What would life be like in the mountains if there were no power?
Murghab, a village in Tajikistan that sits at elevation 11,800 feet in the Pamir mountains, is beautiful but dauntingly austere. The filmmakers match that spirit with an engrossing yet spare and unobtrusive cinema verite style — observing residents in their daily routines or lightly explaining their way of life without sitting down for a history lesson.
Viewers first meet a group of men distributing fuel, then loading into a rickety truck to pick teresken, a shrub that regrows in five years’ time at most, that the village uses to heat stoves. After laboring in brutal wind, their vehicle runs out of gas after dark.
Slowly and deliberately, the filmmakers lay out a portrait of life lived under extreme hardship: The town has no electricity, the hydrostation has died, and infrastructure has declined after the fall of the Soviet Union. Many of the formerly opulent features of the town are gone. A welder fires up a diesel generator to fabricate a stove to burn teresken. A wrecked building might one day be suitable to process wool. One man works hard to grow vegetables with greenhouses and supplies donated by aid groups.
It’s difficult to watch without imagining what daily life would be like in the Rocky Mountain West if modern infrastructure broke down completely.
It would require a heartier type of person. There is no entertainment, and it is hard on young people, one man says. Another counters that they wouldn’t have it any other way.
That exchange comes late in the movie, and functions as a sort of legend to understanding what you’ve seen before — the stunning images of mountains and plateaus, or jury-rigged but comforting home life are accompanied not by any score or music but only the never-ending wind.
Matching the sparseness and patience required by the subjects generates a truly immersive quality that a more busily produced feature would lack.