Nurbek Egen: The Wedding Chest (Sunduk predkov, 2006)
reviewed by Gulbara Tolomusheva© 2006
Is It Easy To Create Your Own Myth?
The Wedding Chest by Kyrgyz-Muscovite Nurbek Egen opened at the “October” cinema in Bishkek on 16 April 2006 and remained in the cinema’s repertoire until 7 May. It also screened at the Ala-Too Cinema from 8-25 May 2006. The film has also been screened in a number of international film festivals, including Karlovy Vary IFF in July 2006.
Since his student short film Sanzhyra (2000), Nurbek Egen has tried to impose on viewers a myth about the Kyrgyz world order that exists purely in his imagination. I only managed to see Sanzhyra in May 2006 at the Tashkent film festival Creative Flight, and I was disappointed. The film’s blatant manipulation of ethnographic material, which must have appeared to his Moscow producers as an opportunity to get onto the international festival circuit, is entirely inappropriate and unjustified. By contrast, the much better-known Kyrgyz director Aktan Arym Kubat (formerly known as Aktan Abdykalykov) has created an original world for his little heroes in the films The Swings (Sel'kinchek, 1993) and Beshkempir: The Adopted Son (1998)―a world that is close and clear to the audience because it is based on the stable rituals of his people, instead of on invented or fabricated customs.
Egen’s repeated quotations―in a rather inappropriate form―of the key “pieces” from Arym Kubat’s Beshkempir, do not help Sanzhyra. Recall how delicately Arym Kubat marked the beginning of puberty in Beshkempir: waking up one morning, Beshkempir feels a mysterious weight in his groin, slowly lifts the blanket, and―having seen something swollen begin to recede―he quickly lowers the blanket. In Egen’s film the boy is seated right in front of the camera when he touches his genitals. Moreover, Beshkempir wears a conventional “tumar” around his neck, which is of a standard size worn by many of his compatriots, while the hero of Sanzhyra wears a huge “tumar” that irritates the viewer’s eye. And so on and so forth.
The coarse scene of circumcision in Sanzhyra is offensive in all respects. The boy is abruptly seized and dragged into a room, where he is kept on the bed with force. Then one of the elders gets out a penknife and―in front of a crowd of people―literally strikes the child’s gentle and thin flesh. Compare this, for example, with the Tajik feature film The Wanderer (Ovora, 2005) by Daler Rakhmatov and Gulanda Mukhabbatova, which was shown at the festival in Tashkent. This film is essentially about the moral preparation of a boy for this important Muslim ritual: how delicately and with what light humor he is prepared for the day of his circumcision; what a holiday has been arranged in the village; how finely he has been tuned to the necessary wave-length; and how tactfully the episode of circumcision has been filmed.
The plot of The Wedding Chest, Nurbek Egen’s feature-length film debut, can be summarized in one sentence: it is the story of a French woman who marries a Kyrgyz man with a dowry. Already in the prologue the hero is designated as a son-in-law: he lives in the bride’s house. Yet a more detailed summary of this film, which looks so strange to the Kyrgyz spectator, is essential.
Paris. For the Kyrgyz man Aidar and the French woman Isabelle every morning begins with a view of the Eiffel Tower. Then, one day, Aidar informs his beloved that they have to go to Kyrgyzstan to acquaint Isabelle with his parents. Isabelle is happy because at last she will see the distant and mysterious native land of her future husband. But Aidar changes in his homeland: he seems ashamed of something, is secretive, and behaves somewhat strangely. For some reason he introduces Isabelle to his relatives and friends not as his bride, but as a journalist colleague. Actually, the young couple’s stay in the area around Issyk-kul dominates the plot. When the international film crew arrived in Kyrgyzstan in the summer of 2004 to begin shooting, the plot immediately struck people as improbable. The plot caused bewilderment: “What kind of a strange story is this?” Yes, I am alluding here to the concept of a cultural dialogue, of the confrontation between Western and Eastern mentalities and traditions. This is clear for the figures of the two central characters, but I am more interested in how each of them adapts to the native environment of the other. As much as the Eiffel Tower is a symbol of Western comfort; the old wedding chest with the dowry embodies the traditions of the patriarchal East. The film has a happy ending: after an argument the lovers find peace of mind and the chest “flies” to the lovers’ Parisian apartment in the hope that everything given by the relatives at home will be used with love in the name of prosperity by this international couple. And, that after the birth of their first child, Isabelle and Aidar will start to fill another wedding chest.
But I, as a Kyrgyz woman, stumble over this very chest because I know that in all Kyrgyz families―rural and urban, poor and rich, Kyrgyz- and Russian-speaking―a dowry is collected in a chest after the birth of a girl-child only, for future brides. And I shall have to stumble over such details repeatedly in the course of the film.
A few things should be said about the filmmaker. I know personally many film directors (Kyrgyz and others), but Nurbek Egen always seemed unsociable and inaccessible. Egen does not speak much and lives almost in a cocoon. He came to the Kinoshock festival in Anapa (2005) only for one day; any longer stay at the festival would have been an unacceptable luxury as he was shooting another television serial in Moscow. But Egen’s image has already been formed: a charming, successful, interesting young man; a man who came to Moscow from the remote reaches of Kyrgyzstan and has achieved recognition in one of today’s most complex professions. Not many Kyrgyz filmmakers have proven themselves in foreign lands, so his achievement is so much more significant.
The image of Aidar is in many respects autobiographical, although many details do not fully coincide with real events from the director’s life. Aidar is a thirty-year old, successful Kyrgyz living and working in Paris. The first fifteen years of his life coincided with the last fifteen years of the Soviet Union. The second fifteen years, most likely, fall into two parts: he had time to live in the new, independent Kyrgyzstan before leaving for the West. Egen’s characterization of Aidar is striking: he is a very uninteresting and boring person. The question arises: why does the charming, intelligent Isabelle love him? “I have many friends who are married couples where the husbands lose to their wives on many counts. That’s life…,” commented the director at the press conference in Anapa. Clearly, Egen was referring to what remains hidden in family life when the outside world sees only the result of a permanent inner struggle, the skill to manage one’s feelings so as never to show sorrow and grief openly. This side of life is known only to a true friend, in this case Isabelle, who has already been living with Aidar in Paris for two years. Those who have lived in Paris know the difficulty and the charm of Parisian life. When the Kazakh film critic Gulnara Abikeyeva asked Tadjik director Djamshed Usmonov, nowadays a French citizen: “Listen, you don’t make films all the time, so what do you live on?,” this Parisian Djigit answered: “I have a roof over my head and that’s the main thing. I work a lot with French directors as script editor.” In order to live well in a foreign land you have to be constantly in shape and cannot relax; that is why Aidar seems a little cold and dry next to the emotional and impulsive Isabelle.
The image of Aidar is an essentially new image in Kyrgyz cinema. A refined, intelligent ninny who is not at all heroic, but who is a hero of the new times, formed by the prospects that opened up before everyone after independence fourteen years ago with the aspiration of finding new opportunities and avenues. This was a time when, from early childhood, people were used to gnawing at the granite of every possible science in order to win a place under the sun in the demanding modern world that does not believe in tears. The assimilation of a new way of life led to an essentially different quality of life. Previously unknown heights opened up before Kyrgyz adolescents. In Bishkek, however, you can still hear the frequent lamentations of losers who claim that a rural boy from a remote aul today cannot achieve the heights that many Kyrgyz people reached during Soviet times. Could the northerner Tolomush Okeev from Bokonbaev have become a well-known director today? The southerner Nurbek Egen has proven that is possible to achieve success even in our days. But some of his fellow countrymen still grumble that he defected. But where could he have come back to considering that Kyrgyzfilm studio is located in Bishkek, where he has no home? And he understood perfectly well that he would never find work in his chosen profession in Bishkek.
The Image of Men on the Screen Embodies the Image of the Nation
The new generation of Central Asia is a generation without a face. Today the region does not have a strong hero. But a people need a hero who can overcome everything.
—Jane Knox-Voina, American film scholar at a roundtable during the Eurasia II (International Film Festival).
Indeed, we still live with the screen images of spiritualized Kyrgyz men with their impulsive and bewitching movements. Their reaction speed is amazing, their sharpness may offend, and their intolerance of any lack of talent is obvious. This is evident in such films as Heat (Znoi; dir, Larisa Shepit'ko, 1963) and The Shot in the Karash Pass (Vystrel na perevale Karash; dir. Bolotbek Shamshiev, 1968). It would seem that a whole epoch has fallen between the collective-farm leader Abakir (Nurmukhan Zhnaturin) and the lonely rebel Bakhtygul (Suimenkul Chokmorov). But the images of these strong men were created during the Thaw and could not essentially have been any different―infantile, weak, or immature.
Aidar is another matter: the protagonist of The Wedding Chest is autonomous. He is neither a monster, nor is he the kind of man with whom you would go on a special mission. And he won’t invite you to go on a mission with him either. An actor of a new school was needed to play this ambiguous character, whose life organically fitted into the realia of the new time. Finding such a person in modern Kyrgyzstan turned out to be no simple task. As one of the film’s producers, Petr Cherniaev, wrote, Nurbek Egen searched for two months for an actor among “the 25- to 30-year-old Kyrgyz and Kazakh actors and, to his horror, he found nobody for the role of Aidar, who has been working in Europe. Some actors were too ordinary, others too ‘national’ (it was desirable to find a certain Europeanized type), and still others were simply not sufficiently skilled (where could actors obtain the experience in a country that has not produced any films for a long time?). After several stages of selection two choices remained: the 23-year-old son of Chingiz Aitmatov, who lives in Brussels and speaks French fluently; and the 30-year old Bolot Tentimyshov, a theater actor from Bishkek, more suitable from the point of view of age, but who did not speak French” (Vecherniaia Moskva, 16 September 2004).
In the end, they chose Bolot Tentimyshov, who had acted in the five-minute novella Envy (Zavist'; dir. Erkin Ryspaev) in the film-almanac Seven Deadly Sins (Sem' smertnykh grekhov; dir. Bekzhan Aitkulev, Flora Gazieva, Asan Aitykeev, and Ryspaev, 2003), where he played the role of the Envious Person, and in the short film Mouse (Mysh'; dir. Marat Alykulov, 2003), which displayed for the first time the image of a “new” Kyrgyz—a successful young man who is tempted by a better life. In The Wedding Chest his hero has achieved a lot, but only on the surface. Tentimyshov made a powerful impression in Mouse because his open face revealed the sincerity of his intentions. But in The Wedding Chest Aidar’s forehead is hidden behind a long lock of hair, right down to the eyebrows, which stands in contrast to Isabelle, whose light and radiant face is open, who looks at the world without suspicion, who deceives nobody, and who does not harbor evil. As soon as she realizes that her beloved Aidar is tricking her, she starts to counter his tactics by making contact with his relatives and neighbors. The new star of French cinema, Natacha Régnier, has created a fragile, but strong-willed Isabelle, who appears natural, soft, and sincere on the screen.
Why does Aidar deceive everybody? Why does he hide that Isabelle is his bride? “My hero has fallen into the trap of a white lie: it would be bad not to say anything, yet it is impossible to tell the truth as that would hurt the family,” is how Egen justified Aidar at the press conference in Anapa. Egen’s more experienced Kyrgyz colleague Aktan Arym Kubat once noted: “We are all of us a bit cunning; we are secretive, otherwise we could not survive” (personal conversation, 6 September 2005).
The film seems to justify the hero’s strange behavior. According to the laws of his ancestors, Aidar must marry a Kyrgyz girl because he is the start of a purified, tenth generation. The ancient family legend says that nine generations ago the son of a khan from Aidar ’s family tree married a girl from foreign lands against his father’s will and was therefore cursed by his parents. Here Kyrgyz audiences are taken aback a second time because according to Kyrgyz traditions such a curse is valid only over seven generations, not on the eighth and subsequent ones. There is a variant of the curse, however, where an entire family’s lineage can be afflicted without regard to the number of generations.
While waiting for the outcome, Aidar continues to be silent; his mother and father have already chosen a local bride for him. Isabelle finds out and leaves the village. Like a true Djigit, Aidar rushes after her on a gallant horse, although he has always stressed his dislike of horses. The gloomy postman Iusup, who some weeks ago had not delivered the telegram from Paris with the message about Aidar’s arrival together with his bride, still hopes to stop the hero and therefore wildly fires a shot at him. In an instant Aidar is reborn, but the glum and lonely Iusup is relentless: “I have killed my Aidar.” The malicious, prickly, but naive Iusup had hoped that Aidar would rethink his intentions.
But Aidar is different: he is taller by a head than the other villagers; he is thinner, more refined, more educated; and he has higher expectations… When somebody has been away for a long time and returns, he sees that everything has remained the same—and suddenly realizes that he has changed himself, that he has grown taller than his former self, and that his fellow countrymen have been crushed. Rest assured that he will manage to bend Isabelle to his will because she, by virtue of her political correctness, will always try to understand Aidar, who in turn will continue to bend the line of destiny for the rest of their lives. And the wedding chest (which should be understood as “Kyrgyz traditions”) that has safely reached Paris and has taken its place in the protagonists’ apartment, will never allow Aidar to forget his roots and to dissolve himself into French culture.
Translated by Birgit Beumers
The Wedding Chest, Russia, France, Germany and Kyrgyzstan, 2005
Color, 104 minutes
Director: Nurbek Egen
Screenplay: Ekaterina Tirdatova
Cinematography: Dmitri Ermakov
Composer: Aleksei Aigi
Cast: Natacha Régnier and Bolot Tentymyshov
General Producer: Evgenia Tirdatova
Production: Kinoglaz and Pygmalion Production (Russia), MAST Productions (France), Thoke+Moebius Film (Germany), Sanzhyra (Kyrgyzstan), with support from the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema (Russia), Arte (France), and NRW Filmstiftung (Germany)
Nurbek Egen: The Wedding Chest (Sunduk predkov, 2006)
reviewed by Gulbara Tolomusheva© 2006