Like Fellini’s Amarcord, whose title it recalls, I Remember You is a semi-autobiographical meditation on the past. Kim, a veterinarian, leaves Samarkand at the request of his seriously ill mother and heads on a voyage across Russia in search of the grave of his father who died during the war. Reflecting Ali Khamraev’s own personal history – his Ukrainian mother and Tajik father, his father’s death during World War II, his own subsequent voyage with his brother to find the grave – this poetic journey into the subconscious memory is rendered in images of extraordinary intensity and beauty and one of Khamraev’s true masterpieces.
In February 1973, Ali Khamraev and his friend, screenwriter Odelsha Agishev, took a train to Moscow and a taxi through the Smolensk forest to Chashchevka to find the grave of his father, Ergash Khamraev, an Uzbek screenwriter and actor of the 1930s. Ergash was a young lieutenant in World War II who died shortly before the Germans arrived and was buried with eleven other soldiers at Chashchevka. The old man who buried the soldiers was still alive to speak with Ali and remembered Ergash – “One, I remember, was a swarthy sort.” A month later, Ali Khamraev was in East Berlin for a Soviet film festival with Andrei Tarkovsky promoting The Seventh Bullet and Andrei Rublev respectively. Khamraev recalls an exchange with Tarkovsky over some hard drinking:
When we finished the cocktail of beer and vodka, Andrei looked intently at me and, nervously biting his nails, said quietly and sullenly:
“Why are you wasting your life on all these Westerns? … Why don’t you make a film about how you searched for your father’s grave? Why? …”
“Need a screenwriter,” I muttered. “Who’s going to write it?”
“Write it yourself!” … Andrei said with eyes flashing … “Right here on the land of those people who killed your father, you’ve sworn that you’re going to make a film about him! Then you cannot eat meat for a year.”
Memories were rattling around in my head from the vodka. I didn’t even know how to answer my comrade.
Khamraev had a script by 1977 but it was rejected by Goskino (State Film-AGF) for being too pessimistic and subsequent versions made no progress with officials. In 1982, Khamraev was urgently called to Moscow where the Minister of Film agreed to let Khamraev make his film provided he complete a pet project for Brezhnev, a film about the USSR’s international aid to Afghanistan. Tarkovsky sternly warned Khamraev, “The Communists are deceiving you, and they won’t allow an honest film about Afghanistan, and your screenplay about your father will sit on their table!” A Hot Summer in Kabul (1983) did go unaccepted by Soviet officials, only having a brief theatrical run after Brezhnev died, but the Minister of Film kept his word and Khamraev began production in 1984 on his “confessional film.”
I Remember You sees Kim (Vyacheslav Bogachev), a veterinarian, travel from Samarkand at the behest of his sick mother Asya (Zinaida Sharko) to find the grave of his father Ergash who died in WWII. Kim is tasked to bring back some of the grave’s soil so it can be interspersed into Asya’s own grave when the time comes. Kim is reluctant to do so, partly out of concern over his mother’s care, but he relents and the film oscillates between Kim’s journey to and from the grave in Chashchevka and Asya’s time at home with her visiting sister Olya (Liliya Gritsenko), gradually becoming more impressionistic in its presentation and more fluid in its treatment of time and space. Khamraev develops in I Remember You a “stream of poetic association” contrasting history and tradition (memories of Kim and his brother as children; Ergash’s last letter from the front; a golden, fireside wedding celebration) with imagery of contemporary Uzbekistan (a fashion shoot, a living window display featuring New Wave music, Asya’s swig from a bottle of Pepsi). The act of running hands through chandelier crystals repeats throughout I Remember You, seeming to evoke both an appreciation of history through the decorative nature of leaded crystal and a fascination with modernity through the reflection and refraction of artificial light.
I Remember You culminates with a lengthy train ride back to home during New Year’s that includes Kim, an old shepherd with a single sheep, a pair of rambunctious boys, a fraudulent mentalist, some eager train staff, and a troupe of musicians. Kim falls in love with Gulya (Gulbuston Tashbaeva), a beautiful musician and a singer of sentimental songs. Their connection sparks a flood of memories of Kim’s childhood, prompting him to remark that “I’ve suddenly remembered my father’s face and smile.” These memories veer into the symbolic – a letter from Ergash coincides with a burning bed, a photo of Ergash is shot and bleeds, naked boys watch fireworks and bury one under dead leaves, a fortune-teller is visited by Kim and his brother (recalling a conversation between the two men earlier in the film that contested their recollections). And even more disconnected scenes appear – a ballet troupe that appeared early in the film returns to follow up on an earlier direction to “give some medicine to the patient” and a director sitting next to a film camera leaves his chair and exits a sound stage. In these moments, I Remember You becomes self-consciously symbolic, foregrounding the performance and reconstruction at work in the film. These moments do not distance the film from its effort as a memory project (look out for that archive scene!) but rather declares Khamraev’s own hand and binds him into the work, ensuring that its semi-autobiographical quality forms part of the knot being undone in Kim’s journey.
Khamraev had prepared his screenplay in a conventional way (“plot statement, development of the action, dénouement and finale”), but then “turned the story upside down” at the suggestion of his art director Rustam Khamdamov. Khamraev’s poetic journey through space and mind found official approvals initially, but reconsiderations immediately before its premiere in Tashkent and Khamraev’s reaction thereto resulted in I Remember You being banned by the republic’s authorities. Khamraev went home and wrote a letter to the commission of old Communists at the 27th Congress of the Communist Party in Moscow, knowing that the commission would carefully consider any plea from a rank-and-file party member. Moscow overruled the Uzbek administration and I Remember You was released (although the film only showed once in thirteen years in Uzbekistan).
For many, the film represents Khamraev’s masterpiece, an expression of his filmmaking skills honed over years of work and his fulfilled confidence as an artist. It contrasts with Khamraev’s 2000 film Bo Ba Bu (about a blonde, Western woman kept by a pair of grunting sheepherders) which seemed on the wrong side of modern gender politics and specifically lacking the optimism at the heart of the director’s earlier Soviet-era films. Like many of his other films, I Remember You celebrates Soviet progressiveness and suggests that those early battles fought against old ideas were worthwhile. I Remember You seems a step beyond Triptych by positively linking his generation with that of his parents and their struggles. Reflecting his professional life and personal experience as much as his filmic attitudes, I Remember You reveals Khamraev’s experience that the ideals of communist life rests in its people and not in its official bureaucracy.
Credits: This post was greatly assisted by Ali Khamraev’s written recollection of his remarks given at a screening of I Remember You at the FICUNAM film festival in Mexico City.