Saturday, March 03, 2007

'Vodka Lemon'

An Iraqi born Kurd who lives in Paris, director Hiner Saleem hits the snow-covered mountainous villages of Armenia to make a film about endurance and perseverance in times of adversity and uncertainty. Set in the post-Soviet era, the film explores the daily struggles of a population that is trying to adapt simultaneously to freedom and the new economic reality: focusing on the lives of Hamo and Nina, two widowers that ultimately develop a relationship of their own, the film never loses sight of its primary goal which is to extol the inner power of humans to rise above calamities.

At great risk of being insipid to the audience and even aesthetically unappealing, the film blatantly refuses ornaments and embellishments of any sort. Instead, it takes on harshness of everyday life - for Hamo (and Nina) it means taking endless trips to the cemetery to talk with the deceased spouse, selling their meager possessions for a few dollars, living in dilapidated houses, letting their children go... And yet a touch of humor or a proof that life has a hopeful side are also present in the film - just like vodka lemon, to lift the spirits. The finest example of this positive attitude towards life comes from the end of the film where Hamo and Nina ultimately hold on to the piano they intended to sell, despite being in a dreadful financial position. This is a truly powerful scene, one which through visual effects beautifully communicates l'état d'âme of the protagonists and their optimism to the audience.

Testament to the high caliber of the film is without a doubt its treatment of the question of resilience after the collapse of the Soviet regime: how does freedom stand next to the economic precariousness that came along? While freedom is clearly endorsed, criticism about the economic plight that ensued is not absent: references to the old times, "when there was no need to pay for gas, electricity or water" do exist. The heartbreaking scene of Hamo walking in the snow carrying an extremely heavy closet -just to sell it for a few dollars in the street- also goes along this direction. But even here one sees how characters soar beyond basics: when the bus driver forbade Nina to board because she had no money for the fare, she did not even think of asking a second time, but instead silently stepped down and walked back. And it is indeed interesting to see that this all comes from a director who is himself an individual longing for freedom, being a Kurd who fled Iraq and Saddam's regime. In an interview that accompanies the film Saleem comments on the question of freedom and Soviet nostalgia: "I do not make a judgment. I know that when people are hungry, they are in need of bread. But I also know that when people have bread but no freedom, it is as if though they have nothing at all."

Freedom being a notion almost interwoven with human existence, it has been at times a positive force but equally often, if not simultaneously, a source of clashes, even bloodshed. The cultural and geographic proximity of the film to an area of the world that has yet to agree on a common understanding of freedom -not to say adds a whole new dimension to the term- may be an additional impetus for watching this film. However, to label Vodka Lemon as political only or describe it with a single adjective would be a major injustice to the film, just like it would be to constrict freedom within a Wilsonian or a purely political framework.

1 comment:

Pixie said...

It always amazes me that you discover meaningful independent films that present a different insight on the economic political and social situation of a country that had to struggle with the new reality.
The quest for freedom seems to be also a personal quest of the director and I am definitely going to search for this one.Thank you!

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