QUICK AND DIRTY: LIVE FROM TALLINN
The Tatars are a large ethnic group closely related to Turks and whose history is barely acknowledged in the West. A large number of Tatars once inhabited Crimea, but the entire population was exiled to Central Asia, mainly to Uzbekistan, in May 1944 on the orders of Joseph Stalin. Hopefully you already knew that before watching Oxygen Station, otherwise you might find yourself struggling to understand the movie.
The story takes place in 1980, the year of the Moscow Olympics. The Crimean Tatars are scattered around the many corners of the Soviet vastness. The beautiful, young and rebellious Mustafa is sent to live in exile in the Siberian remoteness because of his subversive activities against the regime. He provides forced labour at a factory that produces oxygen tanks (a clumsy McGuffin that never fulfils a real purpose). Charming school teacher Safinar Dzhemilev leaves her home in Uzbekistan in the hope of eventually visiting Mustafa. She is aware that she is under KGB surveillance, yet she forges ahead undaunted, presumably thrilled by the prospect of romance. Love between two young and good-looking people provides the backdrop to fast-shifting political developments.
The biggest problem with pan-European production of four countries (Ukraine, Czechia, Sweden and Slovakia) is that the plot is barely coherent, and only a very attentive eye can make sense of the manifold twists. Ruthless KGB officers, devoted “comrades” and police decoys stand on Mustafa and Safinar’s way, but their individual affiliation and motives remain mostly blurry.At times, I could barely distinguish the Tatars from their Russian oppressors. The movie has some rather clunky allegorical devices: a magician opens a giant structure filled with blood to a group of quickly scurrying children, and a man butchers an eagle only to drink its blood. I have absolutely no idea what these are supposed to mean.
Very little political contextualisation is provided, except for a few intertitles informing us that Tatars returned to Crimea following the demise of the USSR, only to be kicked out again in 2014 after Putin’s invasion. I confess that my knowledge of the Tatar people was zero prior to watching the film. That figure barely changed after the curtains dropped. Oxygen Tank offers limited to no insight into Tatar culture, and it also failed to aroused any further interest in me. A missed opportunity to expose the shocking displacement of an entire ethnic group, and to investigate the complexities of a people with a very tragic and volatile recent history.
Oxygen Station just premiered in the Official Selection of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.