It isn't easy to make an independent movie in Tajikistan. Especially not one that's about ants, stars an ant and is shot primarily from the perspective of that ant.
Rustam Orifi managed to do just that. Aptly titled Ant, the 30-minute film that he made, a fictionalized account of an ant and its colony, won an award at a film festival in Kazakhstan at the end of 2013 — and may have launched him on a career as a filmmaker.
Unsurprisingly, making the movie required an unyielding belief in himself. When Orifi began shooting, people were quick to laugh at the sight of a 26-year-old man chasing around after ants with a camera.
But there's more to the movie than ants. There's a back story that's part of the economic picture in Tajikistan. Orifi made the movie using money he earned working construction in Russia. According to data collected by the World Bank, Tajikistan is the country most dependent on wages sent home by labor migrants: Tajiks working in Russia send home wages that add up to more than 40 percent of Tajikistan's GDP (although Russia's declining economy and Russian laws enacted last year are expected to reduce the number of migrant workers and the amount of remittances sent home).
Most of these remittances are spent on essentials, like food and health services. Orifi bought himself a video camera.
With Tajikistan's extreme dependence on migration as a backdrop, Ant can appear to be an allegory. The film's villain is a boy who at first feeds the ants — declaring it is a holiday for them — but then viciously attacks them, destroying their colony with a remote-controlled toy army. Tajik migrants in Russia often live and work together in appalling conditions. The film could be seen as a take on the life of a migrant, trying to work in desperate circumstances but subject to the caprices of foreign employers and laws.
But Orifi, who's now 31, asserts that the film is only a movie about ants, their toils and the lack of sympathy humans usually show them. He's always been curious about ants and their habits, and he wanted to show a day in the life of an ant: "An ant is small, an ant works hard — ants know so much."
After returning to Tajikistan and failing to find anyone willing to support his idea, he went back to Russia. It was the only way he could imagine earning enough money to make a film. "I went to Russia again. I worked again. I bought a three or four-hundred dollar camera."
Orifi's time in Russia had been trying at first. Like many migrants, he went because a relative found him a construction job. The work was difficult, with brutal hours and a small salary that his employers occasionally withheld. He left after a few months.
Over time, Orifi developed connections and found more stable work. He speaks Russian well, which he credits to classes at his elementary and high schools in Tajikistan and watching Russian movies. And he's gained building expertise — "I can build a house, by myself, from the foundation to the third story."
Orifi shot Ant in Tajikistan in the fall of 2011. Because of the cold, there weren't many ants, so he went house-to-house in his neighborhood looking for ants to collect and then film. His family was not especially pleased with the reputation he earned.
To simulate an ant's world, Orifi filmed close to the ground and added fake pincers to his camera to mimic what the perspective of an ant. The effect works, especially when the pincers are harassing a real grasshopper.
That winter, Orifi took the raw footage to Kinostudio, Tajikistan's state-funded film studio, where officials offered to help him edit the film. To try to cover his expenses, Orifi worked construction in Dushanbe, Tajikistan's capital. But, before a full cut of the film was finished, he had to go back to Russia again because of the financial strain — labor in Tajikistan didn't pay enough. He estimates Ant cost him $1,000 to make.
While he was in Russia, a representative from Kinostudio sent a cut of Ant to the film festival in Kazakhstan. Orifi heard that he'd won an award for his camerawork over the phone. There was a prize — the equivalent of about $500 — that went with it. According to Orifi, he couldn't collect the money because of a problem with his bank.
He's not the first migrant worker to achieve fame. Orifi pines a little after the success of Tajik Jimmy, a migrant worker whose real name is Baimurat Allaberiyev. In 2009, he received near-instant fame from a grainy recording that showed him singing a cover of a Bollywood classic at a construction site in Russia.
Orifi plans to make more films. He'd like to make a sequel to Ant; he'd like to make a movie about rats. He's written the script for an animated science fiction film. He'd like to make a movie about a village hero who wakes up as a woman and is forced to clean and wash (gender dynamics are delicate subject matter in a country with a population where traditional roles are largely the norm). He'd also like to make a film about the perils of virtual reality. He's already written much of the script for that movie, tentatively titled 2018, and filmed a short trailer.
Most of these exist "only on the page," as he puts it, for want of funding. For now, Orifi is working out of Kinostudio on a short film in which a poet, modeled on Omar Khayyam, comes back to life in Dushanbe, Tajikistan's capital. Orifi hopes the film will help glorify his country's literary tradition. While he works on the film, he's supporting himself by making furniture. It's better than being an ant in Moscow.