Review: Convenience Store
- BERLINALE 2022: Uzbek director Michael Borodin's brutally bleak and hopeless first feature about modern slavery in Russia showcases him as a master of his craft
Uzbek writer-director Michael Borodin's first feature, Convenience Store [+see also:
interview: Michael Borodin
film profile], opens with what initially seems to be a beautiful, dignified Muslim wedding. But only seconds later, as DoP Ekaterina Smolina's camera slowly zooms out, we realise that it is taking place in a small room in the back of one of Moscow's numerous 24/7 stores, and that the visibly pregnant bride is required to immediately remove her wedding attire and go straight to work, despite being in obvious discomfort and pain.
World-premiering in the Berlinale Panorama, Convenience Store is based on a real event, which is not an isolated incident, but rather one of the ingrained features of Russia's market and society dominated by unbridled capitalism and a disregard for human rights. This particular store is owned by Zhanna (Lyudmila Vasilyeva), an overweight, heavily made-up woman of about 60 with dyed blonde hair and a penchant for fur coats. Her employees, or rather slaves, are a bunch of Central Asian immigrants, including the protagonist, Mukhabbat (Zukhara Sanzysbay), from a village in Uzbekistan.
We are not even sure if the man she marries, Bek (Tolibzhon Suleimanov), is the father of her child, but Zhanna insists that “they cannot live in sin”. Driving her staff like cattle, she has taken away their passports, and only gives them food and shelter, if that's what we can call the storage room where six of them, including a small boy who also works, sleep on the floor, packed in like sardines. The girls are subject to all kinds of harassment, including the sexual abuse that two of Zhanna's esteemed clients inflict on one of them. When the girl runs away, the police simply bring her back, and the owner swiftly delivers cruel – and graphic – punishment.
With the help of an NGO, Mukhabbat manages to escape and return to her village, where her mother does not exactly welcome her with open arms. She takes a job picking cotton, but her only goal is to get her son back.
Convenience Store is a bleak film with very little in the way of hope, but it definitely showcases Borodin as a master of the craft. The most difficult are the first 45 minutes that take place entirely in the store, with Smolina following the characters through the front spaces decorated in gaudy red and green, and the backrooms that are brown and dark, cluttered with boxes and crates. An intense colour grading accentuates the nightmarish feeling, and Mukhabbat's actual nightmares are in there, too, in two very creepy and expertly executed scenes.
When, in the second half of the film, Mukhabbat arrives in her village, where so many new houses have been built that she is unable to locate her own home, the film opens up visually, with large, bright but sunless skies, desert-like terrain and cotton fields dotted with the “white gold”. But the hopelessness deepens even further here, specifically in Mukhabbat's relationship with her mother, the bureaucratic obstacles, and the realisation that she will have to get in touch with her torturer if she wants her son back.
Borodin's approach does not allow the characters to breathe, nor the actors to shine. Only Vasilyeva, as the brutal store owner, can really claim her space in a chilling performance, while Sanzysbay trudges on through the film with grim determination. Despite its nightmarish quality, Convenience Store is actually a painfully realistic picture.
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