Interview with Abai Kulbai: The Keeper of Eternal Values in Cinema

By Inna Smailova (Almaty)

One of the most talked-about films in the two competition programs of the IV th Eurasia International Film Festival was Strizh (2007), the debut full-length feature by the young Kazakh director Abai Kulbai. The story of a teenage girl looking for her place in the adult world marks a new departure both in the historical development of Kazakh cinema and in the established pattern of films about the formation of a person's relationship with the modern world. I think this change in consciousness is typical not only for Kazakhstan, but is also characteristic of Central Asia and the post-Soviet region as a whole because for the first time after decades of independence, cinema has finally ceased to accentuate the curse of time that kills the victim-hero. In Strizh , Kulbai creates a completely different heroine, a different time, and a different reality. He departs from the accepted role of the filmmaker in the 1980s as a passive observer and seeks another position in his film-stories. He talks here about the category of “otherness” in the context of the “Kazakh cinema of the new generation.”

The Hero as “Other” in Cinema

Inna Smailova: For several decades the “hero” in our cinema has been prescribed by the late 1980s, when the screen hero first appeared as a victim of the new times, of a new reality that kills him. What is the heroine in your film like: is she a victim of circumstance or does she represent something new?

Abai Kulbai: I was not trying to make my film different from our films or from others films of the “new wave.” I perceive films as being good or bad. But my heroine is definitely not one-sided. On the one hand, she apparently does nothing to become a strong and independent person in this society. On the other hand, this girl reacts very sharply to everything that happens to her. Her external reactions are cold-blooded, a protective shield against the cold attitude that her environment displays towards her. For my heroine, it is important not to lose her identity in this society. She feels that she is doing everything correctly and asserts her point of view. The film stresses the heroine's desire to prove to society that she exists in this world. She does not want to dissolve in society. By virtue of her teenage years, she finds life interesting and—after several slaps in the face, which culminate in the rape—she does not fall to her knees and does not sacrifice herself. Because of her honesty, she is a decidedly positive character and aspires ultimately to unite her family. But there is still a third point of view, for the sake of which I made this film—the attitude of society to such people, which goes back to the first issue: why does she not do anything in this life? This is a question that should not be addressed to her, but to the adult world, which must answer for her condition.

IS: Why does a heroine take the main functions upon herself instead of the usual male hero?

AK: Initially the script called for a guy to be the main character. But at some point it began to seem that it would be more interesting to have a girl. With boys everything is more or less clear—when they become teenagers, they all run out into the courtyard. Cigarettes and beer, some small gangs; it is quite typical for guys to learn about the world from the courtyard, from the street. But my girl is also a tomboy who has fled to the courtyard from her unhappy home and who is in the skin of those very same guys. In my opinion, putting the heroine in this reverse situation for a girl is to highlight the distance of society from the condition of the unprotected child.

IS: Is there any degree of identification between the director and the heroine?

AK: In this case, the heroine is completely invented and my biography has nothing to do with her story. Although there is one thing : I gave the film to a close friend to watch. The next day he called and asked me whether I had really been raped in my childhood. Then I understood what had happened. The actress who plays Ainur (“Strizh”) mimicked—very well and quickly—everybody on location. As the director, I was her main authority and she watched me all the time. I didn't give her instructions for this scene, but she adopted everything from me: the gait, the way to sit, the gestures, and the movement—and these were transferred into the film and it is very noticeable on the screen. Consequently there seems to be a similarity between the heroine and me in the film. Well, that's fine. Why not?! Therefore, everybody says that she is a stand-in for the director and his life.

Time as “Other”: Society as Antagonist

IS: What is the role of reality in your film? If earlier it represented a relentless fate, is it now reduced to an old morality?

AK: I wouldn't say that in Strizh the accent is on the hero. My film is not for teenagers, and they won't go to see it. My film is aimed at society, at its morals and its attitude to this age group. The heroine is socially vulnerable. The half-breed girl does not know her native language, which leads to a conflict at school. She reacts to the cold attitude of her teacher. She cannot reconcile herself to the teacher's attitude. Because all she has is her point of view. The heroine is rather wild because she has been ill-raised and has never learned about family values. But she maintains her cold attitude to this society, which has been cold to her and has inflicted violence. I deliberately chose wintertime or early spring for the shoot, when slush, dirt, and grayness dominate. In representing space, I emphasized the conditions of this season in order to show Almaty from another point of view: gray, dirty, and full of sad and gloomy people, amongst whom the heroine stands out favorably, simply because of the bright jacket that we found her. The film shows how modern moral foundations have replaced people and the old, simple, true human qualities.

The “Other” Orientation of Cinema

IS: Changing the accents on the hero and on space dictates changes in the visual realization. What did you try to single out initially, what did you do to sharpen certain moments?

AK: I simply wanted to create a series of very small shocks throughout the film, with a big shock at the end, and then a way out of this condition. A minor kind of shock therapy, as it were. This is an absolutely professional method, which has been used several times in cinema, for example in the French new wave. Thus, everything shown in the film is made-up, but it has been made-up in such a way that it remains on the level of rumors: an Almaty story that circulated on the shock level of some rumored kitchen conversations.

IS: The ending of the film is not entirely clear. Is there a future for the heroine?

AK: The film ends positively, but this positivity is debatable because the world has grown crueler. But should a child answer cruelty with cruelty? That's the conflict! Therefore, I have made this ending in a way that is optimistic for a positive person, but for a negative person it ends badly.

The “Other” Position of the Director

IS: Do you have any idols, and who are they?

AK: I don't have any favorite directors. I have favorite films. In my childhood I liked heroes such as Robin Hood, d'Artagnan, and Kai from the “Snow Queen,” who was under the queen's spell. But a girl appeared who wanted to get him out of his frozen captivity and showed him the real pleasures of the world. I feel like Kai myself right now: I am indifferent to the world and I am like a digger searching for pleasure in my creative work. Yet I count myself among the moralizing directors. I consider myself to be a part of this time, this culture, and this society. As a director, I don't have the right to film stories that could harm society; we should give something to society, point out its weaknesses, provoke change, and be responsible for what happens in society. In Strizh I had a simple serial story of family relations that make the girl suffer. Why family? Because the family is the primary social unit—that is, the way we teach children is how they will grow up and how they will pass on this teaching into society in the future. I believe that a “moralistic” cinema carries within itself a lost moral culture, without constraining anybody. We should not confuse morality with ideology. My morality is similar to those of knights safekeeping lost values that time has rejected and that nobody uses, but in this forgotten sphere lies a truth that will return some time and that will be vital to society. My next project is also “moralistic.” The main character is an adult who has everything—girls, an apartment, a good job where he is the boss. You can't say that he is rich, but he has taken his place in society, although there is something missing inside him: spirituality. This is the reverse pattern of Strizh .

IS: Yet you do not limit yourself to directing. What has genuinely surprised me is that in your ALM Producer Center you try to rally young ideas. Can you talk with some more detail about the work of the Center?

AK: The ALM Producer Center, which I direct, was created in order to be independent of the film studio Kazakhfilm and from some other studios, to be dependent only on our market. In order not to trample along corridors for months and years, not to wait for work, but to do everything for one's self. The work of a director does not consist only in shooting a film, but it requires daily work on the self because if you are not an individual, nobody will notice you. It is work on yourself plus creative work. You are your own producer and PR manager, you have to be on top of information, and you have to view films. ALM can be translated as “always in motion.” I want to be the master of my own affairs; I want my center to develop. We have just launched a project of short films; a script competition was organized and we plan to launch 10 fiction films of up to 20 minutes, but so far we have only five scripts. But this is unimportant. Let there be only five. And when we have finished them, there might be three good films. This is so that we don't grind to a halt. I would like there to be more of our creations, mine or others. From the position of the market, this is probably an unsuccessful project that will not recoup production costs, but it is run in the first instance not for profit but to involve people who want to shoot films; in order to set up a creatively united collective. Our next goal is to create a positive image around our producer center. To be creatively independent is a normal ambition.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Inna Smailova
Almaty, Kazakhstan

Inna Smailova© 2008

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Updated: 20 Mar 08