A joyful depiction of brotherly care: “Bratan” at the Samizdat Festival of Central and Eastern European Film4 min read

 In Central Asia, Review, Reviews

In his 1991 film Bratan, director Bakhtyar Khudojnazarov depicts the train ride across Tajikistan of two disparate brothers travelling from their home village to visit their father. The humorous depiction, charming characters, and subtle references to political and social circumstances render the film into a worthwhile portrait of brotherly care. The film would be the first in the Tajik director’s international career.

Brothers Farukh and Azamat make for an odd couple. Farukh, a 17-year-old who occasionally works as a courier for a local shop owner, spends his days with friends on the streets, where he enjoys respect because of his confident, albeit sometimes impulsive, demeanour. Living only with his grandmother and younger brother, Farukh assumes a fatherly role and takes care of his younger brother Azamat, who is known for his clumsiness, love for sweets, and inexplicable inclination for eating soil. Curious and recalcitrant in nature, Azamat, who is affectionately called Ponchik (En.: pancake) throughout the movie, regularly oversteps the boundaries drawn by his older brother or other adults close to him.

Entirely shot in black and white, the film opens with Farukh preparing to undertake the planned train ride. The few scenes depicting the village show a provincial environment, which is marked by the remnants of industrial activity and shadow economic activities, thus reflecting the malaise of the late-Soviet era. Although the true purpose of the trip is only slowly revealed throughout the movie, Azamat follows his older brother, who only told his grandmother that they are planning to visit their father.

The second major part of the film covers the brothers’ train ride on a slow riding good wagon carrying cargo across the country. This latter half of the film is marked by a slow pace and long shots of the marvellous vistas of the moving landscape. Traders, horses, and dogs appear as temporary fellow travellers between the short stops, which the laconic train operator Nabi regularly choses to prolong in order to sleep or follow his romantic endeavours. At the same time, the viewer can follow the heart-warming relationship between the two brothers, which is torn between care and affection on the one hand and tensions, resulting from Azamat’s clumsy and cheeky behaviour, on the other. Although the sequence of scenes appear occasionally arbitrary with a dragging pace of narration, the charming characters and delightful shots of the train ride give Bratan the captivating spirit of an entertaining roadtrip movie.

This warm atmosphere, however, shifts as soon as the brothers arrive at their destination, a border town in which their father serves as a doctor. Upon arrival, the father hardly succeeds in hiding his surprise and unease. It is in these scenes of the movie that the missing parts fall in place. Farukh and Azamat’s parents separated some time ago, and while the whereabouts of their mother is unknown, their father now shares his life with a new partner. Although happy to see his sons, the father refuses to accept Farukh’s proposal to take in Azamat. The often laconic dialogues make the viewer regularly guess for motives, but the intentions behind Farukh’s offer are clear: Willing to break-out of his usual environment, he travelled across the country to leave his brother behind.

This subtext reveals an unexpected depth behind the joyful façade of Khudojnazarov’s film. The same is the case for the occasional depictions of violence in the form of fist fights on the street and the physical punishment Azamat faces for his love for soil. These rare scenes reveal a glimpse into the persistence of patriarchal attitudes in Tajik society, as well as the lack of perspectives for youth. Khudojnazarov’s first feature-length film can thus be seen as a logical starting point to his cinematographic oeuvre, which received international acclaim for the movies Kosh ba Kosh (1993) and Luna Papa (1999).

At the end of the film, Azamat’s stubbornness and audacity annuls the plans of his older brother, who embarks once again on the train to leave the visible cracks and tensions in his relationship with his father behind. Shortly after departure, however, his little brother is found hidden in one of the cargo wagons. Reunited, the two continue their ride through the slowly changing landscape of lakes, rocks, and mountains. Although at times sluggish, Bratan is convincing as a joyful depiction of brotherly love and affection, which at times allows a deeper look into the state of late-Soviet Tajikistan.

Bratan will be available to view during the Samizdat Festival of Central and Eastern European Film as an online exclusive at Klassiki from 12 September to 5 October.

Feature Image: Bratan
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