Seen from a distance, the borders of Central Asia seem bewildering and improbable. But upon closer inspection, they are woven into the fabric of families and communities struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. The opening and closing scenes of Janyl Jusupjan’s poignant documentary, Letters from the Pamirs, take place on high mountain pastures at the far reaches of the Rasht valley in northern Tajikistan. If we were to follow the sheep and goats being herded through the lush summer grass we would cross into Kyrgyzstan. This international boundary has become increasingly important for the residents who live at the northern terminus of the broad, glacial-carved valley. The film offers an intimate portrayal of the daily life of the rural Kyrgyz families who dwell there, at the border’s edge. As they go about their daily life, the film’s subjects grapple with a gnawing question: whether they should persevere as a diminishing minority in Tajikistan or make the leap into Kyrgyzstan, their nominal nation that is, nonetheless, not their home.
To many viewers who are not familiar with the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, collectively referred to as the ‘Stans,’ the borders and histories may seem parochial. But the themes that are evoked in this film are universal. Through a series of interviews with residents of Jerge-tal, a high-mountain district on the western flank of Tajikistan’s Pamir mountains, along with gimlet-eyed glimpses of their food preparation, child rearing and festivities, in short, their daily life, a very accessible and rich picture emerges.
The narrator at one point recounts meeting her fellow villagers after a long absence and feeling transported by the familiar smells of “raw wool, boiled meat and mountain air.” The film’s audience sits at the doorstep of village life and can all but smell it too. However, the director and narrator, Janyl Jusupjan, is not content to merely show us a unique slice of life. She guides her documentary subjects into the troubled recent history which continues to disturb this close-knit community.
One of the key dramas faced by residents of Jerge-tal was the violent civil war that ravaged Tajikistan from 1992 to 1997. Through the camera’s lens, we meet a family that suffered the loss of several members in an air raid that mistook villagers in the back of a truck for mujahedeen on the move. The war not only destroyed roads, buildings and bodies but also scattered the local population. Many emigrated to neighboring Kyrgyzstan, while others went further afield, seeking work as migrant laborers in Russia, as is so common in Central Asia over the last decade. This traumatic dispersal has created an existential challenge for Jerge-tal’s residents, wondering how to keep their community intact as their isolation grows. A tense scene, where Tajik residents fail to lend a hand for a tenuous river crossing, highlights the sense of distance that Kyrgyz residents are faced with. While there is thankfully no direct conflict, and the violence of the war has subsided, the residents of Jerge-tal wonder aloud if they will ever be able to reconnect their families and overcome durable boundaries.
This sense of separation and uncertainty is poignantly underscored by the narration that brings us yet another dimension to this film. As an émigré herself, the narrator speaks to her own child throughout the film, narrating her circuitous journey out of her homeland to work as a journalist in Europe. Her longing to reconnect is paralleled by the questions being asked by the film’s subjects. “We became wanderers/ We live among strangers / I am homesick / A lonely man has many worries,” sings an old musician into a cassette tape at a historical museum-in-the-making in Jerge-tal. A stranger and wanderer may hold many worries but this documentary shows that they are not alone.
Igor Rubinov is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at Princeton University. He conducted his dissertation research in the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan, along the Afghan border, exploring how people rooted themselves in the face of privation and migration. He has also conducted research on the social role of remittances in Kyrgyzstan.