Zhanna Issabaeva: Karoy (2007)

reviewed by Stephen M. Norris© 2008

In the center of Astana, Kazakhstan's capital since 1997, stands the Baiterek, a 350-foot tall monument that symbolizes the new nation of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Inside the glass ball at the top of the tree-like Baiterek, visitors, as Paul Starobin has written, can gaze at “a 360 degree panorama of the city's gleaming new structures (the massive, blue-domed presidential palace among them), vacant lots reserved for new buildings, and the steppe beyond” (98). The Baiterek, in other words, physically represents Nazarbayev's claim that “the heart of the nation” beats in Astana. It also affords a view onto the “new Eurasia” that Nazarbayev wants visitors to see, a Eurasia represented by Kazakhstan's modern buildings, its geographical location next to Russia and China, its various faiths (the Baiterek has peace plaques from Chinese Taoists, the Muslim World League, and the Russian Orthodox Church), and its bustling activity. The view from the Baiterek, in other words, is a view into the future.

Zhanna Issabaeva's debut film is radically different from the Baiterek and its symbolism, yet it, too, offers a view of Kazakhstan. This view is a dark foray into contemporary society and an exploration of how physical and mental landscapes shape the human psyche. If Astana attempts to project a radiant future as it is being built in the present, Karoy presents a bleak view of the present firmly rooted in the past.

The title—“Karoy”—has two meanings. It refers first to the film's physical environment, a locale equidistant from Astana and Karaganda that can best be translated as “black cavity.” Indeed, the northern Kazakh landscapes captured in Isabaev's work are dark cavities of violence, hunger, desperation, and theft. These cavities are ones found in the vast steppe that a visitor atop the Baiterek can make out, but not see up close. Isabaeva's film, by contrast, contains no gleaming buildings; instead, we get close-ups of decrepit towns, abandoned bus stops, donkeys used for transport, and broken families. “Karoy” also refers to the film's mental environment, for it can mean “dark thoughts,” an apt description of the protagonist's mindset and the beliefs of the world he inhabits. In this cinematic vision, peace plaques would seem absurd.

We meet the protagonist, Azat, as he is trying to con a relative into giving him money for an imaginary niece's medical treatments. Azat succeeds, imploring his relative to “have a conscience” when the relative claims that his poor family needs the money more. After taking the cash, Azat immediately gambles it away in a card game. For the remainder of the film's first half, Azat literally lurches from one terrible act to another, clearly revealing both the dark cavities of contemporary Kazakhstan and the dark thoughts of its citizens. After losing his money, Azat manages to trick his way into a wedding, claiming the bride is a relative. Once at the festivities, he tries to wheedle money out of the groom. When refused, Azat claims that he has slept with the bride and that she is “damaged goods.” The groom, asking Azat “where did you come from,” nonetheless believes Azat's lie, beats his fiancée, and tells her she “has shamed” him. After wreaking this havoc, Azat moves on, stealing 250 tenge from an old woman selling sunflower seeds at a desolate bus stop. He then wanders into a family's yurt after noticing the husband is away. There he claims to the pregnant wife that he is her husband's friend and that her husband owes him money. Azat announces his intention to wait for the man and demands he be fed like a real guest. After gorging himself on food and vodka, Azat rapes the woman as her young son watches. When she goes into labor and pleads with him to help deliver the baby, Azat instead steals all the family's money and departs. Outside, he steals a horse from another village boy and makes his escape. Azat's cycle of violence and indifference to others comes full circle when he is beaten at night and left to die.

The shocking scenes on screen are shown entirely from Azat's point of view and the viewer stumbles from one horrific scene to the next alongside him, witnessing his amoral acts and their ramifications. Azat's only motive seems to be money, yet he is also all-too-willing to cause harm for harm's sake within this desolate post-communist Kazakhstan. What is frightening about Azat's behavior is its complete lack of humanity and absence of morality, which also seem to govern the social Darwinist landscape he inhabits. He is a far more accomplished trickster than Sacha Baron Cohen's fictional Borat and also a far more violent Kazakh than anything invented by the British comedian (see Kononenko and Kukharenko on Borat as a folkloric trickster). Borat claims that the favorite activities of Kazakhs are “disco dancing, archery, rape, and table tennis.” Azat's favorite activities include rape, but replace the others with drinking, stealing, and lying. The questions that hover around Azat in the first half of the film are those articulated by the groom he tricks: Why does he do what he does? Where do his violent and immoral attitudes come from?

We do not get clear answers to these questions, although we do get hints in the second half of the film. After his beating, an old man with a horse-drawn cart comes by and picks Azat up (although tellingly, the old man stops to bathe at a pond before he bothers to treat the unconscious Azat). Eventually the old man deposits Azat at his sister's house. When Azat awakens, his sister informs him that their ailing mother is also in the house but it is better that she not see the condition of her son. Moreover, she tells him that “I wish you had died. We would have cried once and then been done with it.” For her, Azat represents another mouth to feed in a fatherless family with two small children.

As Azat slowly recovers, we learn more about his life and the source of his violent tendencies. When he finally sees his mother, she reminds him how kind he apparently was when he was younger and particularly recalls a time he took her to another village to see an Indian film. Soon after this revelation, his mother asks Azat to end her pain, telling him that “you are the most loved child of all my children,” that he has always been “good” because he protected her from his father's beatings, protected the family's cows from thieves, sold sunflower seeds, and bought her things. She concludes by asking for his forgiveness, for Azat “did not have a childhood” and, therefore, she is “guilty for all the bad things in your life.” Azat concedes to her wishes and smothers her. The final shot of the film has Azat, framed by a beautiful yet bleak Kazakh sunset, walking into the horizon.

We learn from his time with his mother that Azat's (Soviet) childhood was one filled with drunken beatings, thefts, trickery, and hard labor. By his (post-Soviet) adulthood, he has engaged in all of these activities instead of protecting himself against them. The reason that Azat does what he does, Karoy suggests, is that this is simply how this place and its people operate. The dark thoughts he possesses have deep roots and they seem as timeless as the dark cavities of the Kazakh landscape. By making her film about deep-seeded violence and despair, Isabaeva has extended the chernukha formula in Central Asian cinema. Chernukha—the “pessimistic, naturalistic depiction of an obsession with bodily functions, sexuality (usually separate from love), and often sadistic violence, all against a backdrop of poverty, broken families, and unrelenting cynicism” (Borenstein 11)—dominated post-Soviet Russian culture during the 1990s. While the genre has faded in Russia, Karoy indicates its continued appropriateness in the cinema of Central Asia, extending the bleak portrayal of the region in recent films such as Guka Omarova's Schizo (Shiza, 2005, Kazakhstan/Russia), Talgat Asyrankulov's and Gaziz Nasyrov's The Birds of Paradise (Raiskie ptitsy, 2006, Kyrgyzstan/Kazakhstan), and Djamshed Usmonov's To Get to Heaven, First You Have to Die (Chtoby popast' v rai, ty dolzhen umeret' [Bihisht faqat baroi murdagon], 2006, Tajikistan/France). Isabaeva's film carries the pessimism even further, however, offering no escape for Azat or anyone else from the dark cavities or their dark thoughts.

Karoy is equally bleak in its message about Kazakhstan's national image. When Azat's mother talks about the importance of the Indian film she saw, she claims that India must be “a fantastic country where people always dance, smile, and sing, where their hearts are open and full of joy.” Watching that film, she tells her son, was an act of discovery, for the Bollywood production allowed her “to discover India for myself.” For Azat and his family, the sheer joy exhibited in Bollywood films must be “proof” that India is a joyful, happy land. By invoking the idea that watching a foreign film serves as an act of discovery, Isabaeva implicitly compares the “fantastic India” to the “dark cavity” of Kazakhstan. She has made this comparison more explicit in interviews, where she has declared the film “anti-commercial,” one that would only have limited screenings in Kazakhstan and, therefore, make its money through foreign rights (see Evdokimenko). Traveling to Kazakhstan through the eyes of Azat is simultaneously beautiful and ugly, for Isabaeva combines panoramic shots of the landscape with the violence enacted on it throughout the film. Kazakhs do not dance, smile, or sing; they live meager lives where deception, crime, alcoholism, and depravity run riot. Karoy 's presentation of Kazakhstan contrasts starkly with Nazarbayev's optimistic claims that the country is a modern, cosmopolitan “heart of Eurasia.” The black cavities of the land are not the new buildings of Astana or the Baiterek, but desolate lands that cannot be understood atop the monument. Karoy itself as a physical space is deeply resonant, for it not only is located near the new capital, but also near Karaganda, a prison city built in the 1930s by convicts from nearby Gulag camps. While Karaganda today, as Kate Brown has described it, contains “no sign of the gulag's secrecy” and the human suffering it wrote into the urban landscape (17), Karoy is different. Azat's dark thoughts are a product of this harsh environment and Isabaeva suggests that human suffering is permanently inscribed into this landscape and that it will remain. When Azat walks off into the sunset, it is, therefore, a walk back into the cycle of violence he has helped to sustain and to spread.

Stephen M. Norris
Miami University (OH)

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Works Cited

Borenstein, Eliot. Overkill: Sex and Violence in Contemporary Russian Popular Culture. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2008.
Brown, Kate. “Gridded Lives: Why Kazakhstan and Montana are Nearly the Same Place.” American Historical Review 106.1 (February 2001): 17-48.
Evdokimenko, Kseniia. “Zhanna Isabaeva, Kinorezhisser: Kommercheskoe kino—eto rabstvo.” Time.kz (31 October 2007).
Kononenko, Natalie and Svitlana Kukharenko. “Borat the Trickster: Folklore and Media, Folklore in the Media” Slavic Review 67.1 (Spring 2008): 8-18.
Starobin, Paul. “Sultan of the Steppes.” Atlantic Monthly 296.5 (December 2005): 98-104.

Karoy, Kazakhstan, 2007.
Color, 95 minutes.
Director: Zhanna Isabaeva
Scriptwriter: Zhanna Issabaeva
Cinematographer: Renat Kossay
Art Director: Sabit Kurmanbekov
Sound Editor: Il'ia Biserov
Make-up: Natal'ia Skidanova
Cast: Erzhan Tusupov, Rimkesh Omarkhanova, Aiman Aimagambetova, Kadirbek Demesin, Gulnazid Omarova
Executive Producers: Mira Sadikova, Dina Nurmukhanova
Producers: Zhanna Isabaeva, Batyrzhan Nurshanov
Production: Sun Production with WorkStation Production House

Zhanna Issabaeva: Karoy (2007)

reviewed by Stephen M. Norris© 2008