Which way forward, and how to view the colonial past? This question is posed implicitly in Nosir Saidov's debut feature True Noon. The first two shots of the sky and the village establish the isolated, rural, mountainous setting of the film and give the impression that this film, like some other recent Central Asian films, will promote "tradition over modern life as the way forward."
Although True Noon engages thematically with the tradition/modern life binary and associates it with the issue of Russian influence on everyday life, it rejects easy answers. The first shot presents not only the sky, but also a weathervane, part of the equipment of a weather station, which we see from above in the second shot. The weathervane, along with several other meteorological instruments, introduces the peculiar dual temporality of the film. While a defined historical moment— the dissolution of the Soviet Union— will clearly emerge later in the film, the mountaintop weather station provides a way of erasing the specifics of the historical time and place in favor of a different temporality: that of "true noon."
The two main characters in the film are the Russian meteorologist, Kirill Ivanovich, and his protégé, Nilufar, a young woman about to be married. Kirill has remained in the isolated mountain village of Safedobi after his family has returned to Russia. He has trained Nilufar to work at the weather station, and hopes to entrust the station to her so that he can return to Russia. Nilufar is engaged to Aziz, a new college graduate, who arrives with his father, Salim, bearing gifts to arrange the wedding. The visit is interrupted when soldiers appear in the village. As the soldiers begin hammering at posts and trailing wire behind them, their captain explains in Russian that they are establishing a boundary between two sovereign nations created by the breakup of the Soviet Union. Eventually, the border guards place landmines at the border, which separates the bride (in Upper Safedobi) from the groom (in Lower Safedobi). In order for the wedding to take place, Kirill makes a metal-detector and, together with Nilufar, spends the night before the wedding finding and marking all the landmines. On the day of the wedding, Kirill helps the wedding party cross the barbed wire, and accidentally steps on a mine that he had failed to detect.
In an interview, the film's director Nosir Saidov has suggested that the central theme of the film is the border, which separates two lovers who "want to become one family." The screenwriter Safar Haqdodov explains that "the border has become our way of life, it has penetrated our consciousness. We are squeezed more and more tightly by the vice grip of the border, and not just in the geographical sense." In order to reveal the problem of the border, which Saidov says "should be shown more globally, on a world scale, and not as closing in only in one region," the director "smoothed over the underlying political cause," instead foregrounding the love story. Indeed, other than the fact that the imposed border is a former "administrative border" of the Soviet Union which now divides two sovereign Soviet successor states, we receive no information about where this border is located. The characters refer to "our state" (gosudarstvo), but never specify the border between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. On the one hand, this highlights the underlying problem of artificial boundaries that divide people from each other; on the other, the more specific problem of establishing independent post-colonial states remains prominent.
The character of the Russian meteorologist embodies the Russian presence in the region. With his weather instruments and calculations, radios, and alarm clock, Kirill is clearly connected to the notion of modernity. His actions also suggest this connection. He fixes his friend Pirnazar's motorcycle, visits the post office, and attempts to communicate with the 'base station' by radio— clearly putting faith in the infrastructure laid down during the Soviet era.
But none of the modern infrastructure shown in the film functions. The motorcycle, fixed by Kirill and laden with Pirnazar's three youngest daughters, leads them at a stately pace to a post office that hasn't sent out or received mail for six months; the radio to the base station goes unanswered. When someone finally speaks to Kirill through the radio with a telegram from his family in Voronezh, it turns out to be a local security guard who cannot relay the message Kirill has been trying to send for days. The film ends with Kirill's wife's voice, transmitted in vain through the radio at the exact moment of his death, saying they'll expect him home "with the first snow."
Kirill's fatherly relationship to Nilufar, whom he teaches and protects (and for whose happiness he endangers and ultimately loses his life) has its darker resonance in his more ambivalent patriarchal relations with the male characters in the film. Kirill is not only associated with the "Russification" of Nilufar, as one neighbor puts it, but with having "taught us all to drink vodka," and, most importantly, with the imposition of state borders. When the border zone is first established, Kirill attempts to mediate between the villagers and the Russian-speaking army captain, first speaking to the captain, calling him "comrade captain" and asking what can be done, receiving the captain's assurance that all problems must be taken to the "regional administration," and then calming down the irate Salim, explaining that the captain is not responsible, as this kind of decision is taken "at the top." It is as though he were apologizing for something, perhaps both in the past and the present, imposed on this idyllic village in the mountains, a force that is embodied in the recurring image of barbed wire and that the director gives the name 'border.' But Kirill is also portrayed as incapable of resisting this inhuman force.
Later, in a climactic scene, the groom's father Salim attempts to cross the border after having discovered a land mine, and clashes with Kirill, seemingly confronting in the person of the Russian meteorologist the political, historical, bureaucratic, and absurd force that conspires to divide the village:
Kirill Ivanovich! This road hasn’t been closed for seven generations. And now— here you are— barbed wire, fence posts! They call it a border! … But if we sit back and do nothing, we'll never see each other at all. So they placed one land mine. They wanted to scare Salim off. I'll show them, goddammit!
As Salim starts to bring his donkeys across the border, Pirnazar warns him that it's very dangerous, and Kirill exclaims, "Don't be silly, Salim!" ("Ne glupi, Salimjon!") Kirill's use of the Russian informal 'you' and of the Tajik endearing suffix enrage Salim, who replies, "Are you talking to me?" ("Eto vy mne? Mne govorite, da?"—using the Russian formal 'you'). The villagers of Upper Safedobi (where Kirill, Nilufar, and Pirnazar live) look on in several medium close up shots, crossed with barbed wire, that recall Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930), another rural film in which villagers are confronted by the inhuman force of the state. Kirill repeats the warning several times, which seems to goad Salim further. Salim's donkey is killed in the explosion, and he retreats. The border, its division of people from each other, is beginning to be accepted as a way of life.
If there is a force that can counter the power of the border, it is not quite 'tradition,' but perhaps the sense of eternal time suggested by the 'true noon' theme. Early in the film, Nilufar provides a definition of true noon: "the moment of the highest culmination of the center of the sun for a given point [on the earth’s surface]." The weather station tracks apparent solar time, which is measured by sundial, changes each day, and depends on one's particular location on earth. Nilufar predicts an "absolute true noon," by which she means the point at which the sun appears exactly overhead, at its zenith. Nilufar's measurements show that this moment is about to occur in the village of Safedobi. It seems this event will coincide with the wedding, which is scheduled for noon "on the fifteenth."
Although Nilufar is described as "russified," apparently referring to her training in science and her work outside the home at the weather station, she is usually seen engaged in traditional tasks. She makes tea, she sets the table, she carries food and clothing in or out. Even when pictured at the weather station, she seems occupied by activities that, if not traditional, are far from the typical Soviet-era images of mechanized modern labor.
The equipment at the weather station is not computerized or even electric: we see instruments that measure wind by propeller, a sundial, and various measuring devices. Nilufar checks each of the instruments and notes down the data; she takes measurements; she makes adjustments to the instruments. She never touches or even appears in the same frame with the radio that connects the Safedobi station to the base station, although presumably when she becomes sole manager of the weather station, she will have to communicate via radio; when she touches Kirill's alarm clock, it is only to disable it.
Here, then, is a suggestion of something eternal that is nonetheless associated with knowledge— the knowledge of celestial cycles, of time, imparted to Nilufar by Kirill, her Russian 'father.' Like the russified and urbanized female character Mira in Bakhtier Khudoinazarov’s 1993 film Kosh ba kosh, Nilufar embodies the positive aspects of Russian influence. As the daughter both of tradition (family life, marriage) and modern life (the weather station), she also embodies hope for the future.
Associate Professor of Russian and Film Studies
University of Maryland
© Elizabeth Papazian 2010
“Nosir Saidov: True Noon (Istinnyi polden’, 2009)” reviewed by Elizabeth Papazian© 2010
Originally published in KinoKultura issue 30 (2010)