One young man’s death stands in for the slaughter, exile and dispossession of an entire people in Homeward, which world premiered in the Un Certain Regard section in Cannes last week. The feature debut of young Ukrainian director Nariman Aliev, this fatalistic family drama is confidently crafted and well acted. However, its dramatic power is diminished by a skeletally spare narrative, which is too light on political and historical context to fully engage viewers from outside Europe’s troubled eastern border regions. Likely to remain a niche festival item after its Cannes launch, this downbeat road movie does at least mark out the 26-year-old Aliev as a rising talent to watch.
Homeward opens with hot-tempered 50-ish father Mustafa (Akhtem Seitablaev) and his sullen 20-ish son Alim (Remzi Bilyalov) visiting a morgue in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. They are collecting the bullet-scarred corpse of Alim’s older brother, Nazim, killed in battle after volunteering to fight in the ongoing border war between Ukraine and Russia. With family roots in the Muslim Tatar ethnic minority in Crimea, Mustafa feels a pressing urgency to transport Nazim’s body across country to bury him in his ancestral homeland, in observance of Tatar tradition and Islamic religious ritual. With weary resignation, he bribes hospital officials to help smooth the bureaucratic process, an early sign of his reckless desperation to follow ancient rules by breaking modern laws.
As they drive out of Kyiv with Nazim’s body, father and son argue bitterly. Showing only dismissive disdain for Nazim’s non-Muslim fiancee, Olesya (Dariya Barihashvili), Mustafa bluntly bars her from attending Nazim’s funeral, then turns the full force of his grief-choked, bullying anger on Alim. Their journey becomes increasingly fractious and eventful, taking in a brush with traffic police, an enforced stop in a sleepy backwater village, a lakeside robbery and a clash with border guards that briefly nudges Homeward into action thriller territory. Each encounter is tinged with an undertow of suspicion and anti-Tatar racism.
The dramatic engine of Homeward is the intergenerational tension between Mustafa and Alim over clashing attitudes toward religion, tradition, identity and homeland. A reunion with a long-estranged sibling late in the film also throws a little more light on Mustafa’s intransigent, vengeful nature. But this antagonism makes a lot more sense to anybody familiar with the tragic history of the Tatars in Crimea, particularly during the Soviet era under Stalin, who subjected the entire ethnic minority to mass deportations and executions. Today, with Crimea back under Russian occupation since 2014, the Tatars face a fresh wave of persecution, their land seized, their political organizations banned.
Russian imperial power remains the lurking offstage villain in Homeward. This helps explain why Nazim volunteered to fight, and why Mustafa is fixated on bitter grievances stretching back generations. “Crimea is our Jerusalem,” he proclaims at one point. However, Aliev mostly leaves the viewer to piece together this backstory from fragmentary clues, which ultimately weakens the emotional force of his film.
Plainly operating on a small budget, Aliev does good work with limited resources in Homeward. His actors bring intense conviction, especially Seitablaev, who succeeds in finding a sympathetic seam of wounded despair beneath Mustafa’s self-destructive rage. Anton Fursa’s camerawork is pleasingly agile, sticking close to the protagonists in a freewheeling docudrama style that amplifies their internalized emotions. While the overall tone is naturalistic, a final boat journey to Crimea strikes a more poetic, symbolic, allegorical note. Aliev clearly has plenty to say on this rich subject, but too much remains unspoken in this melancholy ballad of exile and loss.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Production company: Limelite
Cast: Akhtem Seitablaev, Remzi Bilyalov, Dariya Barihashvili
Director: Nariman Aliev
Screenwriters: Nariman Aliev, Marysia Nikitiuk
Producer: Vladimir Yatsenko
Cinematography: Anton Fursa
Editor: Olesandr Chornyi
Sales company: Wild Bunch