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Duty to Love: Close-Up on Elizaveta Stishova’s "Suleiman Mountain"

In her debut, Russian director Elizaveta Stishova journeys to mountainous Osh, Kyrgyzstan to explore the most unconventional of families.
Naomi Keenan O'Shea
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Elizaveta Stishova's Suleiman Mountain, which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from August 19 – September 17, 2019 in MUBI's Debuts series.
Suleiman Mountain
Love is a tricky thing to find in Elizaveta Stishova’s Suleiman Mountain. In her debut feature the Russian director journeys to the mountain-hugged region of Osh, Kyrgyzstan to explore the most unconventional of families. A young boy named Uluk (Daniel Daiyrbekov) is discovered in an orphanage by his alleged mother Zhipara (Perizat Ermanbaeva) after a long and unspecified disappearance. Amongst the overcrowded beds filled with orphaned boys half-asleep, Uluk is shaken from a deep slumber to the sound of the orphanage warden announcing that his mother has come to take him away. It is a moment of bewildering rebirth.
Stiff shouldered and perturbed, Uluk is returned to a home he does not recognize—he finds the illusory memories of his father’s good character shattered by Karabas’s violent and child-like behavior. Karabas (Asset Imangaliev) is now married to a second, younger (and pregnant) wife, Turganbu (Turgunai Erkinbekova), both of whom are far less mature than the child now landed in their care. Uluk’s unforeseen arrival throws the already precarious family order into total disarray, paving the way for strange power dynamics to emerge and raising troubling questions about the desire and need for parenthood.  
Circumscribed by the film’s eponymous mountain range, the motley family are always on the road in their worn-out East German truck, eking out a precarious living through opportunistic conning and stealing. Zhipara works as a spiritual healer, offering services to women from the local community who ascend the rocky mountainside to seek refuge in her shamanic rituals. Her labor provides the most secure income for the family and sanctions a strange prestige and power upon her character; the wife of the region’s mayor sends for Zhipara to heal the mayor’s comatose mother and lift him from a deep depression. Despite the gifts the men of the family receive in exchange for Zhipara’s services—a remote control helicopter for Uluk and an expensive suit for Karabas—the family remain on the margins of society, incapable of breaching the underclass world to which they have been relegated.
The world Uluk finds thrust upon him is stalling at the collision site of old and new. Ancient, spiritual healing traditions and community celebrations heralding a child’s first steps are cut through with the subtle but significant presence of technology—the very first thing Zhipara says to Uluk as they leave the orphanage is to ask if he can send an SMS. Fading Soviet influence rings out in the old Russian song trumpeted in Karabas’s irreplaceable East German truck. His dollars are denied as legal currency at an upmarket suit shop and at a rural bus station a lone Western backpacker can be spotted amongst the locals. Suleiman Mountain’s world feels largely inscrutable because it does not quite seem to know itself in these changing times. Similarly, the film’s characters struggle to negotiate irreconcilable roles and identities as each absorbs the various conflicts that arise as a result of the clash between modernity and their indigenous Kyrgyz traditions, alongside the strain of intergenerational and class divides.  
In this rambling story that plays out as part family melodrama, part road movie (where the road seems circuitous and always without destination), the characters find themselves in multiple states of inertia, both dependent upon one another and in desperate need to get away. The characters’ willingness to remain in this dysfunctional set-up is often baffling, if not unbelievable, but their mercurial character psychology is also part of the film’s allure, as well as its more critical agenda: Facing a world that does not accept, protect, or even recognize them as people, the film’s central characters are driven to unite—however dysfunctionally—against their marginality and social exclusion. And while we may wonder why Zhipara chooses to remain within this so-called family—considering that her work as a spiritual healer affords her a degree of financial self-determination and social status—we must remind ourselves that one’s ability to think or dream beyond our material circumstances, let alone our capacity to physically leave for something else, is firstly a question of privilege and access before it is one of human will.
For Uluk, his narrative unfolds as a coming-of-age story in reverse. Still a young boy but forced to inhabit adult roles and behaviors, Uluk finds himself wading back towards a childhood that was prematurely robbed from him. The film’s closing freeze frame places Uluk firmly, if not heavy handedly, amongst cinema’s many neglected children. In Suleiman Mountain the gift of a battery powered helicopter (missing its required batteries) is one of the few signifiers of childhood and play—Uluk, like his mother, is burdened by labor and care work, much of which he performs instinctively. Uluk’s capacity to embrace his childhood is forever thwarted by his father’s inability to break from his own. As the two vie for control over the helicopter (which literally and symbolically manifests the demise of Uluk’s childhood), it is Karabas who wins out and crashes the toy into the ground, refusing to comfort Uluk over his loss.  
As such, it is almost too easy to mete out blame upon the film’s onerous patriarch for the ill-fate of his child and wives. Although his character frequently demands far more screen time than he is truly worth, the film is not really about Karabas at all. Instead, it is far more interesting to parse the shifting dynamics that develop between Uluk and Zhipara, as their relationship challenges the parameters of morality and duty within which traditional understandings of the family are contained and as a result offers the film’s most enigmatic storyline. Their relationship serves as the film’s guiding fulcrum and it is the site of greatest profundity, not because of the primal and sacred status attributed to the mother-child union, but because both of them must work so hard to maintain any sort of relationship at all.  
Uluk and Zhipara shape shift in the roles of savior, healer, and protector to one another, defying gender and generational roles in an attempt to both survive and forge connection in a world that frequently feels totally bereft and unforgiving. After Uluk throws himself from a moving truck in defiance of his father’s immorality, Zhipara nurses his small, wounded body on the roadside. In the following scene we see Uluk embrace the healing rituals he has witnessed his mother perform upon her patients, thrusting and groaning around Zhipara’s dejected body in an attempt to raise her from depression, until she finally offers up a knowing smile of tender derision, or perhaps something far more sincere; of communion, or solidarity, or the acceptance of protection from another person. Though still confined by the larger dictates of their gender roles and class, Uluk and Zhipara’s relationship is the film’s most uplifting (and perishable) rebuttal to the systems of patriarchy that disempower women and children by denying them their capacity to love. 
Whether Zhipara is actually Uluk’s birth mother is called into question early on in the film, but the answer is never as important as the alternative answers the film offers to the questions of family, love, and home. In this respect, the final fate of these characters feels like a profound betrayal, both of the film’s central (and perhaps only) meaning, but also of sentimentality itself. Though the film ends with the viewer left holding only the shards of characters and relationships, still wondering who is good, or whole, or even close to either of these things, the question of love seems to no longer linger on duty but on chance.


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