Aslan Gaisumov’s Keicheyuhea (2017) – Reviewed // Liverpool Biennial 2018

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Rona Cameron on Aslan Gaisumov’s 2017 film Keicheyuhea: a “living autobiography” of deportation, starvation, and endurance…

Step inside the beautiful Grade 1 listed St. George’s Hall, walk past massive pillars and ornate sculptures, and you’ll find a narrow staircase in a Victorian courtroom; leading down into a series of old prison cells, in what seems like the bowels of the earth.

St Georges Hall is one of 18 Liverpool Biennial venues this year; the festival title, Beautiful World Where Are You?, comes from a line in the final verse of German Friedrich Schiller’s poem Die Götter Griechenlandes (The Gods of Greece), written in 1788 and set to music by Franz Schubert in 1819. This poem about glory also highlights loss; a familiar theme during the French Revolution and fall of the Napoleonic Empire. In today’s world of social and economic turmoil, Liverpool Biennial are inviting us, perhaps, to reconsider our past and create a more beautiful world worth sharing.

And so to one of these dark cells, where Aslan Gaisumov’s 2017 film Keicheyuhea fills a big screen on the wall for periods of 26 minutes. Born in Grozny, Chechnya, in 1991, the filmmaker has focused his life on highlighting the deportation of Chechen people and Ingush Nations to Central Asia. Keicheyuhea is narrated by his real-life Chechen grandmother, in her native tongue with English subtitles. In it, she returns to her cherished homeland in the North Caucasus mountain region for the first time since being displaced 73 years ago.

“Their mother gave them small lumps of dry dough to suck on. Some died of starvation on the way. The first to die was her youngest sister”

The film begins with scenes of stark mountains, moody skies and slivers of blue sea. A truck winds its way up a steep, dusty road clinging to the hillside. Grandmother gazes into the valley, saying, “Only mountains. Nothing here. Only the mountains are standing”. Later on, she remarks: “Many people used to live here”.

The Russians came, she recalled, and told Grandmother’s family to get out in 15 minutes, taking only what they could carry on foot. The cattle were given salt and hay and set free along with the sheep. Then the trucks came; they were loaded onboard with no idea where they were going. Their mother gave them small lumps of dry dough to suck on. Some died of starvation on the way. The first to die was her youngest sister.

Aslan Gaisumov, Keicheyuhea, 2017. Installation view at St George’s Hall, Liverpool. Biennial 2018. Photo: Thierry Bal

The family eventually arrived at Pavlodar Region, Kazakhstan, and were scattered over different settlements. Maykain was their home for a long time. Gold-smelting factories provided work for Grandmother’s mother and elder sister Baysari, who fell ill and also died. Ration cards were essential in order to get bread that no amount of money could buy. When Baysari died, they used her ration card. An inspector came to their home and asked the mother where Baysari was. Her remaining sister was ill in bed that day and claimed to be Baysari; she later took her sister’s place and began working in the factory.

Grandmother said people wouldn’t believe her if she shared everything that had gone on. “Some things were better left unsaid”, she concluded.

I remained transfixed by this elderly woman’s slow, deliberate climb uphill over rough terrain, each step firmly planted, small white stones loose underfoot. She asks her grandson, “Shall we go higher, Aslanbek?”, and searches for just the right spot to stop and look back down into the valley below. “Is it time for afternoon prayer yet? First of all, one must pray”. I notice the rosary beads curled up in her clasped hands behind her back. Grandmother points into the distance suddenly, marking the spot where her old house had stood; six large rocks remained. It’s as if she is trying to convince onlookers that she was telling the truth.

“Gaisumov has captured the essence of his grandmother’s turmoil and longing for the home she was so abruptly torn from”

Gazing out over the horizon, Grandmother is still, trying to make sense of the past. Her leathery face is etched with a thousand memories. Gaisumov has used these moments of stillness — against a vast, natural backdrop — to emphasise loss and acute longing.

Meanwhile, in St Georges Hall, small clusters of visitors gather at the entrance of the cell, shyly peeking in at the film as I had done less than an hour ago. None are curious enough to enter. I feel like shouting: “Come in. It’s worth it. She’s worth it!”

“I’m happy”, she announces. “Allah be praised that I saw these places again.”

I cry silent tears; the film ends as quietly and unremarkably as it had begun.

I remain thoughtful and introspective for the rest of the day. This lone figure had reached into my soul somehow, giving me a glimpse into her life and family history. Gaisumov has captured the essence of his grandmother’s turmoil and longing for the home she was so abruptly torn from; this is her living autobiography. These stories must be told.

Rona Cameron is currently studying a 12-week writing programme with Writing on the Wall, a literature organisation based in Liverpool

See Aslan Gaisumov’s Keicheyuhea (2017) at St Georges Hall, Liverpool, until 28 October 2018, as part of Liverpool Biennial 2018

Open Tuesday–Saturday 10am–5pm, Sunday 12–5pm — FREE

Also showing: Gaisumov’s People of No Consequence (2016) at Victoria Gallery & Museum’s Tate Hall, Liverpool. Open Tuesday–Saturday 10am–5pm, Sunday 12–4pm — FREE

Images from top: Aslan Gaisumov, Keicheyuhea (film still, cropped), 2017. Image courtesy the artist

Aslan Gaisumov, Keicheyuhea, 2017. Installation view at St Georges Hall, Liverpool. Biennial 2018. Photo: Thierry Bal

Posted on 08/10/2018 by thedoublenegative