Long Distance LoveDirected by Magnus Gertten and Elin JÃ¶nssonProduced by Auto ImagesIn Kyrgyz with English, German, and Swedish subtitlesRunning time 88 minutes.
There is an early scene in the Swedish documentary "Long Distance Love," which is being showcased this fall at film festivals and on TV throughout Europe and the US, in which Alisher Sultanov, a handsome 18-year-old Kyrgyz man, argues with his pregnant wife Dildora about going to work in Russia. He, like many of the millions of migrant workers from Central Asia who try to eke out a living in Russia each year, feels he has only two choices -- Moscow or the streets.
"Do you think I should start begging? [That I should say] 'My wife has just given birth and we need money,'" Alisher says in response to Dildora's sad-eyed silence.
He sets off for Russia, leaving his wife and parents in Osh. From then on, the couple's individual experiences are captured in this tidy, sweet film about the toll of labor migration on both those who leave and those who are left behind.
Swedish documentarian Magnus Gertten and veteran journalist Elin JÃ¶nsson followed the Sultanov family in both Kyrgyzstan and Russia from November of 2005 to April of 2008. Their three-year effort produced an intimate work that offers often poignant insight into dilemmas faced by Central Asian labor migrants.
According to World Bank estimates, there are between 4 million and 9 million migrant workers in Russia. A majority is believed to come from Central Asia, so many that the IMF reports that remittances -- money sent home from family working abroad -- comprises a critical part of the region's GDP. In 2008, remittances were responsible for roughly 20 percent of Uzbekistan's GDP. In Kyrgyzstan during the same period, the total was closer to 30 percent, and for Tajikistan, it was a whopping 50 percent, according to the IMF.
Gertten chalks Long Distance Love's international success up to his subject's universal appeal. "The story about remittances is a classical and typical one. You'll find them all over the world," he told EurasiaNet.
The film opens with Alisher meeting 17-year-old Dildora, after being introduced by his parents. The two are seen on sweet, chaste dates, on carnival rides and in outdoor cafes. A wedding quickly follows.
Soon Dildora is living with her new husband in the Sultanov's family home and is pregnant. Alisher does odd jobs, but he cannot find the kind of work that will sustain the needs of his new family or his parents. He heads to an agency that says it can set him up with work in Russia.
Much of the film's emotion comes from shots of Dildora's face. A dutiful young wife, she doesn't say much to her husband and in-laws but her expressions in various situations reveal the immense pain she is experiencing. Especially poignant is a moment before Alisher leaves, in which he tenderly touches her swollen stomach and says that he hopes to be back before the baby is born. She stares down as though the wind has been knocked out of her.
When Alisher arrives in Moscow he remarks to the taxi driver, also a Central Asian immigrant, on what a big city it is. The driver offers him a foreshadowing warning. "It is very easy to get lost in a foreign country," the driver says. "Satan can divert you if you are not careful."
It's sage advice. Alisher starts out in Moscow sleeping on the floor of a cramped apartment, sandwiched next to several other migrant workers. When he settles in and finds construction work, he finds himself drinking, going to dance clubs, and spending the meager money he is supposed to send back on living in the city. In one scene he is drunk, returning a text message to Dildora who has asked why he never contacts them. In his stupor, he struggles with spelling, but tells her he is very busy.
Meanwhile, Dildora gives birth to their child, a little boy named Abdullah. The family has also been evicted from their home and is renting a small place, using Alisher's two small transfers for rent. Theirs is a life of waiting and surviving, and calling Alisher for money, which he does not provide.
Situations like that of the Sultanovs -- being squeezed between poverty at home and hardship abroad -- have become more treacherous since the global economic downturn. The Asian Development Bank said Russia's central bank reported a 25.5 percent decline in remittances to former Soviet Union nations in the first half of 2009. With native Russians worried about losing their own jobs to foreigners, reports of anti-migrant worker violence and discrimination have escalated. The movie itself, though completed prior to the economic downturn, contains a scene in which anti-foreigner protesters gather in Russia, some waving flags with swastikas.
The documentary continues to show the paths Alisher and Dildora walk, with a few surprises, in a film that at its end is very specific to Central Asia - but universal in its depictions of the complexities of love.
Since Long Distance Love's international release in the spring of 2009, it has been shown in film festivals and in a shortened version for TV throughout Europe and North America, most recently in early October at the Hamptons International Film Festival in New York, where it won the festival's award for best documentary. The film will have a theatrical release in Berlin on October 22. It is also scheduled to have late October screenings in Portugal and New Caledonia. Gertten expects more festival and TV showings to follow, and copies will soon be available for purchase through the company's website: www.autoimages.se.