Avatar photo
Bianca is a freelance journalist and documentary critic. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
JUSTICE / Standing up to a brutal regime, an Uzbek woman never breaks hope in fighting for family justice.

At the core of Magnus Gertten’s new feature film – Only the Devil Lives Without Hope – lies the life story of a sister who never gave up fighting for her brother’s release from Uzbekistan’s infamous Jaslyk prison. But this personal story – covering almost two decades – tells the story of Uzbekistan’s political history since the fall of the USSR, and a universal tale of love, resilience, and struggle against the destructive tentacles of a faceless totalitarian regime.

Not a lot of news comes out of Uzbekistan. Rich in culture, the most highly populous country in Central Asia used to be at the heart of the ancient Silk Road, linking China with the Middle East and Rome. Until 1991, the country was part, and under the firm control, of the Soviet Union. After the USSR fell apart, it turned into a heavily Russian influenced dictatorship, ruled by former communist party boss Islam Karimov, who launched a far-reaching crackdown on all religions after Islamist militants carried out bombings in the capital of Tashkent. Dilya was a teenager at the time, and those events changed her life forever.

Only The Devil Lives Without Hope-documentary-post1

Fighting for justice

Following the bombings, Dilya’s brother, Iskandar was arrested, and after a Soviet-style trial – in truth just a formality of which the outcome had already been determined – he was sentenced to death, a decision later commuted to life in prison. He was then taken to Jaslyk in the North of the country, a place where no visitors were allowed and gruesome torture was widespread. Despite maintaining his innocence and having international organisations such as Amnesty International plea for his release, nothing happened. But Dilya never forgot, and she never stopped fighting for Iskandar’s release.

Now living with her family in exile in Sweden, it soon becomes clear that Dilya not only didn’t stop fighting for her brother but never really moved on. Her life course has been determined by her fight for justice, and the absence of her brother has been a ‘presence’ in her life ever since he was taken away.

Rich in culture, the most highly populous country in Central Asia used to be at the heart of the ancient Silk Road

In many ways, Gertten’s film is not the typical human rights story that builds a case around someone’s mistreatment or innocence. The story this film tells goes much deeper to portray Dilya, and how a mighty and impersonal regime is paradoxically so personal and able to infiltrate deep into someone’s intimate core. Along the lines of a clear human rights abuse case, two portraits surface – one of a woman’s life, fighting to have her brother return to the family and another of a country’s hijacked history in the aftermath of the USSR’s collapse.

The thriller-like atmosphere and events featured in the film are filled with unexpected twists and turns. The interviews with dissidents and journalists now living in exile add to both the image of the country’s reality and to Iskandar’s story because the two are deeply intertwined. And, even though all these people now live outside Uzbekistan, a sense of fear follows them no matter where they are. The shadow of the world they left behind follows them still. Not only in their hearts but also literally. The regime’s tentacles can spread very far. So far that they followed Dilya into her marriage with a man who seemed to love her but was hiding a dark side.

The space between

The title of the film – Only the Devil Lives Without Hope – is, in fact, a phrase that Dilya keeps repeating to the world around her, as well as to herself; a mantra reminding her that hope should never be given up no matter what. Her life is constantly mixed with moments of reflection and looking back, struggling to keep this hope alive. After so much time, she and her family don’t even know what the brother looks like now. Hope comes through small steps and through the words of ex-prisoners who had met her brother, providing confirmation he is still holding on and, to some degree, as proof he was still there at all throughout the years.

even though all these people now live outside Uzbekistan, a sense of fear follows them no matter where they are.

President Karimov died in 2016, and that brought a new wave of hope. Yet, even after his death, when some changes seemed to take form, time kept moving slow. Gertten captures this slowness, the waiting and the longing, so vividly it hurts. It is in the space between them that Dilya lives her life.

Up to the last minutes of the film, Iskandar’s faith remains unknown. By then, even our hopes as viewers have reached a low. Dilya’s pain has transcended the limits of the screen, and what is left now is not the story of her and her brother anymore. Instead, it is an overwhelming sense of the random long-term pain an abusive regime can inflict on an individual, without apology or consideration, and how that can take over one’s life completely without them having much control.