Zhanabek Zhetiruov: Notes of a Trackman (Zapiski putevogo obkhodchika [Duniezharyq ], 2006)

reviewed by Michael Rouland © 2007

A blind old man ambles down the railroad tracks bathed in sepia monochrome. In his dark world, oblivious to the changing currents of post-socialism, he exhibits a singular attention to the ties along the track. In a kind of dance, he tests every one, placing a rock on each plank that is loose. Notes of a Trackman, Zhanabek Zhetiruov's first feature film, engages the paradigms of modernity and tradition with a subtle and linear narrative and an unmistakable reverence for the Soviet train. Significantly, this is a film borne of the post-Soviet, Kazakh film factory, rather than a European co-production. It could also be the best response to the global phenomenon of Borat (dir. Larry Charles, 2006) and makes a more representative Kazakh film than Nomad (Kochevnik; dir. Sergei Bodrov, Sr., Ivan Passer, and Talgat Temenov, 2005). Zhetiruov's film has already achieved a note of acclaim in the region. It was the winner of the Central Asian competition of the 2006 Eurasian Film Festival as well as the FIPRESCI Prize in Torino 2007, and the film has been shown at numerous film festivals around the world.

There is something honest about the film. Although it can be tedious at times, there is a turn to unabashed realism here. With its grainy 35mm monochrome, shot by cinematographer Boris Troshev, this film suits the experience of a filmmaker who has made more than thirty documentary films, many of which deal with trains. One of the first scenes, set at a neighborhood party, reflects Zhetiruov's unusual framing and composition. The images are frenetic: party-goers pass here and there, a child jumps rope behind them in a performative bent while a train enters the scene as well.

This is a film made by a person who is clearly fond of trains. Perhaps there are even too many images of trains: tracking, stationary, from the front, behind, above, inside, alongside, across the screen, speeding towards the audience, from the view of the conductor, through a variety of steppe and mountainous terrains, angled away in the day, nighttime silhouettes, and with a variety of human interactions. It should not surprise us that the final and most appreciative credit goes to the Kazakh Railways. These are huge Soviet trains, juxtaposed with the small lives that revolve around them. In the film, passing trains mark time. The sounds are rich and blaring, sometimes unsettling to viewers—crying out in the night and alerting us during the day—but life around trains for Zhetiruov is normalized and necessary. Zhetiruov was once a railroad fitter himself, and he has claimed that “In Kazakhstan, I am the only trackman of filmmakers and the only filmmaker of trackmen” (catalog for the Torino Film Festival). And he presents the entertaining microcosm of life along the tracks, of salespeople, healers, fortune tellers, and unscrupulous train conductors that populate this world.

Whether the fault of the filmmaker's inexperience in artistic cinema or the lack of capable actors in Central Asian film culture, the film often appears overly staged and the acting flat. Perhaps the topic is too familiar to the director and he does not devote enough attention to story development. The consequence is that most characters lack subtlety and the film loses depth. The exception to this failing is Nurzhuman Ikhtybaev, one of the most recognizable Kazakh actors in film today. In a cast dominated by amateurs, Ikhtybaev stands out as the blind grandfather.

The film relates the intersections of three male generations: the retired grandfather with his innate gift for identifying problems with the track; his son, Askar, who has taken his father's job with the rail company; and the grandson, Sanat, who begins the film embarking to a boarding school in the city. Their behavior is quite typical of the brief post-socialist era.

The eldest character, cultivated by the Soviet system and addicted to work, comes across as a wayward Stakhanovite, indifferent to the new realities around him. But he also possesses several trans-Soviet cultural traits, linking pre-Soviet and high-Soviet values. Through the film's depiction of his relationship with his “beloved grandson,” he shares stories from his own childhood sleeping in the open air of the steppe. As a nomad, he tells us that it was imperative to know how to find one's way with the stars; and through this conceit he tells the story of the “Seven Robbers,” who stole the daughter of Urker, and the tale of the north star, Temirkazyk, around which the other stars rotate “as tied horses.” As a socialist worker, he is unwavering; his co-workers lament: “as long as the old man is alive we'll never see rest.” His passion for trains and hard work drive the film.

The youngest, Sanat, reminiscent of the child protagonist of Chinghiz Aitmatov's and Bolot Shamshiev's The White Ship (Belyi parokhod, 1976), is open to the new possibilities and opportunities to leave the confined space of his village, but he has yet to locate his own place in the new era. His new world is infused with conflicting values of tradition and modernity. The stories of his grandfather are met with strong and constant reminders of the state when we hear children singing the new Kazakh national anthem on a number of occasions.

In the middle, we have the most confused generation. Neither ideological devotee nor modern opportunist, Askar lacks a purpose of his own. He is unfulfilled by his wife but encounters rejection in others as well. Askar finds his work uninspiring and accomplishes little more than to copy notes from his father's observations while his father's success is recognized as his own. Throughout the film, Askar exhibits a constant need to defend his manliness despite its fruitlessness: the police label him a “moral detriment” for fighting over a woman until his father protects him yet again.

In the expanding literary tradition of “the iron road” in Central Asia, building on the allegory of cultural loss in Chingiz Aitmatov's The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years and the comedy of party ideology in Hamid Ismailov's The Railway, Zhetiruov's film offers an elegy of the Kazakh rail system. Voyages across the expansive Central Asian steppe combine to represent both the suffering of socialist construction and the significance of its success.

One of the most interesting interludes in the film takes place near its end: the grandfather cuts grass in a Tolstoian moment, sitting in the shade as a train passes. As we drift into his mind, we witness the insertion of the cinematic classic, Viktor Turin's Turksib (1929). As if to recall the initial excitement of Kazakhs and the train, we see the nomadic Kazakhs confronted with Soviet modernity and inspired to run alongside—on horse, camel, and even a cow! This mise en abyme is a reminder of the director's obsession with 20th-century modernity and the train. It is also an enthusiasm he would like us to remember.

The grandfather proves in the film's conclusion to be a “real clairvoyant,” locating irregularities in the tracks that the latest computers could not find. The film would have us believe that western science is not everything; ideas of progress should not ignore the profound knowledge already acquired. Here, dombïra music, representing Kazakh tradition and folk culture, returns as we observe the grandfather walking along the track. He emotes melancholy as he reinitiates his dance along the railroad ties. Another train passes and the sun illuminates his face in flashes, the light between the wagons shines in slivers across the screen. The last image, shot from the train as it draws away from him, shows him continuing along the track again as the music of Kazakh tradition and the sounds of the train become enmeshed.

Michael Rouland
Miami University (OH)

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Notes of a Trackman, Kazakhstan, 2006
Black-and-White, 64 minutes
Director: Zhanabek Zhetiruov
Scriptwriter: Zhanabek Zhetiruov
Cinematography: Boris Troshev
Art Director: Svetlana Niiazova
Music: Kuat Shildebaev
Cast: Nurzhuman Yqtymbaev, Aldabek Shalbaev, Shinar Chanisbekova, Nazgul Karbalina, Rustem Abdolda, and Nurlan Albosinov
Executive Producer: Zhanabek Zhetiruov
Producers: Aldabek Shalbaev and Arman Asenov
Head producer: Sergei Azimov
Production: Kazakhfilm

Zhanabek Zhetiruov: Notes of a Trackman (Zapiski putevogo obkhodchika [Duniezharyq ], 2006)

reviewed by Michael Rouland © 2007