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Children of Destiny

Hype Studios

The Cage Is Looking for a Bird (2023)

Who knew Chechen cinema was as impressionistic and in love with the natural world as anything by Terrence Malick? This tale of teenage dreams and hard reality is set in a farm valley in Ingushetia, where there are plenty of hills for energetic teenage girls to roam, but limited options for how to live your life. The title gives a clear idea of what the choices are, but writer-director Malika Musaeva is smart enough not to need to show the limits. Instead, they are felt.

Yakha (Khadizha Bataeva), a pretty redhead who looks young to be in her last year of school, lives with her weary mother (Rita Merzhoeva) and little brother, Lyoma (Muhammad Bataeva). Her older sister, Heda (Fatima Elzhurkaeva), lives nearby with her own son, but things with her are bad; and she wants to leave her husband. However if she does she'll have to give up custody of her boy. The mother shakes her head and says, “It happened to me too, but I put you kids first.” Yakha prefers to spend her time with her best friend, Madina (Madina Akkieva), whose mother runs the local store and grudgingly grants credit to the neighbors. The girls have the hubris universal to teenagers everywhere and are confident the ways in which their mothers and older sisters have been crushed won't happen to them. This is not a society that treats its women fairly, but these girls are still girls, laughing together in the fields, seemingly impervious to the cold.

Eventually Madina and a cute redhead boy have eyes for each other, but boys don't interest Yakha, not when there's a kind young man named Ibrahim (Magomed Alhastov) who works on the farm. Unfortunately both girls are given an ultimatum: As soon as they finish school they have to marry, or leave town for work elsewhere. Either way their own families will no longer feed them. Madina’s family lets her make her own choice, but Yakha’s family begin arranging a marriage to someone she’s never met. Either way it’s still a betrayal.

The pacing of the girls’ friendship as compared to their big decisions needed a little more work. The events which led to Yakha getting into that taxi aren't shown, which is a bad cheat; Ms. Bataeva deserved the chance to show Yakha making her irrevocable decision, especially since the details of Madina’s journey into the taxi of her own are more explicit. The shaky-cam cinematography by Dmitriy Nagovskiy was probably a budgetary choice, but a little more stillness to allow the emptiness of the landscapes to sink in would have helped; the wonderful shot of Yakha watching the snowfall from the hayloft needed others like it. The hints at village life could have been expanded, such as when the neighbor ladies shout encouragement to each other across the fields as they head out to gather wild garlic. For outsiders to Chechen culture it seems like Yakha's family is unusually unkind, even in this clearly patriarchal environment. But whether or not the audience at the Berlinale understood all the nuances, we can feel the weight of Yakha's dreams of building a life for herself becoming hemmed by the reality of her limited horizons. The final shot implies somebody escapes, but the movie’s impressions needed a little more exposition to drive the feelings home. This is in no way a bad film. But we all deserved a little more.


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