Only the Devil Lives Without Hope is a desperate tale that details both the excesses of a brutal post-Soviet regime and the dedication of a woman trying to liberate her beloved brother from incarceration in a high-security prison in the Uzbek desert.
The story is terrifying and tragic, and heroine Dilobar’s pursuit of justice is extraordinary.
But, as director Magnus Gertten notes of Sweden-based Dilobar, if this was the whole story then the documentary would never have been made.
“I listened to this terrible account of her brother,” he says of her sibling Iskandar, who was falsely accused of being part of a terror attack in the Uzbek capital Tashkent in 1999, and subsequently jailed in Jaslyk Prison, aka The Place of No Return.
“She showed me the only photograph of him and told me that she had not heard anything from him for nine years. I thought it was a very moving story, but at the same time I couldn’t see it as a film. I cannot get interest in a story about Uzbekistan. That is how it is. That is the situation of this business.”
“But then she said, ‘there is one more thing I want to tell you’,” he adds, at which point she told director Gertten about her husband.
“And then the hairs stood up on the back of my neck,” he says.
Because husband Anvar, who was welcomed into the bosom of her family in 2007 both as “fearless” and as a “leader” in opposition to the Uzbek regime back home, turned out to be a Secret Service agent and potential assassin charged with the task of identifying and dealing with Uzbek dissenters living in exile in Sweden.
“When she was finished with that story I was silent for a moment, and then I had one question. Do you still have the wedding video?”
“She said ‘yes’. And then I thought, ok, I have a film.”
In some ways, the origins of Only the Devil… go back to 2008 when Gertten made a film called Long Distance Love, about the wave of migration from the poor, former Soviet Republics of Central Asia into Russia. That film was shot in Kyrgyzstan, which neighbours Uzbekistan and where he met many Uzbeks in exile. “We heard all the time about Uzbekistan. One journalist we knew was killed by Uzbek agents when we were there. The country was a mix of the old Soviet KGB and North Korea. I knew I always wanted to do something about it.”
“They are trying to control the refugees,” he continues of the country, although his new film notes that Uzbek authoritarianism was particularly prevalent under the regime of Islam Karimov who was president from 1989 to his death in 2016.
“The political refugees remain active and build networks in their new countries, and they are building up activist radio stations and websites etc. Sweden and Norway were two countries who took care of most of the leaders of the opposition and the activists from Uzbekistan, especially after the famous Antijan massacre in 2005 (when several hundred protesters were estimated to have been killed when Government troops opened fire).”
“But of course it is very, very extreme that they are sending out agents to Sweden to kill one of the country’s religious political leaders,” the director adds. The film reports on the attempted assassination of dissident Uzbek exile Obdikhon Nazarov in 2012.
Gertten admits that working out how to tell the story of Dilobar and her imprisoned brother was a long and involved process. “Nothing felt easy and we were quite worried about how things would work, because we had this challenge that no-one knows anything about Uzbekistan, and how much we would have to explain. In a way, to me, Uzbekistan could be one of 50 other countries in the world like this, putting political opponents in prison, torturing people to confess. I wanted it to be universal.”
“And it is Dilobar’s struggle,” he adds, “a film about the brave things she is doing, but also the everyday life of being a relative of a political prisoner. You meet the parents, you meet the family, but nothing is happening. Everything is standing still… So it is not so easy to do a film about these sort of things.”
“The good thing was that I had this spy story (that of agent Anwar), this John le Carré story that helped me to tell the other stuff.”
The camera is continually trained on Dilobar during extremely poignant moments, such as when a lawyer tells her on Skype that her brother Iskandar has confessed to his involvement in the Tashkent attacks back in 1999, and her subsequent relief when another prisoner (an old friend) explains why. “When a man admits guilt, the government thinks this man is no longer a danger to them. Iskandar has figured that out,” Dilobar is told.
How, then, is Gertten himself affected at such moments, being present when intensely personal and heart-wrenching exchanges and events occur?
“Yes, these are strong and moving moments, but I am so much into getting the material for the film – that is my responsibility to her as well,” he answers.
“I was not shooting. I had a cinematographer with me, but you are focussed in that situation. You feel something, but you are also super controlled. We don’t want to miss a second of this. We want everything.”