In an isolated and conservatively traditional Muslim village in Uzbekistan, a married woman, Malika, falls in love with a soft-spoken foreigner, Kayum, who has brought liberal Soviet attitudes and principles to the community, sometimes setting himself against the subordination of the town’s women by their male counterparts. Tensions rise as Kayum and Malika openly grow closer, raising the ire of Malika’s father and her husband as well as among those interested in maintaining the village’s old ways. A breakthrough film for Ali Khamraev, White, White Storks is a beautifully rendered docudrama that combines the textured honesty of Italian Neorealism, the family dynamics and tragedies of Yasujiro Ozu, and the poetry of Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying.
Ali Khamraev’s White, White Storks, a story of doomed romance and cultural conflict, opens with “torn from the headlines” foreshadowing and a challenge to the viewer to judge its events for themselves. A montage of Russian newspapers tantalize with headlines referring the aftermath of a wedding ceremony, a “man in doubt,” “a war with vestiges of the past,” and a woman in jeopardy, and Khamraev further underlines his claims to realism and social significance by stating, “Almost nothing in this story was invented. Let the viewers decide for themselves why it could have happened.” Khamraev proposes a kind of objective reportage in these first moments but White, White Storks is by no means neutral in how it wants its viewers to think about its story. Khamraev’s affinity for the progressiveness of Soviet ideals, particularly shown through the place of women in traditional Muslim Uzbekistan, is clear in the film, although he is not without fondness for his country and its customs. What proceeds is a call to arms against backward attitudes within the Soviet republic, even in its dustiest corners.
White, White Storks is set in a small, sun-baked village in Uzbekistan named White Storks. There, men ride horses and gossip about matrimonial scandals, women cook and clean, and Soviet modernity modestly intrudes with news brought by the local mailman, music played over a portable radio, and Kayum (Bolot Beishenaliev), a Soviet-educated “foreigner” to the community. Kayum is generally accepted by the village but he lives differently, refusing to let women wash his clothes for him and begging off advice to marry. Most conspicuous is Kayum’s refusal to abide the oppression and victimization of women in the town, putting himself in harm’s way to resist a group of men harassing a girl and confronting a man who beats his wife. It is later revealed that Kayum has fled his own home to avoid the unhappiness of an arranged marriage, even asserting his continued independence when his mother arrives at White Storks to unsuccessfully plead for him to relieve their family from the shame of his rebuke.
Kayum’s unconventional ways draws the interest Malika (Sairam Isaeva/Sayram Isoyeva), the beautiful wife of Kayum’s friend Akran. She tries to wash his clothes for him and tries to go to the police for him when he is beaten up. When a private meeting between them results in a cart-ride home with an older man, he remarks that the two look as if they are in love. The cart-driver is not the only one to observe their platonic romance. Malika’s father, who admires Kayum, confronts them with questions about their relationship and draws a line in the ground with his shovel separating the two. Akran berates his wife and accuses Kayum, questioning his Muslim faith. Kayum does not deny their feelings and tells Akran than Malika will decide. Women spit near Malika, men call her a slut, and the air seems filled with plots to harm Kayum. When the community comes together to build the mailman’s son a new home in anticipation of his return with a new bride, Kayum joins in and the situation seems improved, but the romance between Malika and Kayum comes to a head at the wedding reception, leading to tragedy.
Khamraev’s sympathies clearly lie with Kayum, Malika, and their principled stances. Soviet liberalism and its values of increased equality and self-determination for both sexes is obviously prized by the filmmaker and are presented as definite improvements upon Uzbek culture, particularly in the face of those who remain caught in old ways and oppose this progress. Still, Khamraev is careful to show his people capable of such betterment. Kayum is supported by Akran and others when facing down the wife-abuser and when the mailman’s son arrives to town with a blonde, Caucasian fiancé, the village is initially stunned but quickly embraces the woman and proceeds with their celebrations (presumably a nod to Khamraev who was the son of a Tajik father and Ukrainian mother). More importantly, Khamraev reconciles Kayum and Malika’s independent attitudes with Uzbek culture. An old man recounts in the film how his grandfather was beheaded for loving someone and laments that no boys are willing to lose their heads for love anymore. Later, a shot of young lovers by a stream is inserted, revealing that Kayum and Malika are not the only pair in White Storks to have feelings or be swept up in love. Even Malika’s father reveals his story of stealing in order to pay the father of the woman he wanted to marry. In its way, White, White Storks is as much about restoring values of love and compassion to a culture caught up in honour and hierarchy as it is about new ideas opposing those strictures.
White, White Storks further expresses its affinity for native Uzbekistan by its attention to its rituals – wedding receptions and funerals (where Malika breaks with tradition by walking at the front of the procession to support her father), home construction by the entire community, and a strange game of keep-away played on horseback and fought over a goat’s carcass – giving the film an anthropological value as a document of a rarely seen people. Khamraev beautifully captures his subjects throughout, offering careful compositions of windswept fields, arid plains, and modest, sun-baked homes. For the tension brought by Kayum and Malika to White Storks, the sounds of music and children playing recur to remind of the village’s vibrancy and potential. Khamraev offers tragedy without pessimism, critique but also a path to betterment.
Following White, White Storks, Ali Khamraev returned to the subject of female liberation by making Without Fear (1972) from a screenplay by prolific screenwriter and director Andrei Konchalovsky, co-writer of Andrei Rublev (1966) with Andrei Tarkovsky and director of Runaway Train (1985). That story concerns an Uzbek Red Army officer tasked to modernize his local village and a brave girl who goes unveiled and seeks out an education to improve herself. These actions result in open hostility from the village’s men and, once again, in tragedy, but Without Fear concludes by suggesting that the tide of history is inevitable and that old patriarchal ideas are doomed no matter how harshly the seek to enforce themselves. As Khamraev thereafter began to explore more popular genres and commercial modes, his themes of socio-political conflict nevertheless persisted, revealing the filmmaker’s auteurist authority over form and content.