Interview: The Botanist

Maude Plante-Husaruk opens up about her fantastic documentary short The Botanist

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This was my favourite documentary of the four at the festival. Surrounding a former botanist turned part time teacher in rural Tajikistan, we watch as he shows us the inventions that have helped make his life, and the lives of those around him, better. His ever-positive attitude makes this a wholesome watch and I can’t recommend it enough. To read my review of this documentary before progressing to the interview click here.

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How did you initially hear of Raimberdi and his story?

Raïmberdi had been interviewed for a short French TV program about Central Asia. We only saw him briefly on screen but thought he was a very interesting man and that there was definitely more to his story. We were planning a trip to Central Asia and Iran that year (And always reserach interesting subjects to document beforehand) so as soon as we arrived in Tajikistan, we started inquiring about the « old Kyrgyz man who had built his own hydro electric power station ». Eventually, we got lucky and met a German researcher who knew him and he pointed us in the right direction. His village was 2 full days of driving away from us at that moment and we didn’t know if he was going to be home at that time or how to reach him, but we decided to do the trip anyways. We felt it was worth trying!

Once you decided to make this short, did you meet him before you began filming?

Before going to Shaymak (his village), we arrived in Murghab, the most populated village in the area. The locals we were staying with had some relatives in Shaymak, so they made a few calls a within minutes we were able to get in touch with Raïmberdi and let him know that we were interested in doing a documentary about him. He seemed enthusiastic and even offered us to stay at his home. In the following hours, we arranged for a translator/driver and the next day we left for Shaymak.

What were the logistical challenges you faced getting to the isolated location?

Transport is an issue, there are very few means to get around in the Pamir and hiring a private driver can be quite expensive. Moving from one place to the next takes some time because roads are not developed nor paved and the terrain is difficult. It took us half a day to get from Murghab to Shaymak even though we were only about 100 km away.

Was the language barrier difficult whilst filming?

The language barrier was definitely a challenge. Our interpreter only had a very basic understanding of english. Knowing this, we had made sure to write our questions in advance and had them translated by an english teacher in Murghab before going to Shaymak. Also, there are other ways than words you can communicate. We’re all human beings and have other ways of understanding each other. Sign language, laughs, smiles, voice intonations. We also knew a few Kyrgyz and Russian words that were quite helpful. However, since our translator had not been able to translate Raïmberdi’s answers very well on the spot, we definitely had a few interesting surprises when we had the film translated afterwards. Thankfully, they were mostly very good surprises.

Raimberdi appears as an incredibly humble and generous person, is there any other qualities that didn’t come across on film?

Raïmberdi has a wisdom that seems to go beyond the boundaries of his own education, age and culture. He is one of a kind and that’s what inspired us to make the film in the first place!

We went back to Tajikistan last summer to show the film to Raïmberdi (The Botanist). We posted this update earlier this year:

“Last July, we decided to go back to Murghab, Tajikistan to show our film to Raimberdi, the botanist himself. We organized transportation so he could come visit us from his recluse village in the Pamir, and organized a small projection event with a few Kyrgyz students. 2 years had passed since we had first met him. He had inspired us with his ingenuity, sense of humour, curiosity and sensibility and it was truly touching to see him again after all this time. When we noticed the tears in his eyes as he was watching the story of his life unfold before him, we knew our mission was accomplished!
The fact of having foreigners coming from the other side of the world, taking interest in his story, his environment and his small daily gestures rooted in a rural lifestyle, inspired him to start a conversation with the students that were present. He discussed the importance of their ancestral practices, of self-sufficiency and of having knowledge of the fauna and flora on which they’re entirely dependent. We have been inspired by Raimberdi’s story and we’re happy to see that he continues to inspire a young generation of Kyrgyz that will have to face the challenges of a rapidly changing world.”

Did you have any moments that you missed as the camera wasn’t rolling? Or you wish you included?

We are happy with the footage we captured while we were there, but there is definitely more to Raïmberdi’s story. We had a very interesting 2 hour interview we had to cut down for the 20 minute film.

Was the narrative style of your short predetermined or was it a result of going over the footage afterwards?

Being with Raïmberdi and his family in Shaymak was very inspiring for us. We remember having the idea of the chapters while we were shooting, right after he showed us his beautiful herbariums and explained each plant’s part’s benefits. We already had an idea of what story we wanted to tell but a lot of the storytelling structure came about while we were editing the film.

The animations you used were very beautiful, how did you decide to add that to separate the narrative?

The titles are a way to draw a parallel between his passion for plants and the different stages of his life. The plants that are displayed in the titles are all plants that you can find in the Pamir and each one of them has attributes pertaining to the specific part of the plant the chapter is metaphorically presenting.

Are you currently working on another project?

We are now working on a short project we filmed in Nepal last year.

Do you see yourself/yourselves progressing to a feature length documentary?

We’re discussing it, we’ll see!

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Manchester Lift-Off 2017: The Botanist

A fascinating documentary about ingenuity in a remote village in Tajikistan

Deep in the mountainous region of Pamir, Tajikistan lives Raimberdi, the focus of this fascinating documentary short. After the fall of the Soviet Union, famine spreads, and inevitably so does war. Raimberdi must learn to survive in his isolated village. Luckily he is both an accomplished botanist and a genius inventor.

Initially their family was very poor, ‘we didn’t even have a goat’ he remarked. But slowly, we learn of the incredible resourcefulness and creativity he employs to improve their day-to-day life. Out of whatever scraps he could find he builds a basic hydroelectric station, and when visitors came to the village, he paid them to build him a small reservoir to make the entire process of generating electricity much more efficient. Whilst all around him burned kerosene lamps, he had electricity.

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It is not enough to just have an intriguing subject, the direction and cinematography have to also be of the same calibre. In this respect, the directors Maude and Maxime have really excelled in crafting a well-rounded short. Its narrative was split into several parts, each separated by an animation showing a different plant from the area, accompanied by its latin name. For such a small, and for the purpose of the narrative, irrelevant detail it adds another dimension, one that helps to make The Botanist a standout film in the genre.

Over time Raimberdi has become able to live very comfortably, with luxuries that those around him cannot afford. He can even tell us about Obama’s recent visit to Japan from his own personal radio. Despite all of this, and especially in this unforgiving terrain, community is key. He contributes by teaching at the local school long after his retirement age in order to help the next generation. A shot of him walking to school with his grandson reinforces the truly solitary environment in which he lives. Not one to be disheartened by life, he instead thrives upon its challenges. ‘Sometimes life forces you to do some things’

Out of all the documentary shorts, this was in my opinion of the highest standard and I heartily recommend it for its portrayal of ingenuity in the face of great adversity

Directed by Maude Plante-Husaruk and Maxime Lacoste-Lebuis

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