By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ***** out of *****.
“Araf” (2016), an eight-minute and forty-five second collaborative short from writer-directors Fidan Jafarova and Tofiq Rzayev, is a masterful meditation on pain and suffering. It is also a heart-wrenching example of moving picture art beautifully evaluated through the lens of human tribulation. Such is phenomenally expressed through the underlying theme of the incredible tolls of war on mankind. This is signified by several distinctly woven personalities. The Angry Student Films, Synaps Production and Fidan Jafarova release, made for 1,000 AZM in the Eurasian country of Azerbaijan, also brilliantly elucidates echoes of Swedish cinematic auteur Ingmar Bergman’s tour de force, Cries and Whispers (1972). This is especially evident in its mature, sobering handling of grave subject matter. These are all articulated unflinchingly, yet respectfully. Such transpires with the topics of disease and dying at the forefront. Furthering this correlation, is the concentration in both endeavors on the measures and sentimental outcomes such unavoidable trials brings about on the family members which dominate each singular tale. Given that the term “araf” is often utilized to reference the Muslim borderlands between heaven and hell, instituted for neither the wholly good or wicked, there is also a religious constituent to the proceedings. This connects Bergman’s material with Jafarova and Rzayev’s latest in this respect as well. Likewise, the character-oriented emphasis is credibly etched in these accounts. This technical component is so well formulated that this quality alone carries each corresponding composition to greatness.
Additionally, the performances in each item are exceptional all around. This is with the incorporation of a superb balance between the photographic, the everyday and the theatrical. Also, the cinematography in each respective entity, with that in “Araf” stemming from Rzayev and that from Bergman’s construction from Sven Nykvist (who won an Academy Award for his work on the aforesaid invention), is gorgeously grim and appropriately bleak. There is a brooding, meditative color palette shared between these undertakings. Such is undeniably striking and ambient throughout. Yet, in Jafarova and Rzayev’s brief effort, the general veneer arises as more shadowy, stylish and thriller oriented. The constant rumble of thunder and the highly demonstrative sights of the rain hammering outside, which creates a breathtaking image which opens and closes the piece, spectacularly heightens this attribute. Thus, when the fabrication slides into an unanswered question of actuality, ghosts or delusions, all through the eyes of daughter Feride (in a captivating enactment by Konul Iskender), the progression is simultaneously natural and complimentary. This transpires to alluring consequence in the second half. There is also a countless deal of symbolic imagery laced into practically every frame of these presentations. At the heart of this is a focus on feminine strength, vulnerability and courage amid nearly impossible circumstances. Enduring this representative correlation, there is a concentration on inner-wars. This is noticeable, in one manner or another, through every disposition dominating these already addressed exertions. These are both unspoken or verbalized. In “Araf”, this figure is physically embodied. This is via an unnamed combat with an unspecified menace. It is frequently discussed but never seen. Yet, we ceaselessly impress upon ourselves the unnerving ideology that this brutality is inching ever closer to the treacherous mountains our protagonists call home. In so doing, the incorporation of this abhorrent item akin wonderfully increases the previously mentioned allegory. It also makes it all the easier to delve into the uncertain psyches of those we follow within the chronicle.
The story, credited to Rzayev, concerns a son, Ali (in a phenomenal turn from Adil Damirov), who becomes caught up in the previously addressed violence. Early on, the plot oversees the young man’s Mother (in a gripping, quietly commanding portrayal from Basti Jafarova) tending to her sickly husband. He is credited here simply as Father (an emotionally gripping turn from Sabir Mammadov, which triumphantly communicates his anguish largely through tormented grunts and groans). Enhancing the strain upon Mother and her kin is that her blood relations are all nearing starvation. It is also an ever-present fear for Ali. With this in mind, Mother braves departing her nearby loved ones. This is after defiantly declaring to Feride: “My other child…is out there fighting against the enemy and has nothing to eat. I cannot accept them both suffering hunger. You just don’t be afraid.” Such brings Mother on a quest to uncover a source of nourishment for those she is leaving behind. Feride than takes up Mother’s position. Almost immediately, the anxiety stemming from the unseen confrontations outside is personified in increasingly unique ways. This occurs as the situation around her instantly begins to deteriorate.
Such is a genuinely intriguing premise. It is one which requires much insight into both the psychology and attitude of those living under the persistent threat of real life terror. This is to be as successful as it obviously strives to be. Jafarova and Rzayev offer exactly that with their intelligent and richly constructed screenplay. They concoct personas, situations and dialogue that are as fully-realized, elegiac and memorable as any Bergman production. Regardless, their use of deceptively straight-forward discourse is meticulously sharp and profound. For instance, the commencing narration pronounces that “In these mountains…it always rains a lot. It’s unfortunate that we cannot hear it anymore”. Such a sweeping declaration draws us in instantly. But, when contemplated in retrospect, this line exemplifies tremendously just how far-reaching the apprehension is that our leads are under. Continually, the arc is largely unpredictable. This is without ever becoming implausible. Jafarova and Rzayev also unveil a perfectly even, cerebral pace for the brief opus. It is one that compliments the atmosphere splendidly. This is without weighing down the overall progression of events. Such is an astonishing feat itself.
All of this is made progressively encapsulating and hypnotic by Gergo Elekes’ remarkably emotive, piano driven score. Simuzar Aliyeva provides fantastic costume design. Shahmal Novruzlu and Kamil Ismaylov evoke a sound department contribution that is illimitably crisp and undoubtedly attention-garnering. The same can be said for the seamless visual effects from David Kislik. Jafarova’s editing is just as stellar. Similarly, Mitch Davies’ use of premiere stock footage is thoughtfully delivered.
At only twenty-two years of age, Rzayev has reflected his big screen heroes Andrei Tarkovsky (1975’s The Mirror, 1986’s Sacrifice) and Stanley Kubrick (1971’s A Clockwork Orange, 1987’s Full Metal Jacket) with deft precision. Such is seen in the plethora of unique camera angles, the experimental nature of his celluloid catalogue and in the sheer prowess in guiding the project at hand. “Araf” is no exception. Prior depictions, such as “In a Time For Sleep” (2016) and “Nihan: The Last Page” (2016), only re-enforce this factor. With sixteen scripting and directorial recognitions already to his name in only a five- year span, he is incessantly re-affirming that he is a talent far beyond his years. The same can be spoken of twenty-one-year old, Jafarova. This is her third such labor. The $500 budgeted documentary “Nagillar Alemine Seyahet” (2016) and the autobiographical “Fidan Jafarova Film Portrait” (2016) arrived previously. Given the evident might between these moviemaking forces, and the all-around excellence of this first alliance, I sincerely hope that the ingenious “Araf” marks the commencement of many future pairings among the duo. What they have created here is enlightening, profound and engaging. It is indisputably one of the best entries in its genre of the year.