To Get To Heaven, First You Have To Die

To Get To Heaven, First You Have To Die


Reviewed by: Chris

There were several reasons for me not to see To Get To Heaven First You Have To Die, a film by Tajik director Djamshed Usmonov. Firstly, there’s a rape somewhere in the story and I am particularly jittery about how that subject matter is portrayed on screen. It can be dehumanising, gratuitous in a particularly obnoxious way, or just plain offensive. Secondly, the film’s main theme is impotence, which is about as exciting to the average male viewer as chopping carrots. But I let my friend choose and, as there was nothing else remotely challenging on, we plumped for it.

It opens with a particularly buff young man stripping off. Much as I am praying he will keep his underpants on, he has got them off before the opening credits can offer any distraction. Stark naked, he knocks on a door as if to be admitted for some strange game of torture. But it’s an austere ex-Soviet/eastern European doctor’s surgery. After some prodding, the elderly practitioner lies him down and tries to talk him through his troubles. Why hasn’t Kamal been able to consummate his three-month-old marriage? A slightly fanciful interpretation of the movie would be to imagine everything henceforth as an elaborate fantasy of Freudian psychotherapy.

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Without seeing the end of his counselling, we are whisked off with 19-year-old Kamal on his Oedipal quest - by train, bus and boat. And his sexual tension becomes vividly internalised on-screen. Have you ever been through that stage - either between relationships or else, perhaps, as a teenager - where the slightest casual gesture from a desired member of the opposite sex signifies oceans? You almost hold your breath wondering if their foot under the table will touch yours...

In Kamal’s case, his first encounter is with a woman on a train. She matter-of-factly settles down to sleep. Fixated and sensing her every move, Kamal now makes a last-ditch attempt to talk to her. But she brushes him off almost maternally. When the train stops, he watches with suppressed jealousy as this object of his fantasy is reunited with husband and children on the platform. In another, beautifully framed scene, we see his fingers on a bus handrail. They are mere centimetres away from the hand of his new, casual obsession. His stumbling footsie-with-fingers, if not reciprocated, at least gets him a smile from the girl in question.

Kamal makes abortive attempts to get to know a series of women and, although not played for laughs, his sincerity in this strange land (I mentally try to place Tajikstan accurately) makes us smile grimacingly - if only to share his embarrassment. Kamal’s cousin next lines up two prostitutes. They look awkwardly realistic and unappealing, standing in the car headlights as the two men decide. How far has this director gone in using real-life ‘extras’ who happened to be going about their business? Stark, in-your-face visual shocks repeat themselves in a crime-lord’s den as fat, ungainly pole-dancers writhe their stuff while men drink, play cards and fight.

Powerful mise-en-scene and static camera shots emphasise this bleak, uncaring environment, while allowing the director to make provocative allusions comparing one fixed shot to another. Usmonov frames his subject precisely, several times within the rectangular confines of a bus shelter. The arriving vehicle suddenly and unceremoniously ‘wipes’ the character from view, engulfing the screen. Our identification with Kamal’s internal state is interrupted by reality. In a later, mirrored scene, the small detail of the woman sitting next to Kamal becomes more significant. She is, like him, also psychologically ‘cut off.’

I find myself fascinated by the sudden shift to violence towards the end of the film. How valid is it in this context? In mythology, Oedipus has to kill his father to achieve manhood. Many boys go through a ‘symbolic’ triumph over their fathers as they grow up. For me, it was beating my dad at chess – and later earning twice his salary. My companion recalled how a key incident in her brother’s early life was beating their father at tennis. But for Kamal, such normal growth has been stunted. He is not violent, and is quite kind towards women. But it is the off-screen murder and rape which propel him towards manhood. His identity becomes that of a man who takes control, becomes powerful. Could, I wonder, on-screen violence ever be a harmless – yet effective – substitute in some cases? With Kamal, he fulfils his Oedipal trajectory. He ‘becomes a man,’ morally, and also overcomes his impotence.

There is satisfaction when our spectator’s gaze can wholeheartedly unite with Kamal’s in a remarkably realistic knicker-ripping scene. It has the fumbling urgency of youth, but an amusing attention to detail as she has to pause, almost as a hurried afterthought, to disentangle her underwear in order to allow penetration. A pomegranate pointedly draws our attention to what could be a woman’s viewpoint throughout the film. With its red juice and many seeds, it's a fabulous symbol of uterine fertility (the word was a Biblical name of the Goddess’s genital shrine). Vera (the girl on the bus) has to reawaken her own sexual identity. To move past the child she has lost. To escape her marriage, barren in a different way from Kamal’s, and become a woman again. We see little of her nakedness – compared to Kamal – but what we glimpse is soft, beautiful, enticing. She yearns to be more than a factory worker with tied-back hair, a woman isolated from her husband and those around her. If her fingers didn’t touch Kamal’s, it wasn’t because they didn’t want to.

For some audiences, Usmonov’s petit mort will be too slow. A trite and laboured lesson in Freudian dynamics. The humour will be too little and too infrequent, and the colourless Tajik environment too dreary to demand attention. Others will welcome a remarkably unsaccharine tale told with sensitivity and very few words.

Reviewed on: 20 Dec 2008
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To Get To Heaven, First You Have To Die packshot
A recently married youth attempting to overcome impotence goes out searching for sexual release.
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Director: Jamshed Usmonov

Writer: Jamshed Usmonov

Starring: Khurshed Golibekov, Dinara Drukarova, Maruf Pulodzoda

Year: 2006

Runtime: 90 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Russia, France, Tajikistan, Germany, Switzerland


EIFF 2006

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