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Central Asia

©GULNARA ABIKEEVA

REVIEW

The Needle

A postmodern drama. Moro ("a needle" in the Kazakh language), a young man, returns to his hometown and finds out that his girlfriend has become a drug addict. The unsuccessful attempt to take her off this "needle" ends tragically for Moro.

The Needle by Rashid Nugmanov was not only the starting point for the Kazakh new wave but also for the entire "perestroika" cinema. The artistic underground of the Soviet Union became "legalized" for the first time in this film. The middle of the 1980s was the period when the "non-official" and "nonconformist" arts entered the mainstream. The rock superstar Victor Tsoy, who played the protagonist, was the idol of the Soviet youth and his songs proclaimed a call to action: "Change! We want to change!" The film director not only declared the beginning of a new era but also declared a death sentence on the old times. The antipode of Moro is Spartak, who says: "I excuse my committee and I excuse myself!" The prophecy of an artist always astounds me. Rashid Nugmanov is a film director who thinks structurally and precisely. On one hand he was making a film for youth and therefore it had to speak the language of youth and describe the youth subculture. He cast Victor Tsoy and Petr Mamonov, the youth music idols, and gave his film the music video esthetic, with an atmosphere of irony and mockery. On the other hand he exactly recreated the change of the ideological paradigms by using soundtracks and music – songs of different periods, radio and television shows, and also by making artistic space decisions. An analysis of the film can be developed based on any of these elements. The most interesting interpretation of the film is based on an analysis of the three main characters: Moro, Spartak, and Dina (Moro’s girlfriend.)

          

Who is Moro? A Western superman, a cultural hero and a trickster, who descended to the Earth to restore order and justice. As soon as he enters the frame he evokes a number of cinema allusions of Western rebels: young Marlon Brando, James Dean, and popular that time Bruce Lee. The soundtrack contains fragments of the French and German language lessons. Moro is dressed in a black leather jacket and gloves. He swings a key-chain that plays a Disney tune. He has two problems to solve: Spartak owes him money and Dina needs to be taken off the needle. In both cases he has to fight. That is his main virtue. Besides, he is a free-spirit, fearless, fair and honest.

Who is Spartak? He is an informal leader of a youth group. But it is not clear why he has his leadership. He owes money all around, has to hide from everybody, and is constantly getting beaten by one group of his creditors or another. Now Moro is after him. Spartak hangs out in strange places – old basements, zoo-theater, etc. His scene is that of young Soviet people mentally stuck in the romantic ideas of the 1960s. This character resembles a positive hero of Soviet films, but is caricatured and demythologized in this film. Even his name – Spartak – sounds like a joke. In his climactic scene he climbs on a pedestal, assumes Lenin’s pose and yells: "Follow me! Everybody go forward! And then backwards! Freedom to everyone! One’s existence is not one’s conscience!" This is an open satire of the motivational scenes in the films of Soviet period. Spartak represents the Soviet ideology that had become bankrupt.

Who is Dina? She is a complex symbol of many meanings. She looks different in every scene: she is in special glasses for gunfire practice at the beginning; she is in the white mask of the Japanese Noh theater; she wears black and white glasses when she shoots drugs into her veins; she looks like a mummy at the end of the film. Only in the scenes at the Aral Sea, Dina doesn’t pretend to be somebody; she is very sick from her drug withdrawal and she is just herself.

The visual esthetic of a film is a half the content of a film. Of course, the cinematographer Marat Nugamnov, brother of the film director, contributed to the visual style of the film. The film’s images of decay and emptiness serve as a manifestation of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. A continuous shot, panning along Dina’s apartment clogged with old useless stuff that used to belong to Dina’s father, says more than any words. The scene at the Aral Sea looks like a metaphor for the disintegrating Soviet Union – abandoned houses; the dried-out sea; ships stuck in the sand; a crewless boat.

Let us return to the image of Dina. She is the only female character. She is a woman exploited by different men. While Moro travels somewhere, Dina’s father dies – the symbol of the Soviet past. Doctor Artur becomes a father figure in Dina’s life. He deals drugs and is involved with the mafia. Moro finds out all about it and takes Dina away from the city to the remote Aral Sea. There, in an abandoned fisherman’s hat, she gets very sick, going through drug withdrawal. Their trip is a parody of a romantic journey. Instead of watching them walking on the shore in the sunset, we see that the sea is gone and only salt is left. There only one entertainment is watching scorpions in a glass jar. Instead of kissing and passionate nights of love, there is Dina’s pain, nausea, pills, and suffering.

The image of Dina is a metaphor for modern society – at first glance, it seems strong and well armed, but in the reality, it is helpless and vulnerable. The society is exploited by different group, and going through painful withdrawal after being drugged for so long.

What about our superman? Whatever Moro tries to accomplish – to save his girlfriend or recover his money – turns out a failure. The finale is sad and ironic. Moro is walking in a snowy alley when a stranger approaches him and asks him to light his cigarette. Moro pulls out a cigarette lighter. Using the pause, the stranger knifes Moro. Moro falls to his knees and the stranger lights his cigarette from Moro’s lighter and leaves. Then Moro lights his own cigarette from the lighter, struggles up to his feet and continues on his path. The editing removes the sense of tragedy and creates the feeling of a false happy ending. It is all a joke; nothing is serious. "Would you like some more?" a male radio encore asks, and a children’s chorus replies: "Yes!"

The Needle

USSR, 1998, 81 minutes, color

Director: Rashid Nugmanov

Screenwriters: Alexander Baranov and Bakhit Kelibayev

Cinematographer: Marat Nugmanov

Production Designer: Murat Musin

Songwriter and Performer: Victor Tsoy

Cast: Victor Tsoy, Marina Smirnova, Petr Mamonov, Alexander Bashirov, Arkhimed Iskakov.

 

Awards and Participation in Film Festivals

The Golden Duke Award at the Odessa Film Festival, 1988

Grand Prize in the Nurenberg Film Festival, 1990

Participation in more than fifty film festivals worldwide: Berlin-89,

Cartagena-89, New York-90, etc.


Gulnara Abikeeva, 2003

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