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Film review | A migrant laborer’s hellish odyssey in Moscow

A Kyrgyz labor migrant abandons her newborn and races around Moscow fending off menacing loan sharks.

That is the grim opening scene in Ayka, an acclaimed and harrowing film that has just hit screens in Kazakhstan and Russia.

Uplifting the movie is not, but it is certainly enlightening.

Directed by Kazakhstan-born Russian director Sergei Dvortsevoy and starring Kazakhstani actor Samal Yeslyamova in the eponymous lead role, it traces Ayka’s tale over five turbulent days following her childbirth.

All we know about Ayka is that she is a young woman from northern Kyrgyzstan who dreams of setting up a small garment business. 

But for Ayka, as for many real-life labor migrants who flock to Russia from Central Asia’s poorest countries seeking work, things have gone horribly wrong.

Her pregnancy from a rape (a detail revealed late in the movie) means she cannot pay the latest installment of the 200,000 ruble ($3,000) loan she borrowed to set up her business, because she lost her job as a dishwasher when she had the baby.

Hence her desperate flight through a bathroom window from the maternity home, leaving her newborn behind, to grab a gig in an illegal chicken processing facility in a dirty shed in a forlorn part of Moscow. 

Stomach-turning scenes follow as Ayka plunges her hands into blood, plucking chickens and removing their giblets as gang-masters yell orders.

Worse is to come: the work complete, the bosses abscond without paying. 

With loan sharks on her tail threatening her family in Kyrgyzstan, Ayka embarks on an increasingly desperate search for work around snowbound Moscow. Shaky camerawork shows the less salubrious side of the city through her terrified, exhausted eyes.

After collapsing from loss of blood and being treated by a doctor who accepts a chicken as payment, she winds up covering another migrant’s job as a cleaner in an upmarket veterinary clinic. 

The sight of her mopping up blood after a pedigree dog’s operation, while a man waits his turn in the corridor clutching a pet iguana, neatly illustrates the gap between the haves and have-nots. 

Much has been written about the abuse meted out to migrants by Russian employers, but here the bad guys are Ayka’s fellow countrymen.

The Russians she comes across are either superciliously dismissive or barely notice her at all. The gangsters, loan sharks and landlords running the overcrowded flat she shares with other illegal migrants are Kyrgyz, although Russian police periodically appear harassing, abusing and taking bribes.

These elements struck a chord with moviegoers in Almaty, where a recent showing drew respectable numbers. Movies from or about Central Asia often draw single-figure audiences in Kazakhstan, but the downtown cinema attended by Eurasianet was half-full.

“The plot was very realistic, showing viewers what situation labor migrants are in: that they have no rights, no protections,” said one viewer, who declined to be identified. “It shows, as in real life, police abuse, landlord abuse of right-less labor migrants, their living conditions – that they’re crowded, they can’t afford better accommodation because they have to save money to send to their families back home. The film also exposed bigger social problems, like abuse against women.”

The movie, which was made with financial backing from Kazakhstan, Russia, China, Germany and Poland, did well on the international festival circuit last year. Yeslyamova won the best actress category at the Cannes Film Festival. Ayka also made the Oscars shortlist for best foreign language movie. Director Dvortsevoy’s last feature, Tulpan (2008) – a heartwarming take on the struggle to eke out a living on the steppe – also featured Yeslyamova and also received recognition at Cannes.

In the end, Ayka fails to raise the installment she ne to get the loan sharks off her back for a month, but she dreams up a plan to clear the loan altogether.

No spoilers here, but as Screen Daily’s review put it: “Ayka demands viewers stare directly into the difficulty of her situation and to acknowledge how such a life causes an individual to lose an element of her humanity in the name of survival.”