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Director Brian Song explores love and grief through the story of a largely-unknown 1979 plane crash, which decimated Uzbekistan’s FC Pakhtakor Tashkent.

Misha film still

A still from Misha (Dir. Brian Song), the opening documentary at Manchester International Film Festival 2021.

Everyone wants to give them a piece of their heart.

Tragedy and fame are strange bedfellows, yet frequently collude with each other in an unlikely pact. When we remember people like James Dean or Buddy Holly – people whose death is recalled generations afterwards – this says as much about their abilities, their successes, as the tragic circumstances of their untimely deaths.

In 1979, two planes collided over what was the USSR and all 178 people on board both planes died.

If it had not been for the fact that 14 players and three staff members from Uzbekistan’s FC Pakhtakor Tashkent had perished in that disaster, the event may well have become a minor historical footnote.

Similarities with the disaster in 1966 that hit the Welsh mining town of Aberfan run deep and parallel with the fallout from this tragedy. In those days of the Iron Curtain, the associated news blackouts and the absence of the modern-day camera in a pocket, getting any details on what would now be considered a major incident was unlikely. But the quest of those affected to learn what happened, why loved ones died, proved to be too great for even the Soviet authorities ignore.

Director Brian Song, who also contributed to the writing, strips back the many layers to show the impact of the disaster on the community. The film’s title, Misha, is derived from one of the nicknames of Mikhail An, a Korean player who was team captain of Pakhtakor Tashkent, who was 27 years old and playing at his peak.

His other nickname was Pele, in celebration of his ability, which included being the first player to score two goals in one match directly from a corner. Another player to manage such a feat is Vietnam women's star Nguyen Thi Tuyet Dung. The rarity demonstrates just how hard a feat it was – and still is. David Beckham only did it once.

Another twist of fate is that because Misha was injured, by rights he should not have been on that plane. Such was his loyalty to the team family that he wanted to be with them.

More than 50 years on, this documentary reveals the pain and anguish, but also the love for all those who perished, especially for those from that team.

Heartache floats through this film, though it’s far from depressing. It’s a beacon of hope and light, exploring how people deal with grief. Some turned to alcohol before realising that approach wasn't the answer. Others have carried a torch, turning memories into a celebration of people, rather than extending the misery.

As is so often the case when a crisis breaks, it’s the women left behind who have to pick up the pieces and offer a way for people to move forward. Re-constructions based on recollections of those still living with the emotions 50 years on have been created, supplemented the story. Song widens his scope to that show the authorities at the time held hostility towards many Koreans, to the extent that they refused to provide them with Soviet citizenship.

Through interviews with some of the people still alive, the film successfully knits together many strands of this incident in an engaging and enlightening way.

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Misha was screened online as part of Manchester International Film Festival 2021.

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