When sound was first introduced to cinema the nature of the medium changed radically. One need not look any further than Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain (1952) to get a sense of how the industry changed (as portrayed by the industry itself of course!). Over the subsequent decades an emphasis was placed on dialogue as one of the primary tools for driving a films narrative - in a sense film became more like theatre as long dialogue exchanges became almost as important in the medium of film. As time continued the emphasis began to move back to the visuals, prose in recent years has taken a back seat to imagery and action, the current trend being to convey story and character through pictures and use dialogue less and less. At the extreme of this trend is a certain branch of World Cinema that uses the absolute bear minimum of dialogue required. Films like Ki-Duk Kim’s Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring (2003), Ming-liang Tsai’s Good Bye, Dragon Inn (2003), Anh Hung Tran’s The Scent of Green Papaya (1993) and Apichapong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady (2004). Quiet, meditative films that understand that film is first and foremost a visual medium and exploit this understanding as much as their stories will possibly allow. You may have noticed that most of the aforementioned films hail from Asia, and whilst in Europe the likes of Bela Tarr and Jacques Tati have been making films with less dialogue for years, this particular style does seem to be dominated by Eastern film makers. A recent entry into this relatively small collection of films is Jamshed Usmonov’s 2006 film To Get to Heaven First You Have to Die which masterfully avoids dialogue for much of it’s ninety-five minute runtime.
The story is very slight and has a particularly distinctive division at its centre. Our protagonist is a young man named Kamal (as played by Khurshed Golibekov, a non-professional actor in his screen debut) who has recently married but has been unable to consummate the relationship. The film opens with Kamal visiting a doctor to get advice about his impotence, in one of the more talkative scenes of the entire film the doctor asks him questions about his relationship with his new wife and it becomes clear that Kamal is a man of limited experience both sexually and in any other arena for that matter. He travels to a city to see his cousin and whilst there stalks a series of women in an attempt to gain sexual experiences, each time failing to even make the simplest of connections, they either avoid him, reject him, use him (one woman asks him to carry her shopping back to her house, upon arriving her husband opens the door and Kamal makes a hasty exit) or are confused by his intentions (a taekwondo instructor assumes he wants to join her class). Kamal’s cousin takes him to see a pair of prostitutes who also fail to arouse him, nothing seems to work. But this is not simply a male stalker film, fixated on male penile dysfunction as eventually Kamal does make a connection with a young woman, Vera (Dinara Drukarova) who he notices on a bus, although initially he fails to get anywhere with Vera, following her into her workplace and being shown the exit by the building security. Later he waits for her outside her workplace hoping to catch a glimpse of her. They meet and Vera invites him back to her place where Kamal spends the night, but still can’t perform sexually. The next morning the plot shifts direction in one of the films more inventive moments as Kamal wakes up next to the sleeping Vera and heads to the kitchen to discover her husband (Maruf Pulodzoda) sat smoking cigarettes and drinking, the moment of silence between them is a brilliant example of the films reliance on visuals rather than words, the empty beer bottles on the kitchen table, the look in the husband’s eyes, the fact he still has his coat on, all indicating that he probably arrived sometime during the night saw Kamal and Vera sleeping in bed together then decided to get drunk and wait up all night for either half of this young couple to wake up. Kamal and Vera’s husband leave the flat without Vera ever knowing her husband had returned. Feeling a combination of fear and obligation, Kamal agrees to join Vera’s husband as he sets out on a series of robberies, it’s clear from his methods that Vera’s husband is a career criminal (although again this is never explicitly stated as there is no need), but a career criminal with some bizarre behavioral tics, he asks Kamal if he’s Vera’s husband, this strange question seems to serve no other purpose than to confuse Kamal as he’d rightly assumed that he’d been caught by Vera’s husband so why would he be asking if he’s married to her? During one robbery Vera’s husband demands that Kamal finds him ‘vodka’, when he returns with the drink the husband has found a woman’s dress and demands that Kamal wears it. Vera’s husband is an unnerving and unpredictable force within the narrative who adds to the dark and subtle sense of humour that runs through To Get to Heaven First You have to Die. As the story runs on, questions are raised, will Kamal ever return to his wife? Will he try to forge a new relationship with Vera? Will he ever be able to have sex with either woman? Will Vera’s husband kill him first? The films excellent title also hints at a more sinister undertone, and that death will arrive for one of these characters at some point. The lack of a comma within the title means that it can be read in a number of ways, such as “to get to heaven, first you have to die” or “to get to heaven first, you have to die” implying some sort of race towards destruction. We also have to ask the question of what ‘heaven’ means within the story, it could arguably be the sexual experience that Kamal is looking for, implying that someone must die or be killed before you can experience sexual intercourse.
The film was produced in the central Asian country of Tajikistan, a nation whose film industry is only just getting started, currently there are only 14 titles listed on IMDb from this country and the earliest amongst them was only released in 1992. Tajikistan appears like an alien world to Western eyes, decay is seen everywhere, people are poor, wooden graves, plaster peeling off ceilings, 1980’s cars, and old wallpaper. Men and women sleep overnight in unisex train cars, strippers have dreaded hair, the police and military have red inflected uniforms that remind of communist Russia, and shops are largely empty during the day. Even the more affluent characters in the film seem sparsely surrounded by tacky possessions. The ethnic breakdown is also of interesting mixture of mongoloid and Slavic faces as is generally found in central Asia but rarely seen on film, Vera’s husband at one point denigrates one of his victims, calling him ‘Genghis Khan” hinting at racial tensions bubbling beneath the surface of this society. Tajikistan is an interesting and instantly cinematic location for the films action. One of the many joys of World cinema is getting to see how the rest of the world looks and works, exploring foreign cultures and societies through film. Yes, you can visit all of these countries in a Bond movie or other similar Hollywood construct, but rarely do they capture the truth, flare or vitality of a place as well as the local filmmakers. Although earlier I compared this film to a number of other Asian films with similarly untalkative approaches, Usmonov’s film is uniquely Tajikistani, the characters silence is often abrasive, rudeness rather than contemplative and actions appear to speak louder than words in this world, violent men don’t suffer fools gladly and a man like Kamal will hold onto his anxiety, but not his secret, no one ridicules him for his impotence despite this appearing to be a very male dominated world. Kamal is in something of an alien world himself, in the big city he is swept up into criminal enterprises, he is inept and unsubtle when attempting to seduce women, staring at them or following them with no clear sense of how to really approach the task. Actor Golibekov is a perfectly still individual who barely lets his emotions be expressed through facial expressions or changes in voice and tone. The acting in the film is reminiscent of that found in the works of Robert Bresson, cold and detached, although here there is a subtly of expression that is often lacking in Bresson’s films. The moment when Vera and Kamal first encounter each other on the bus for example, Kamal accidentally touches her hand as he grabs a ceiling mounted hand rail, a look between them says everything we need to know. Vera moves her hand away and Kamal slowly readjusts his hand to place it next to her again. Latter when Vera and Kamal meet again at the bus stop, there is a beautiful moment of recognition and we just barely gleam the tiniest of smiles on both individuals lips. It is one of many moments where words are not needed, the subsequent seduction is also done without the aid of words as Vera sits in her bathroom and lets her hair down before heading into the bedroom and undressing within eyeshot of Kamal, once again the look between then says everything you need to know. Later Kamal and Vera’s husband do a home burglary that goes wrong when they find the owners still in the house, Kamal runs away scared when Vera’s husband murders the man and threatens to rape the woman, we watch in one shot as Kamal rides on a speed boat away from the house and without ever giving anything away with words or even in his face he suddenly turns the boat around and heads back to the house to intervene. Actions speak louder than words and Usmonov’s film is a potent demonstration of how modern filmmakers are once again learning to use silence to tell their stories.