Abai Kulbai: Strizh (2007)

reviewed by Elena Stishova© 2008

400 Blows: Abai Kulbai's Strizh (2007)

Unlike the generation of his teachers, Abai Kulbai, a young director from Kazakhstan who was a student of Ardak Amirkulov, the maître of Kazakh cinema, has not feasted with the brotherhood at the State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK) in Moscow. Although he is a typical representative of the post-Soviet generation, his debut film Strizh belongs to the genre of “schoolroom tales,” which was so popular in Soviet cinema. It is possible to link Kulbai to François Truffaut (400 Blows, 1959) or Robert Bresson (Mouchette, 1967), especially since it is much more likely that he watched French rather than Soviet film classics while he was studying. Nonetheless, Strizh, even with its Bresson-type of hardness, is genetically closer specifically to the “schoolroom tale,” a genre invented by Soviet cinema that did not outlive the time that gave the genre its existence. The genre of the “schoolroom tale” lived only as long as it could serve as a model of real life and provide the opportunity to pose the most pointed (and in no way childish) questions behind the guise of a schoolroom mise-en-scène: Iulii Raizman's And What if this is Love? (A esli eto liubov'?, 1961), Stanislav Rostotskii's We'll Live Till Monday (Dozhivem do ponedel'nika, 1968), Rolan Bykov's Scarecrow (Chuchelo, 1983). I can't even remember the last time I saw a classroom on the Russian screen. Could it be that it was back in 1988 when two scandalous films—Isaak Fridberg's The Doll (Kukolka) and El'dar Riazanov's Dear Elena Sergeevna (Dorogaia Elena Sergeevna)—came out one after the other and, so to say, put an end to this theme? Clearly teenagers did not abandon the territory of Russian cinema simply because the empirical reality of childhood and adolescence—and the experience of school that is linked to them—disappeared from the screen. Although the number of homeless children (besprizornye) in the new Russia has exceeded that of the Civil War, the law about a mandatory middle-school education has not been repealed. Children are required to study in school and their parents must facilitate this process. So what is the matter? Why have Russian filmmakers ceased to address such rich material?

The taboo, in my view, must be sought in the realm of the subconscious. The ban on this theme arose because of the filmmakers' collective rejection of ideology and moralizing, the life-sustaining elements of the “schoolroom tale” genre. And since Russian cinema most of all fears being suspected of moralizing, of mentoring—the deadly sins ascribed to Soviet cinema—and since it has made its niche outside of morality, then it is unable to grapple with those realities that are intimately linked to society. This lies at the root of the new escapism in Russian cinema.

But this young Kazakh filmmaker does not suffer in the least from such complexes. Kulbai has stated his reasons for making the film openly in his interviews: he is concerned about society's relationship to people like his heroine, Ainur. “The question about why she is so aggressively inclined should not be addressed to her but to the adult world, which is answerable for her condition,” claims the director. The debut filmmaker has thrown down the gauntlet to society. Yet throughout the film, this challenge remains within the framework of an aesthetic goal.

The title of the film, Strizh (literally “shorn” or “cut”) emerges in front of the viewer's eyes in the episode in the barbershop, where Ainur gets a radical, extremely short haircut. She arrives in her classroom wearing a baseball cap and asks the teacher to allow her to wear it. Out of simple mischief, her classmate pulls off her baseball cap and writes “Shorn Bitch” (strizhenaia suka) on it with a magic marker (can't wash that off!). Ainur runs out of the classroom and uses white-out to blot the writing, leaving only five letters—“shorn.” She becomes a tousled bird, confrontationally ruffling her feathers in case of an attack. She is so accustomed to being slapped that almost out of inertia she defends herself by attacking first, delivering a preventive blow with her forehead on the nose. Her father taught her that.

Her Russian father has not lived with the family for a long time; her mother has married another man, a Kazakh, and is pregnant. This other man drinks on the sly. What in the world drew the mother to him? But it seems that binge drinking is a customary thing. Ainur visits her birth father and states in a bored voice that “everything is normal” at home; that her mother had given the stepfather money to buy sneakers but he simply used them for booze, etc.

The viewer never sees Ainur inside her own home. She is a child of the streets. The inconspicuous little house, hiding behind the metal fence of the old city, has not become a hearth for her, next to which she could warm her soul, chilled by the winds of total indifference and humiliating injuries. The couple of days in this girl's life that are represented on the screen will pass on the streets and in the backyards of a large city, whose layout she has learned over the years of her enforced wanderings. She has become accustomed to painting her nails while squatting, to killing time on a bench in an empty park, to buying cheap fast food at kiosks, to grubbing cigarettes from her girlfriends on the fly, to watching a student friend, a drug addict, greedily sniff glue, to fighting anyone who has hurt her, and to taking the full force of the blows from stronger opponents.

Is she a victim of circumstances? There is not a whiff of the theme of victimhood in the film. The director is not trying to squeeze out any pity. More than that: his heroine is no prize. Psychologists would say that she is a “difficult adolescent” suffering from deviant behavior. Tightly wound, depressed, abrupt, pushing away any out-stretched hand, she invariably chooses solitude, not wanting to burden anyone with her presence. She gives in only once, when she accepts the invitation of a fellow classmate, in an attempt to get close to her, to ride the funicular. For the first time, Ainur is able to see the city from above, to make out her own little house. Shot with a fish-eye lens, Almaty is fantastically distorted by the optics, making it appear to be some kind of ancient fossil, long ago abandoned by reasonable beings. The urban landscape is enlivened by high-tech high-rises—capitalism's new building sites—by round glass towers. The girls dream out loud, voicing their hope of someday moving into one of the towers. That would be cool!

Ainur will have to pay even for the pleasure of this brief excursion: right after the stroll, her girlfriend can't find her money and accuses Ainur of stealing it. This is a heavy blow for the girl, but not the last one. Her classmate's betrayal propels her to commit senseless acts. She does not spend the night at home, wanders around the city, dumps her bag near some shop. But the world is not without kind people. A Gastarbeiter from Tajikistan turns out to be such a well-doer: in his very small room she finds a table, shelter, and human warmth. But, once again on the street, Ainur encounters a taxi driver at night , who asks her to help “for a second,” to hold up a passenger on his legs who cannot stand, while he himself ignobly drives away, leaving the girl alone with a drunk. And this is the guy who drags Ainur into that very same round tower that had seemed to her to be the palace of sky-dwellers when she saw it from the window of the funicular. He rapes; she is paralyzed with fear and despair. For the first time, the heroine's voice is heard in a voice-over, as she suddenly sees herself from the side and recognizes the horror of what is happening.

She will find the strength to leave the tower, overcoming the temptation to slit the throat of her sleeping rapist, and will find herself in her father's house. He will inform her that her mother is in the birth clinic and has already given birth. And Ainur, swept away by the good news will race off to see her mother, barely aware of the road, and clutching a bottle of juice. She experiences genuine spiritual joy, an onset of euphoria; en route she has visions of a happy family with a newborn in their arms. And a sober stepfather. And her birth father in a suit. And everyone is waiting for her. Just for her…

Her journey will end with a shot of a car, its brakes screeching and barely avoiding ramming into Ainur. She falls onto the shoulder of the road, next to the puddle of juice from the broken bottle. A crowd gathers, the people are distraught; someone tries to call an ambulance. But Ainur, recovering from shock, loudly proclaims “I'm alive!”

The finale of the film cannot be considered a “happy end” in any way. Everything is much more serious. It is a conceptual end, prompting the viewer to return to the beginning in order to evaluate the director's image of the heroine. She is resurrected from non-being after enduring a series of trials. An existential drama can be seen behind the social drama that Kulbai spoke of in the interview: the drama of a fourteen-year-old girl, no longer a child, but not yet a formed adult, onto whose shoulders has fallen the not-so-childish weight of the events represented on screen. This world has in no way provided her with the gift of love, family warmth, and a strong home front. And school has poured cold water on her, with its indifference and the humiliating exposure of her poverty… Society has shunted the girl to the sidelines, rejected her, casting her out as a pariah. And she has taken on this role; her revenge is to mock herself and everyone around her.

The psychology underlying the heroine's behavior is revealed visually, with plasticity, through the angular and nervous mimesis of the actress, Inna Kislova, a student in Almaty. Her androgynous appearance—a girl-boy—is emphasized by her clothing, unchanged through the film: jeans, a jacket, a baseball cap twisted to the side. Passersby take her for a boy, while the girl with whom she rides the funicular suddenly kisses her on the lips. Ainur is shocked: “what am I? A guy or something?” It is clear that the friend senses an alternative sexuality in her but is incapable of explaining it.

In a word, the non-actress girl turned out to be the ideal protagonist for the film and succeeded in fulfilling the complex tasks set by the director for the finale. Kulbai brings his heroine to catharsis, intuitively building on Dostoevskii's insight, expressed in a wonderful formula: “being exists only when it is threatened by non-being.” Ainur found herself on the edge of the abyss in that glass tower, but she was not destroyed by the years of violence, and a natural desire to live breaks out and resurrects her spirit. This is how the film's finale must be understood, as it pushes aside the realistic filmmaking techniques of Strizh (cinematic observation, devices of non-fiction cinema) into the realm of metaphysical cinema. The concrete plot with its social overtones is integrated into the space of the eternal theme of the spiritual transformation of a person. To quote Fedor Tiutchev: “The soul cannot endure happiness, but it can endure itself.”

Translated by Vladimir Padunov

Elena Stishova
Iskusstvo kino, Moscow

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Strizh, Kazakhstan, 2007
Color, 80 minutes, 16mm and video
Director: Abai Kulbai
Scriptwriters: Abai Kulbai, Eugénie Zvonkine
Cinematography: Aleksandr Kostylev
Art Director: Aleksei Shindin
Sound Producer: Aliia Myrzasheva
Cast: Inessa Kislova, Anar Kakenova, Merlen Kaldybalin, Lyazzat Aidarova, Bakhytzhan Al'peisov, Maksim Pupisov, Marzhan Kazybaeva
Producer: Sergei Azimov
Production: Kazakhfilm

Abai Kulbai: Strizh (2007)

reviewed by Elena Stishova© 2008