Homeward was one of the films released during the last period of Lockdown in the UK in April 2021. A year later and it would have made a bigger impact, but now it is available for a year on BBC iPlayer so it has become much more accessible and is certainly a film to watch. It is a remarkable début feature from Ukranian director Nariman Aliev who was only 26 when the film was screened in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ competition programme at Cannes 2019.
The narrative opens with a young man, Alim (Remzi Bilyalov – cousin of the director and a non-professional) waiting in a hospital mortuary corridor in Kyiv. His older brother has been killed in the conflict with Russia in Crimea during the 2014 war and his father Mustapha (Akhtem Seitablaev) is negotiating the release of his son’s body so that he can take it back to Crimea for burial next to his mother as custom demands. Mustapha is an angry man who will never accept what Ukranian officials tell him. He usually gets his way but it isn’t a form of behaviour that can be sustained indefinitely. But he gets the body and with Alim he intends to drive to Crimea. But first they must visit Olesya (Dariya Barihashvili), the dead young man’s fiancée. At this point we realise that Mustapha and his sons are Crimean Tatars and that Mustapha himself is powered by an overwhelming sense of preserving an identity based on land and family. He is not prepared to include Olesya on the trip because she is Ukranian and Orthodox. All he wants from her is the Quran belonging to his son.
From this point the film becomes a recognisable road movie. The idea for a such a trip with a body to bury is actually not that unusual, though in the UK it is often now the ashes that are taken. It’s a long way from Kyiv to Crimea, around 400 miles or 640 kilometres. It’s also a dangerous journey with many checkpoints and given Mustapha’s temper the odds are not good for an untroubled passage. Early on in the journey I was reminded of Le grand voyage (France-Morocco 2004). In that film a Moroccan who has lived in France for thirty years decides it is time to make the hajj to Mecca. But instead of taking one of the organised trips he asks his youngest son to drive him and the road movie narrative focuses on the learning experience for the son as they travel East. The two films are very different in tone and ultimate objective but actually quite similar in their depiction of that learning process.
Alim is a student in Kyiv and it is soon apparent that he has grown apart from his father who isn’t impressed with his son’s current lifestyle. I’m reliant on the subtitles so I had to learn from the Press Notes that the film’s dialogue covers three languages. Father and son speak Crimean Tatar to each other. Alim has learned Ukranian but Mustapha speaks Russian to officials and people they meet, all of whom reply in Ukranian. Language thus marks one difference between father and son. The other big difference is history in the sense that Mustapha was born in Central Asia after the Crimean Tatars were deported in 1944. Alim was born in Crimea after the Tatars could return and has never known the Soviet era. He struggles to understand the obsession with the attachment to the land. Both actors are ‘authentic’ choices to portray Crimean Tatars and that was a major consideration for the director.
I won’t spoil any more of the narrative except to note that expectations of ‘road trip genre narratives’ are fulfilled as Alim meets a young girl, checkpoints are a big problem and at least one altercation leads to a chase and a fight. However, these incidents are an integral part of the narrative not just diversions from the tedium of the journey. The film dispenses with a music score and the overall approach is for careful pacing, with several scenes in which the viewer is invited to think about the situation as the image remains almost frozen. The cinematography by Anton Fursa, who I’m guessing might have been a student with the director, is very effective. The long shots utilising the 2.35:1 frame work particularly well in the closing stages of the journey in their presentation of landscapes that mean so much to Mustapha. Akhtem Seitablaev’s performance as Mustapha is extraordinary, brutal and tender, wise but also deeply affected by his experiences of exile and return. Remzi Bilyalov as Alim is also very good. At first he presents as a young man with a lot to learn but by the close he is, in effect, the one who takes charge. The director provides Alim with a ‘prop’ – he collects his brother’s Zippo-style cigarette lighter which works well throughout the narrative as a ‘significant object’.
This is a sad and a bleak film but also uplifting in its presentation of the human spirit and the quest for identity in a world where it is constantly under threat. I think the BBC should have put more into their presentation of such an important film at an important moment in the long struggle focused on Ukraine. Highly recommended. Find it here on iPlayer if you are in the UK. It is also available online from Curzon World.
A great film, but it was a bit of a slow burn with me and took me a while to become engaged partly because Mustapha was a hard character to identify with especially with his rejection of his late son’s wife. By the time of the powerfully emotional if inconclusive finish I was fully involved. The tight focus on the son at the end worked well.
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