Asanali Ashimov and Igor' Vovnianko: House by the Salty Lake (Dom u solenogo ozera), 2004

reviewed by Julie Draskoczy© 2006


The director Asanali Ashimov—whose previous films include Year of the Dragon (God drakona; dir. Asanali Ashimov and Tsoi Guk In, 1981) and Kozy-Korpesh and Baian-Sulu (Kozy Korpesh u Baian Sulu, 1992)—is perhaps Kazakhstan’s most recognized national actor, [1] and he plays the lead role of Galyma Zhanakov in House by the Salty Lake. In making the film, Ashimov teamed up with director and screenwriter Igor' Vovnianko, whose previous works include Manchurian Variation (Man'chzhurskii variant, 1989) and God Be Merciful to Lost Souls (Gospodi, pomilui zabludshikh, 1992). The script by Kazakh dramatist Satimzhan Sanbaev is based on his childhood memories; [2] it won the Ministry of Culture’s competition for best screenplay in 2001 and Kazakhfil'm studio began production on the film in 2003.

     

The film begins with the arrival of a German reporter, Zigrid, in Kazakhstan. Determined to obtain information on German prisoners-of-war, she meets the writer Galyma Zhanakov at the Atyrau airport for an interview. As Galyma reminisces about his Kazakh childhood, the film shifts to a flashback and the color changes to grainy black-and-white. For the rest of the film, the narrative action operates on two planes—Galyma’s present-day voyage with the journalist and his recollections of his wartime childhood in Kazakhstan. Although the two narratives are brought together through many elements of the film, they also represent the very different directing styles of Ashimov and Vovnianko; the former gives a light-hearted tone to the color portions of the film, whereas the latter adds depth and artistry with the black-and-white sections. This dualistic structure reinforces the presence of opposing pairs that form the core of the film: freedom and imprisonment, truth and falsehood, play and violence, good and evil.

Zigrid believes that a character in Galyma’s novel, a mute German POW flutist, may have been her father. Although Galyma shakes his head, assuring her that his stories are merely fiction, the camera tells a different story. After several documentary-like clips, which add to the illusion of authenticity, the flashback of Galyma’s childhood depicts what was written in his book. Galyma first meets the German prisoner, whose simple flute melody haunts the entire film, through Martin, the local teacher of mathematics. A Volga-German himself, Martin feels strong compassion for the silent prisoner behind barbed wire, and the young Galyma shares Martin’s sympathy for the man. Galyma acquires a toy flute and attempts to imitate the song of the prisoner, and eventually the two play their instruments together on either side of the barbed wire. The constant passage of goods to the prisoner through the wires, as well as the ability of music to transcend the boundary of imprisonment, blurs the distinction between incarceration and freedom.

Indeed, many of the citizens living around the camp are themselves convicts, since there are several types of prisoners in the film, including German POWs and political prisoners who have been deported to Kazakhstan. Although not necessarily behind barbed wire, the political prisoners also feel trapped. Sara, a deported Jewish woman from Lvov, laments the frustration of her life in Kazakhstan, exclaiming: “I want to live, I want to love, I want to dance.” The Kazakh citizens and Russian prison wardens face similar hardships, such as lack of food and violence, and the film emphasizes the struggles all people face during wartime.

    

The prison camp serves as an image that reverberates throughout the film; the recurring presence of fences, window frames, and log structures mirror the barbed wire of captivity. These obstructions serve not only to complicate the visual imagery, but they also underscore the inability of the prisoners to escape their physical environment. Like the prisoners, the children, too, appear trapped in the film. One such example occurs after Galyma’s father is taken away by the police for his association with the German prisoner; the boy stares into the rain from behind a window and by his side is Malika, his young orphaned friend from the Chechen Diaspora. The pair furiously runs their hands up and down the window, almost like caged animals that echo the confined dog Galyma wants to free after the war.

This shot is nearly identical to one near the beginning of the film, when the young friends stand behind the same window, calling to Galyma’s father for help after a neighbor’s shed has been set on fire. After recalling this incident of sabotage, the present-day Galyma reinforces the dualities in the film by asking himself: “How can some people be so evil and others so full of love?” Issues of morality and ethical responsibility appear frequently in the film, with both Galyma and the German prisoner risking their own lives and well-being by saving women prisoners from being raped. In addition, Galyma’s father jeopardizes his position in the community as head of the local school by defending and supporting the prisoners. Even though he is warned by a Russian prison warden to concern himself only with his own family and children, since “the ground has ears,” Galyma’s father does not follow this advice. In the end, he is taken away by the NKVD in the middle of the night for his involvement with the German prisoner and never returns. On the one hand, Galyma appears as the most ethical of all the characters in the film; after both his father and Martin refuse to assist him in trying to find the runaway German prisoner because fleeing the camp was a senseless decision, he is at first the only person willing to attempt the search. On the other hand, however, Galyma’s ethical stance carries severe penalties since it will eventually result in his father’s arrest by the NKVD.

The film opens and closes with sweeping shots of the Kazakh steppes, and the specific features of the landscape play a key role in the film. The land represents the horrors of war; the presence of the forced-labor camp makes it function as the physical site of the war’s existence. Galyma and Malika find a skull in the dirt while playing, and the ubiquitous crosses in the ground allude to the many gravesites that mark the land. Malika’s parents are buried somewhere in the steppe, and Martin buries the German prisoner in a shallow grave after he is murdered. The title of the film underlines the importance of the physical location of the action: legend has it that the “salty lake” is salty because of tears. The harsh and rugged nature of the Kazakh steppe is portrayed when the German prisoner escapes from the camp. Lost and confused in this unfamiliar terrain, he eventually falls prey to bandits who shoot him.

Although the Kazakh land can be a source of danger or sadness, it also represents national pride and wealth. Galyma and his relatives decide to stay in their family home despite the many hardships they face, even though they are some of the few characters who have the option to leave. The earth is sacred—this view is reiterated in the recurring shots of a Muslim woman praying seemingly to the ground. While traveling with Galyma, Zigrid notes the beauty of the landscape, and the writer proudly agrees with her admiration. The Kazakh steppe also serves as a vital source of oil both during and after the war. Just as the documentary-like clips in the film frequently include shots of the oil industry, the current day oil wells shown at the end of the film make clear that the resource continues to be of vital economic importance to Kazakhstan. The references to oil act as yet another way in which the two narratives in the film—past and present—are brought together.

The war itself plays a complex role in the film, since it is a war fought on several fronts. As much as the German POWs represent the international struggle of World War II, the multi-national political prisoners and deportees signify the internal battles being fought within the Soviet Union—both by the deportation of Caucasian ethnic minorities and of the people from the newly annexed territories of the Baltic states. [3] The tragedy of the war affects not only the adults; it has an immediate impact on the children as well. Galyma and Malika’s game of paddy-cake is punctuated with words from and about the war, and Galyma makes shooting noises as he plays with paper airplanes in the shadows on a wall. The incorporation of war themes into children’s games makes the severity of war all the more poignant.

While the war accentuates the somber tone of the film, there are also elements that serve to lighten the otherwise tragic narrative. Sarsen, a Kazakh, falls in love with Ivona, a political prisoner, after accepting her into his home. In addition, the constant presence of music acts as an uplifting element in the film. Sara and Malika, usually despondent, appear joyful when they have the opportunity to dance to music. Galyma’s father plays a Kazakh-style guitar, an instrument that Sarsen’s granddaughter plays in the present day. With the help of the German prisoner from behind barbed wire, Galyma unclogs his flute and the two play music side by side. After the murder of the German prisoner, Galyma’s father gives the dead flutist’s instrument to his son as a memento, and with the new flute Galyma finally succeeds in reproducing the melody that the prisoner continuously played. Once again bringing together the past and the present, Galyma gives this flute, marked with the initials “AZ,” to Zigrid. In the multi-national environment of the film—Kazakhs, Russians, Lithuanians, Chechens, Germans, and Jews come together as prisoners and prison wardens—music acts as an appropriate alternative to language since it represents a form of communication without words.

Zigrid and Galyma’s interactions in the present day frequently recall moments from Galyma’s childhood. When Zigrid photographs Galyma, he throws his hands up in the air, a gesture similar to the one he made behind the window of his childhood home. In addition, when Galyma decides to give the German’s flute to Zigrid, he passes it to her over the back seat of the van in which they are traveling, echoing the passage of goods through the barbed wire of the prison camp. Since Galyma and Zigrid most frequently appear together while traveling in the van, the separation between the front and back seats continuously echoes the division made by the wires of the camp. Despite this partition, however, Galyma has made yet another German friend, and the film appears to come full circle. Just as the Kazakh land may hold the secrets of death, it also promises the hope of renewal. The film ends with an uplifting shot: Galyma and Malika, as children, run carefree down a long, straight road. The past can never be forgotten. As Galyma notes in the closing scene: “What someone has lived through, stays in one’s memory forever—all that I remember comes from one house, the house by the salty lake.”

Julie Draskoczy (University of Pittsburgh)


Notes

1] Ashimov has appeared in many Kazakh films, including Crossroads (Perekrestok; dir. Shaken Aimanov, 1963), Trans-Siberian Express (Transsibirskii ekspress; dir. El'dor Urazbaev, 1977), and Turksib (Serik Zharmukhamedov and Kadir, Dzhetpisbaev, 1986). He was awarded the State Laureate prize of Kazakhstan in 1972 and 1974. In 2000 he received the “Tarlan” award.

2] The author grew up on the Dossor settlement, 160 kilometers from Atyrau in Kazakhstan.

3] The Soviet Union annexed the Baltic States in August 1940.


House by the Salty Lake, Kazakhstan, 2004
Black-and-white and color, 98 mins.
Directors: Asanali Ashimov and Igor' Vovnianko
Screenplay: Satimzhan Sanbaev
Cinematography: Mikhail Kolbasovskii
Art Director: Rafael' Slekenov
Cast: Raikah Aitkozhina, Asanali Ashimov, Seit Baisarin, Zhan Baizhanbaev, Vladimir Bol'shov, Anna Danilenko, Kirill Dateshigze, Efim Datyshidze, Aleksandra Florinkskaia-Budanova, Nurzhuman Ikhtymbaev, Aliviia Kadieva, Marzhan Kazybaeva, Tursun Kuraliev, Olesia Sudeilovskaia, Svetlana Svetlichnaia, Vladimir Tolokonnikov, Laima Vaikyle.
Production: Kazakh'film

Asanali Ashimov and Igor' Vovnianko: House by the Salty Lake (Dom u solenogo ozera), 2004

reviewed by Julie Draskoczy© 2006

Updated: 15 Jan 06