Khuat Akhmetov: Wind-Man (Chelovek-veter, 2007)

reviewed by José Alaniz © 2008

Khuat Akhmetov's Wind-Man, a “poetic parable” in a magical realist vein, adapts a short story by Gabriel Garcia- Márquez, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” (“Un señor muy viejo con unas alas enormes,” 1955), resetting it in a small village (aul) in the Kazakh steppe. The story involves an odd creature fallen from the sky during an electrical storm: a frail old man with wings (Igor' Iasulovich). Discovered by Almat (Kuandyk Kystykbaev) in his shed, the newcomer—who speaks no known language—asks for nothing; he only remains fearfully in his enclosure as the villagers gather to gawk.

Despite his passivity, the old man soon challenges the locals' beliefs and values. Is he an angel, as claimed by the amateur scientist and Koranic scholar Domulla (Erdolat Ospankulov)? Is he one of Satan's minions, as argued by the village mullah (Bekzhan Turys), who cites the creature's inability to understand “Allah's language”? Or is the unfortunate creature some sort of human oddity, the result of nuclear testing? Meanwhile, a menacing veiled figure haunts the periphery of the village, picking off those unfortunate enough to run into him, causing hysteria and panic. Is the faceless man Madar, the Angel of Death from ancient Persian myth, who “kills with a gaze”?

Akhmetov and his co-writer Odelsha Agishev utilize Márquez's plot as a device to comment on issues central to post-Soviet Kazakhstan: the endurance of corruption among state officials (all of whom behave odiously and foolishly); the resurgence of Islam (the film begins with a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer); and the threats that a new, “anything goes” economy poses to traditional ways of life. In its resolution and moral, though, the film departs sharply from Márquez's story, which advances a more complex satire on greed and kindness. Instead, Wind-Man takes every opportunity to laud the “common people,” most of whose actions tend toward the simplistic and “kind”—the better to contrast them with the mendacity of those who govern them.

In a characteristic episode, the regional bigwig Khokim (Farkhad Abdraimov) is summoned from “the town” to examine and pronounce judgment on the mysterious visitor. He refuses to leave his limo until the sun shines—whereupon the locals shoot a canon into the heavens and the clouds disperse. When he emerges, the enormously obese, bald, white-suited Khokim resembles a 1920s Viktor Deni caricature of a fat capitalist (or, a bit further afield, Spiderman's nemesis The Kingpin). When he demands to see the “angel” fly, the local sergeant pokes the old man with a red-hot branding iron to get him airborne. Unlike the hero in Márquez's story, who himself does the branding, in this film Almat tries to intervene in the cruelty.

Despite the hurricane-force winds generated by the creature's wings, he is soon forgotten, as Khokim gets to the real matter at hand: drunkenly carousing while his cronies rob the people blind. A truck laden with loot follows his limo as he leaves the next morning. Later, in an act of petty revenge, the sergeant sets fire to Almat's house—blaming the disaster on the marauding Madar. The message is unmistakable: the government at all levels is criminal, the people ever its victims.

Wind-Man competed in the 2007 Kinotavr Festival, the XV Vyborg “Window to Europe” Film Festival, as well as the Montreal, Telluride, and Almaty Film Festivals. At Vyborg, Akhmetov received the Savva Kulish Award for “Creative Search” and scriptwriter Agishev garnered the Andrei Tarkovskii Award for “Consistency in Work and a Creation of Philosophical and Poetical Literature in Cinema.” The film conforms to Kazakh critic Gul'nara Abikeeva's observation on recent Central Asian cinema:

Since the Soviet myths were discarded the cinematographers of Central Asia turned their heads to the archetypes of their cultures… The archetypes grew into myths, the myths evolved into a new epic. The modern cinema of Central Asia, relying on the past perception of the world, was poised to replace pseudo-Soviet myths with a new if old epic of their cultures. Over ten years of independence, unlike, say, in Russian cinema, a certain new cultural venue was created with its own myths and characters and with a particular time and space. [1]

At least as evidenced in Wind-Man, these “archetypes” and “new epics” partake as much of world as local culturemes. On the one hand, Akhmetov lays special emphasis on Islamic tropes, as well as Kazakh, Uzbek, Tajik, and Persian myths to “fill in” the story. As he explained to an interviewer:

The Koran speaks that when a person dies, angels descend to retrieve his soul. If the person lived a righteous life, then these angels appear in white clothing, they are very beautiful, they radiate light and a pleasant fragrance. But if the person lived a wicked life, committed sins, then different angels appear: they are old and horrific, dressed in rags, and give off a foul odor. Odelsha Agishev and I discussed this theme, and an idea was born … (Sagintaeva ).

Thus, the film counterposes the “good,” life-affirming figure of the old man with the “evil” angel of death, Madar. Yet even Abikeeva, in her own writing on the film, notes that the producers sought to create “our own Kazakh Macondo” (referring to Márquez's mythical setting, partly based on his own hometown of Aracataca, Columbia, for his 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude). She also compares the film to Bakhtiiar Khudoinazarov's Luna Papa (Lunnyi papa, Russia, 1999) and notes the influence of Emir Kusturica's “Balkan style” on the film (Abikeeva [ ] ). I would add that its approach to remote village life recalls that of Marina Razbezhkina's Harvest Time (Vremia zhatvy, Russia, 2003), rather than the decidedly less sentimental Little Old Ladies (Starukhi; dir. Gennadii Sidorov, Russia, 2003) with its foul-mouthed babushki. The “angel” is also modeled on the Russian holy fool (among his miracles is raising the dead), standing in for the pure soul corrupted and trampled in the material world. And even when discussing the Madar myth, Akhmetov cites Jorge Luis Borges' treatment of it in his short story “Hakim, the Masked Dyer of Merv” (“El tintorero enmascarado Hákim de Merv,” 1935). Finally, the film's overall tone and theme (a defenseless celestial visitor befriended by a cute kid) and polished special effects recall such international hits such as E.T. (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1982) and X-Men: The Last Stand (Brett Ratner, USA, 2006), which features the Angel, a superhero with wings.

We arrive, then, at a transnational mélange. The Moscow-based Akhmetov, whose previous film was the thriller Passenger Without Luggage (Passazhir bez bagazha, Russia, 2003), paints a picture of his native country both stereotypical and suffused with “alien” content—though this seems to have made it no less the crowd-pleaser at various festivals. In line with this, Rufkat Ibragimov's award-winning cinematography and the perhaps overly glamorous leads all make for an eye-pleasing but romanticized, “mainstream” depiction of aul life.

For all that, Wind-Man seems oddly anachronistic. Akhmetov mentions that the script was written in 1995; its use of stereotypical figures like the “party boss” and terms like “comrades” (tovarishchi) and “member of the party” date it to an earlier era.

The film also serves as an interesting example of transcultural adaptation: Catholic prayers in Márquez's story are replaced by Muslim orations; women by men; a darker view of “ordinary folks” by a kinder, gentler, more sentimentalized vision. There is a humorous “Sovietization” of the source material: at one point the authorities laud the angel as an aid to the economy who will produce “a new people, winged people!”—among their ostensible duties, the winged people will deliver mail and fly reconnaissance missions, the village chair speculates. There is even a quotation of the famous saber slashing the screen from The Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, USSR, 1925). Wind-Man serves, too, as an object lesson in the ham-handed application of magical realism: the villagers hunting Madar with “mirror goggles” (to inoculate them, Perseus-like, from his lethal gaze) simply look ridiculous.

On the level of aesthetics, Akhmetov's film has a fascinating horizontality that parallels the flatness of the steppe: planes taxi but don't fly; figures cross the landscape almost as if hugging it; anything that tries to gain altitude fails (the angel, Almat's son); things topple from the sky (like a satellite or rocket in the film's seemingly tacked-on ending). Only the minaret, made out of an impressive village tree, looms over the land—a marker of man's aspiration to reach heaven.

José Alaniz
University of Washington, Seattle

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Notes

1] For a more somber assessment of Kazakh cinema's economic hurdles, see Padunov.


Works Cited

Abikeeva, Gul'nara. “Chelovek-veter.” Nachnem s ponedel'nika (10-16 August 2007).

—. “ What is the Phenomenon of the Central Asian Cinema?” Kinokultura (Special Issue 1, 2004) .

Padunov, Vladimir. “Stars Above Almaty: Kazakh Cinema Between 1998 and 2003.” Kinokultura 3 (January 2004).

Sagintaeva, Roza. “Veriu v angelov” (interview with Khuat Atmetov). Novoe Pokolenie (2007).

 


Wind-Man, Russia, 2007
Color, 96 minutes
Director: Khuat Akhmetov
Screenplay: Odelsha Agishev and Khuat Akhmetov
Cinematography: Rufkat Ibragimov
Composer: Iurii Poteenko
Production Designer: Negmar Dzhurayev
Cast: Igor' Iasulovich, Kuandyk Kystykbaev, Ayana Esmagambetova, Farkhad Abdullaev, Gul'nara Dusmatova
Producers: Rauf Atamalibekov and Stanislav Ershov
Production: United Multimedia Projects Film Company and Gor'kii Film Studio, with support from the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema

Khuat Akhmetov: Wind-Man (Chelovek-veter, 2007)

reviewed by José Alaniz © 2008

Updated: 13 Jul 08