a collective farm in the 1920s by the Bolsheviks when they took over Azerbaijan after the Russian Civil War. Sughra works as the bookkeeper at the storage house on the collective farm or kolkhoz in the village. As the film begins, we hear the sound of a violin wafting wistfully through burnt ruins in part of the village. Several boys with toy wooden guns sneak through this macabre playground, with one of them yelling “For the Fatherland and for Stalin.” One of them, Bahtiyar, throws a pine cone that accidentally shatters the glass window of the school building. The teacher looks out with concern. He sternly asks the boys – who are standing in a row in front of him – who threw it. The legs step aside and one boy stands alone. The boy apologizes, saying it was an accident. The teacher forgives Musa because he admitted it. After this incident, Bahtiyar heads back to his home where his mother Sughra has prepared a very simple dinner for him and his older brother Musa.
The next day, we see Sughra working on the books at the storage building of the collective farm. She is approached by Barat (Pasha Mammadli), the head of the kolkhoz or collective farm. He pesters Sughra about her missing husband, who has gone off to the war. Barat is an older man, lewd and controlling, who uses his position of power to try to seduce Sughra, who resists him and his sexual advances. In the late afternoon, Barat decides to slaughter a heifer (collective property) and divide up the meat among all the villagers. The villagers have little to eat from the collective farm, as most of the crops are sent off to the Soviet authorities. Sughra gets her fair share, as she has three mouths to feed. She cooks dinner for her sons but does not include the meat. She tells her older son Musa that he needs to leave early in the morning to gather more firewood from up in the mountains.
On the following day, we see young Bahtiyar at school in the one-room schoolhouse where the teacher who is obviously a purveyor of a curriculum based on Soviet propaganda about the glories of socialism and the benefits of being a nation in the Soviet Union. He is teaching the children a poem about Soviet values under Stalin and the place of Azerbaijan in that socialist view of progress. After school lets out for the day, Bahtiyar runs off to play with other school children in the fields, where he looks for tiny potato spuds left in the ground after the harvest. Food seems to be quite scarce, as it is wartime and, with most of the men gone, the women do the work.
Bahtiyar keeps asking his mother if she has heard from his father, who is away fighting somewhere for the Soviet army. He keeps a diary under his pillow in the room shared with his older brother Musa. In the diary are several letters – and we can assume one of them was probably from his father on the front.
Early the next morning, Sughra wakes up the boys and prepares to send them off with their donkey up into the mountains on a mission that is not explained to young Bahtiyar. The provisions packed on the donkey include food and the meat that Sughra cooked and set aside to send with them. The climb up into the mountains is steep. Eventually they arrive at a rocky outcropping where they are greeted by several men with rifles. Bahtiyar and Musa are led to a large mountain cave, where seven men are holed up because they are either deserters or refuse to fight for the Russian-led Soviet army. The boys meet their Uncle Ahad from the village, who seems to be in charge of the group. Bahtiyar asks about his father, who is not among the group in the cave. He is told that “his father has chosen a different path.” Uncle Ahad hates the Soviet government which has confiscated his property and taken his possessions After eating with the men, Musa and Bahtiyar distribute letters from women in the village to the men and, in exchange, receive letters to take back secretly to the village.
Back in the village, we see a young woman who is the abandoned daughter of Uncle Ahad and lives alone. She comes to get food supplies at the village storehouse. Barat, the head of the collective farm, approaches her, trapping her inside, and then rapes her. Bahtiyar happened to be nearby and could hear what was happening, As darkness approaches, he leaves letters from the men in the mountains under the doors of several houses. Barat arrives at Sughra’s house at dinner time and Sughra refuses to let Barat enter her house. He hands Musa a notice that he has been conscripted to join the Soviet army. Immediately Sughra decides to take action and sends Bahtiyar and Musa off on another journey up in the mountains to deliver food to the men. This time, it is different, Musa plans to stay with the deserters in the cave and fight with them. Bahtiyar has returned alone with the donkey to the village. Night falls and the donkey panics at the sound of howling wolves Bahtiyar is attacked by an animal, probably a jackal and loses the donkey. Finding his way back to the village with a leg wound, his mother Sughra patches him up and knows they have to go back to find the donkey.
Bahtiyar has letters from some of the men to leave under doors. When he goes to house of the young woman who is the daughter of Uncle Ahad who Batar raped, he enters and discovers a shocking scene. The young woman has hung herself. Again, young Bahiyar is the sole witness to what has happened. The villagers, being Muslim, have to bury the young woman by the next day. We see the women all dressed in black carrying the shrouded body of the young woman to a freshly-dug grave away from the village. It is a powerful scene captured by the camera in a way that is reminiscent of the style of Belá Tarr. Even the abusive collective farm head Batar is present at the burial, although he walks away quickly.
Time passes, as Bahtiyar continues to act as a liaison between the men in the mountains and the village women. When Bahtiyar is out gathering firewood along a creek, he sees the village head Batar approach a woman completely dressed in black. He seems to think this is another woman to seduce, possibly Sughra herself and imagines that he can have his way with her out in the woods. As he moves closer, the “woman” pulls a knife and kills him. As the “woman” throws off her black hood, we realize that it was actually his Uncle Ahad from the mountain cave. Once again, Bahtiyar is the sole witness of the act, much like the boy in Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird.
Soon after, the Soviet KGB arrives in the village in a Russian-made truck packed with 20 armed soldiers. The head of this group in his slick leather overcoat only speaks Russian and uses a bilingual Azerbaijani lower officer to translate for him. The Soviet soldiers move into the schoolhouse and begin an offensive against the deserters hiding up in the mountains. The Russian commander questions Sughra about her identity and her missing son Musa. She replies that he has gone off to fight in the war – a vague, double-edged answer. The Russian commander seems to accept that answer and soon leaves. He asks Bahtiyar when he last saw the collective farm head Batar and Bahtiyar replies that it was at the funeral for the dead young woman. His lie seems acceptable to the Soviet officers.After rifles have fired repeatedly between the Soviet soldiers and the deserters in the mountains, it is obvious that the Soviet soldiers are seeking out the deserters in the mountains. Sughra, like the other women in the village, is summoned to look at the bodies of the dead men placed in the school house. As Sughra looks over the bodies, she is asked if she recognizes any of the men. She pauses, bites her lips, and responds “No.” We never see the bodies – only Sughra’s face as she tries to remain calm. Obviously, she has seen but does not dare speak. After signing a disclaimer, she returns home. Later Bahtiyar sees the Soviet truck filled up with soldiers again and departing the village. At the back of the truck, tied up, is Musa, his older brother, who was apparently captured by the soldiers. He will be forced to join the front in the war as a conscripted soldier.
As darkness descends on the village, Bahtiyar finds his mother locked in her room, sobbing. He asks her if she wants something to eat, but there is no response. Life in the village seems to go on. Bahtiyar is back in the school house with the teacher who is excited to have a phonograph player on which to play the music for the Azerbaijani Socialist patriot anthem. The children join in singing as directed by their teacher. The bombastic music with its Socialist jingoism feels so ironic in contrast to the pervasive melancholy that hangs over the film. The bane of war hangs over the village, even though we never see real fighting. The people of Azerbaijan have never been fond of the Russian-dominated control of the Soviet Union. After World War I, they were overrun by the Bolshevik “Red” Army and forced to become part of the Soviet Union and its former socialist “planned” economy. During World War II, thousands of Azerbaijani men fought in the Soviet army regardless of their beliefs about land ownership or collective farming.
The director, Ilgar Najaf, was born in 1975 in the Ararat region of the Armenian Republic (USSR). After ethnic conflict in 1988 (when he was 13) he and his family were forcibly expelled from Armenia and became refugees. In 1997 he graduated in film directing from the Azerbaijan State University of Arts. In 2004 he established the “Buta Film” studio where he produced a number of films and directed four features including his 2018 award-winning film Pomegranate Orchard. The screenplay for Sughra and Her Sons was written by Ilgar Najaf, in conjunction with Roelof Jan Minneboo, who also co-wrote Pomegranate Orchard, as well as Asif Rustamov, who is also a filmmaker. Some influences on Najaf’s films seem to be Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Hungarian filmmaker Belá Tarr, and also several Iranian filmmakers.