A guide to the New East

A war veteran lives by himself in a crumbling house suffused with golden light. The furrows on his face suggest a long life deeply lived, but now there is nothing left for him: the world has forgotten he exists. He ekes out his days recording the behaviour of his only friend, a temperamental fridge. In the fridge are his medals, the keys to his past. Save for a young boy that comes to deliver bread and milk, it would seem as if he were the last man on earth.

This is the setup for The Last One, a beautiful, moving short film whose online premiere we are delighted to present to you at The Calvert Journal. An Azerbaijani-Russian co-production, it has won nine awards since making its debut at Cannes in 2014, where it became the first ever Azerbaijani film to be nominated and the first Russian nominee in the main short film competition. Although the film was shot on location in Azerbaijan and uses the Azeri language, its themes — of memory, loss and the sacrifices made by previous generations — are universal. “The film has no borders…it could happen in any country,” says director Sergey Pikalov. “After its premiere at Cannes, film critics and journalists came up to us with tears in their eyes to say that they had grandparents, who had also fought,” says producer Maria Ivanova. “And no matter which side they fought on — veterans are everywhere.”

Finding the right location was crucial in order to evoke the dreamlike, otherworldly atmosphere of the film, but it happened almost by accident. “We’d already looked at about ten locations,” says Ivanova. “We were driving through the village of Surra, 100km from Baku, and suddenly there was this dilapidated, abandoned wooden house next to a hill.” They immediately knew they’d stumbled on the right place. “Half our work was done,” says Pikalov. “It only remained to make sure the house didn’t fall apart during filming.” There was more than an element of serendipity about the film’s mesmerising central performance by Idris Rustamov, too. “He was not on the cast shortlist, but happened to arrive during auditions and was only screen-tested by mistake,” says Ivanova.

Slow-moving, philosophical in tone and divided into five “chapters”, The Last One is no typical short, and its success owes much to the confidence and aesthetic vision of director Pikalov and cinematographer Denis Madishev. The camera lingers over objects and surfaces, capturing flaking paint or the texture of wood with all the sumptuous detail of a Dutch still life. And the coup de cinema near the end of the film, when the kitchen floods, is one of those images that is certain to stick in the memory.  

Text: Arthur House

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