Edinburgh 2014: '40 Days of Silence' review

As the old proverb goes, "The best answer to anger is silence". In Saodat Ismailova's sensory meditation on the realities of womanhood, we become so densely enriched in layers of audible indignation that it's hard not to feel suffocated by the silence. An ethnographical exploration of rural Tajikistan and a study of the intersections between systems of female subjugation and discrimination, 40 Days of Silence (Chilla, 2014) is a metaphysical account of four generations of gender oppression. Set high in the mountains of Tajikistan in a village hidden behind a veil of clouds, Ismailova's Berlinale offering explores one young girl's dramatic emergence into womanhood.

Bibicha (Rushana Sadikova) has decided to take a vow of silence. It's never clarified exactly why: her family think it's to hide a pregnancy but there's also a rumour that she's sacrificed speech to mourn a lover who has mysteriously disappeared. She retreats to her grandmother's house and stays there alongside her grandmother's illegitimate granddaughter, Sharifa (Farida Olimova). However, the return of Sharifa's mother after years in the city highlights what the future might hold for Bibicha. Men and their institutionalised hold over women is enhanced by their absence, with violence and oppression haunting the peripheries of the frame. With these four generations of women all under one roof, 40 Days of Silence highlights the past, present and future of their shared ancestry.

Exploring themes of identity in a society that, whilst deeply rooted in Islam, has been reshaped throughout its history by communism and civil unrest, Ismailova's narrative debut uses the introspective and reflective dimensions of silence to disorientate its audience. Dark, haunting scenes of personal reflection are accompanied by the throbbing, ominous vacuum of nothingness, and from the onset the audience find themselves in a nightmarish landscape where the pain and suffering of the past coexists with the present. By positioning us within the subjectivity of Bibicha, all other senses are sharpened. Ismailova utilises dense layers of sound, overlaid visuals and extreme close-ups to give a poetically tragic edge to what is, for Bibicha at least, already a sombre existence. Though the director's leisurely approach will no doubt prove challenging to some, this slow and considered approach is required to successfully express the breadth of frustration that's compounded within the frame.

A story about woman forced to make difficult decisions in a society where choice is a luxury, 40 Days of Silence covers themes of motherhood, religion, freedom and the erosion of tradition in contemporary society. In fact, though the film explores issues pertinent to its geographical setting, its study of female persecution remains universal. It works best when tightly condensed within Bibicha's silent world. However, in an attempt to explore such a multifaceted canvas of social concerns, Ismailova shifts focus too readily amongst her characters and the domineering tone wavers and turns an intriguingly haptic approach into something that almost feels wilfully impenetrable. However, while her film may fail to effectively articulate all its themes, a striking attempt to interrogate gender inequality makes Ismailova's drama an experience worth undertaking.

The 68th Edinburgh Film Festival takes place from 18-29 June 2014. For more of our EIFF coverage, follow this link.

Patrick Gamble


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