Set in patriarchal and homophobic post-Soviet Kazakhstan, writer/director/producer Asel Aushakimova’s Welcome to the USA follows independent and brooding Aliya (marvellously played by Saltanat Nauruz) as she struggles with the news of having won an American Green Card through a lottery system. Although she’s the lucky winner, Aliya cannot decide whether to go or stay—even though everyone dreams of it, especially some members of her small circle of LGBTQ friends who must remain closeted in a country that sees homosexuality as “ruining the nation.”
Caring for a sick mother and a younger sister stuck in an unhappy but observant Muslim marriage—with an abusive husband who’s just taken on a second wife—we watch Aliya struggle with feelings of alienation against a corrupt political background where state propaganda, power abuse and bribery reign. Aliya’s financial independence and independence of mind are precisely what alienates her. Why, then, is it so hard to leave this country and its cold winters?
Shot in long and intimate scenes without artificial lighting or music, Welcome to the USA seems steeped in the cinematographic language of Dogme 95, a filmmaking movement started in 1995 by Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. Its philosophy is to ground films in traditional values of story, acting, and theme, excluding the use of elaborate special effects or technology. One could say that independent cinema has no choice but to rely on traditional pillars of film, omitting more expensive effects that demand bigger technical teams and more money.
However, aesthetic choices in Welcome to the USA are not merely expressions of the limitations of resources or budget. Camera long shots, for example, that feature state statues, are symbolically relevant to its core theme of state power and presence in everyday life. The absence of music or artificial light forces us into intimate proximity with characters. What is most characteristic, and perhaps idiosyncratic of Aushakimova’s aesthetic—that remains to be seen as she labours toward a second feature—what is most prominent are the long takes. At first disorienting, they are ultimately the signature style of this film, and, in my view, the reason for its success.
Welcome to the USA is one long take after another, creating a viewing experience that distinguishes it from all other films featured at this year’s Inside Out Festival. They slow down the pace and force us to sit with our feelings, often of discomfort, particularly when the main character, Aliya, confronts her LGBTQ friends with whom she admits having nothing in common except sexual orientation. Or when she chats with her young niece who tells her the truth about what her father thinks of Aliya. But these moments aren’t the exception to the rule—the film makes use of long takes from beginning to end, making it impossible to remain unaffected, even troubled, whether by character relationships (particularly between Aliya and her younger sister) or by its sudden and anti-climactic ending. A must see.