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Past and present of The Dolls

Past and present of The Dolls

Svetlana Boym poignantly observes that the 20th century commenced with the fervor of futurism but drew to a close shrouded in nostalgia [1]. In its early years, the world was synchronized with the cadence of resplendent revolutions, grand utopian visions, and vivid dreams of what lay ahead. Yet, as the century’s end drew near, a longing for times gone by began to cast its spell, and an era of “lost time” was ushered in. Although the term and concept of nostalgia emerged concurrently with the modern age’s accelerated pace – often referred to as “time speeding up” – the roots of the impulse to cling to traditional values and the familiar way of life trace back to times of yore. However, as the century wound down, the grand aspirations of the past gave way to disintegrating alliances and the unforgiving onslaught of neoliberal forces. This pervasive “nostalgic epidemic,” akin to a contagion, gained momentum under the relentless current of change.

Hence, the quest for the past within everyday life, artistic creations, and mass culture items has led to an irresistible longing to resurrect days gone by, akin to being pulled into a compelling desire. From “period parties” to autobiographical novels, and from commemorative programs to nostalgic films, people have found themselves ensnared in this epidemic of nostalgia. What’s more, unlike melancholy, which confines itself within the boundaries of personal awareness, Boym argues that nostalgia reveals the intricate interplay between individual life stories and collective histories, between personal recollections and shared memories [2]. Consequently, the surge of nostalgia served as a rallying cry that bolstered notions of patriotism and national identity on one hand, while also posing challenges to these very ideas on the other hand. In this context, the film “The Dolls” stands as a prime illustration of both phenomena.

In blunt terms, the movie “The Dolls,” directed by Chingiz Rasulzadeh, embodies a product of nostalgic consciousness. What sets it apart and captures intrigue is its reflection of a transition, rather than a mere yearning for an established state. The film finds itself caught between a crumbling societal structure and the emergence of a new order, aiming to illuminate both the disintegration of the old and the establishment of the new. It’s no wonder, then, that the director opted for teenagers as central characters. These adolescents carry remnants of the erstwhile structure within their Soviet families, yet they themselves remain distinct from this familial construct. To them, the “Soviet family” takes the form of a stepfather, an inebriated father, or a relative who exploits their labor. Hence, they choose to stand out from the masses, adorned in the masks they wear, yearning for liberation through doors that reveal the expanse of the sea. Even when faced with the opportunity to embrace them, these youngsters ensure the safe departure of Armenian overseers from Baku, resolutely continuing their persevering journeys. While they may not belong to the confines of the Soviet family, they emerge as pioneers of a different lineage—the “new Azerbaijani family.” The Soviet family encapsulates a label for them: “It wasn’t ill-intentioned, just hapless.”

The portrayal of children as the potential saviors of a family remains a central theme in numerous family melodramas. This motif is particularly exemplified in Turkish melodramas, where the familiar trope of children ultimately reuniting a family torn apart by past mistakes stands out as one of the most recognizable and enduring instances. Regardless of the dire circumstances at hand, it is the unwavering dedication and actions of these children that play a pivotal role in rescuing the family (and by extension, the community) from the brink of disintegration.

This is precisely why films like “Ayshechik” and its successors, “Omerchik,” “Sezerchik,” and “Yumurjak,” produced during the 1960s and 1970s, have garnered affection not only from the younger audience but also from adults within the country (Turkey – T.A.). Many of these cinematic works portray a child who, abandoned and left orphaned in the midst of a sprawling city fraught with vices, or perpetually facing the looming threat of such an abandonment or orphaning, grapples with undeserved suffering from a tender age onwards. Despite the torrents of tears shed, these films culminate in the triumph of the resilient child. As spectators, we are moved by the sight of this heroic youngster, standing up against injustice, dispensing fairness, and shouldering household responsibilities far beyond their years. In witnessing this, we are not only reminded of our own children, prompting emotions to flow, but simultaneously, we encounter a resilience that remains forever beyond the grasp of adults.”[3]

However, the children in “The Dolls” hold an even more significant aspiration: to forge the unity of a nascent nation – the post-Soviet Azerbaijan. In pursuit of this goal, they strive to safeguard their camaraderie by subduing their personal yearnings, such as engaging in romantic relationships with young women. This union faces a fracture when their collective resolve falters in the face of these desires, as depicted in the poignant scene where one of them succumbs to the allure of romantic intimacy with a girl.

However, can such an asexual recollection truly serve as the foundation for national unity? This question encapsulates the primary quandary inherent in “The Dolls.” The director exalts these children as the progenitors of the “new Azerbaijan,” imbuing them with the weight of shaping the nation’s destiny through these “veil memories.” In his discourse on childhood within the realm of everyday life, Freud astutely observes that much of our reminiscences from early years hold little significance. According to Freud, these “veil memories” – the instances we recall incorrectly, akin to the misremembering of names – effectively substitute for things our minds wish to forget or have forgotten. Crucially, Freud draws an intriguing parallel between an individual’s childhood recollections and a nation’s collective “memories.” He posits that the historical episodes, legends, and myths cherished by a nation bear resemblance to the structure of “veil memories” in an individual’s early reminiscences. In essence, national legends and myths come to occupy the space of other forgotten or intentionally obscured elements [4].

Hence, the attempt to construct the “innocent framework of the nation” in “The Dolls,” relying on the purity of children and cherry-picked recollections, stifles the film’s capacity for deeper exploration. This sort of unspoiled representation of the past, an overly idealized portrayal of imagery, conveys a singular message: “we are the aggrieved.”

However, as pointed out by Beatriz Sarlo, those who proclaim themselves as “victims” are often, in fact, survivors – individuals who have emerged from the dire circumstances they describe. Those who managed to escape fatality, essentially acting as witnesses, can never provide an entirely accurate account of the events they’ve endured. Their narratives arise from the fact that others perished in their stead. What the characters within the film fail to accomplish is transcending this victimhood narrative and gaining an external perspective on themselves. Because, as Sarlo eloquently states, “true understanding requires the imagination to transcend its own boundaries and consider, in this pursuit, it comes to realize that history can never be comprehensively grasped and that its course is never definitively concluded”[5]. As a result, “The Dolls,” when seen through the lens of this melancholic and unifying national perspective, fails to offer insights into the past and equally hinders our ability to engage with the present.

The solitary moment in which this possibility emerges is in the final scene of the movie. At that instance, the spectator, nestled at the trench, with a somber gaze averted from the lifeless The Dolls, is overcome by a sensation that solely those inert figures concealed within the shrouds of mist hold the enigmatic verity of days gone by. Were my expression as eloquent as that of Elie Wiesel, I might phrase it in this manner: “To those who have not borne witness, comprehension shall forever remain elusive; and the living, bound by their existence, will forever remain reticent – withholding not only the absolute truth, but even its fragments… for those remnants belong solely to the departed.”

Toghrul Abbasov

“Focus” analytical cinema journal, Issue No. 02 (08), December 2012

[1] Svetlana Boym, Nostaljinin Geleceği, syf 14,  Metis yay. 2009

[2] A.g.e. syf 18.

[3] Nurdan Gürbilek , Kötü Çocuk Türk,”Acıların Çocuğu”, syf. 41,  Metis yay. 2010

[4] Sigmund Freud, Günlük Yaşamın Psikopatolojisi,”Çocukluk Anıları ve Perde Anılar”,syf 76-84, çev. Şemsa Yeğin, Payel yay. 2003

[5] Beatriz Sarlo, Geçmiş Zaman, syf. 29-37, çev. P.B.Charum – D. Ekinci, Metis yay. 2012

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