AYKA film review

★★★★★

Directed by: #SergeiDvortsevoy

Written by: #SergeiDvortsevoy, #GennadiyOstrovskiy

Starring: #SamalYeslyamova, #ZhiparaAbdilaeva, #SergeyMazur, et al.

Film Review written by: Amber Jackson



Ayka film poster

To close Kazakhstan Film Week in London, The Embassy of Kazakhstan in London brought audiences to Ayka, a 2018 film that follows a young woman struggling as a migrant in Moscow as she tries to support herself and her new-born child.


Ayka explores a critical side to humanity, where characters are simultaneously problematic and petrified, as they fight to survive perilous conditions. Received well at Cannes Film Festival last year, having been selected for the Palme d’Or, lead Samal Yeslyamova received the award for best actress for her portrayal of Ayka. The acting skill and overwhelming effort that she gave in her portrayal of the character was extraordinary, with her subtle, yet jarring, movements indicating a woman who does not want to be seen. Every line she spoke felt real, catering to the illusion that the film is non-fiction and about a real woman.

The narrative structure is simple, beginning and ending with no build-up or explanation. Director Sergei Dvortsevoy uses his background in documentary-making to style a film that provides a snapshot of Ayka’s existence for the audience to follow her throughout her life with no explanation. Small parts of information as to who she is are sprinkled throughout the film; we discover that she is an undocumented immigrant fighting to earn money and that she is in debt to someone. Her story is only able to be guessed as she makes her way through the Moscow that she has come to know and even then, everything always seems unfamiliar and unrecognisable.


This is Moscow as the western world has never seen it. Provided is an explicit insight into an underground world. How each background character describes the city is entirely different to what the audience is shown. Wealthy characters infringe upon the edges of the screen, informing Ayka’s world, but the audience never really gets a good glimpse of the Moscow that is known internationally. The protagonist is left outside of this in a bleak reality that in fact many migrants experience – something that mainstream film very rarely discusses.

Harsh and snowy conditions prevail in the cinematography of this piece, with director of photography Jolanta Dylewska placing focus on the grim and grotesque to paint an unsightly image of a frozen city. Everything appears dirty, animals are given extended camera time along with greater sympathy than the human characters, and each scene has dingy lighting to convey bleak surroundings. Another aspect of the camerawork that was incredibly clever was that those watching never get a full shot of Ayka’s face. The camera is always looking at Yeslyamova from the side, or uses a tight close up shot, which aids the audience’s speculation over her identity.


Each character is completely undone and unromanticised, which is reflected in the simplicity of their costume and make-up. Counteracting this, the wealthier characters are excessive and over-glamourized, with expensive coats and cars to illustrate an incredible class divide. To follow this, a lack of music or score makes the film appear even more real, as though the audience is watching real lives unfold. The simplicity of hearing Yeslyamova’s intense breathing as her feet crunch up the snow beneath her, along with crying babies and animals throughout the film, convey a baseness of human existence that is incredibly thought-provoking and emotive. What is fascinating about Dvortsevoy’s vision is that the audience are completely immersed witnessing the brutality and hardship that Ayka endures, to the point of feeling intrusive.


During the discussion after the screening, there was debate over if the film can be seen as Feminist. Dvortsevoy noted that he is happy for the film to be perceived in this way, as it is important to have a film that reads many ways. It was great to see a female perspective, with Samal Yeslyamova commenting on the difficulty, but also the importance, of portraying a character undergo such challenges. Indeed, it is these uncomfortable films that are the most important to watch, as they suggest issues that are the most overlooked or neglected. Ayka itself suggests many things to think about – is it a commentary on migrant conditions in the east? Is it simply a snapshot of a woman’s struggle to make a life for herself when she has nothing? Does her pain stem from patriarchal persecution? Dvortsevoy’s direction allows us to make our own assessment as an audience member, inviting us to simply watch Ayka survive.


Ayka was selected as the Kazakhstani entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 91stAcademy Awards and has made the December shortlist. It is a very exciting prospect to see this film being recognised and commended internationally. It will hopefully bring wider western attention to not only the Kazakhstani film industry, but also the daily hardships and scrutiny that migrants face around the world, as they fight to survive poverty.


#AmberJackson