Akhan Sataev: Racketeer (Reketir, 2007)

reviewed by Joe Crescente© 2008

After knocking out his opponent with one swift blow at a boxing match in Almaty, 1993, Sayan Bekorimov (Isembaev) attracts the attention of Ruslan (Bisembin), an up-and-coming racketeer. Faced with few alternatives in a bleak post-Soviet environment, Sayan drops out of the institute he worked so hard to gain entrance to, and joins Ruslan's criminal entourage.

Racketeer stands in direct contrast to the recent cinematic imaginings of Central Asia undertaken with especial vigor by Sergei Bodrov Sr., whose recent films Mongol (2007) and The Nomad (Kochevniki, with Ivan Passer and Talgat Temenov, 2005) present a Central Asian past wrought with conflict and territorial disputes. Racketeer, on the other hand, presents a Central Asian present wrought with conflict and territorial disputes.

The territory now being fought over includes markets, casinos, and factories, places decidedly far from the steppe. In Kazakhstan, the territory of culture is also a legitimate battleground as confirmed by a statement by the then Minister of Culture and Information of Kazakhstan, Ermukhamet Ertisbaev, that President Nursultan Nazarbaev “maintains close scrutiny” over domestic film production (Kazakhvud-2030, 2006). Perhaps most significant about Racketeer is that it is one of the few feature films in post-Soviet Kazakhstan that was funded entirely without government money.

Racketeer is the biography of Sayan, a young man trying to prosper amidst hardship in post-Soviet Kazakhstan. Born in the late Soviet era, he was raised by “typical intelligent people” who tried to give him a “normal Soviet upbringing.” At age 12 his father takes him to the gym to begin boxing training because, his father says, every boy must know how to defend himself. Sayan rises to city champion and finally national champion.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union Sayan's parents become unemployed and many people around him feel humiliated as they struggle to survive. His helpless father turns to drink, while his mother is forced to sell her personal wares on the street. When Sayan passes the entrance exam for higher education, he observes the rejection of a female friend in favor of a neighborhood boy with a car; this convinces Sayan to quit the institute and accept Ruslan's offer (he wins the girl's affections again later in the film after he is successful and she is a divorcée).

Sayan states that he has always been good with his fists. He rejects what he learned at the institute for what he learned in the ring, as that knowledge in early 1990's Almaty was more valuable. His first assignment is to collect money from Abu, the owner of a pub frequented by unemployed drunks. He approaches the situation fearlessly, taking out Abu's three thugs effortlessly and ensuring that Abu is forced to accept the “protection” of Ruslan's crew. Sayan immensely enjoys the company of Ruslan and the new society he is inducted into. He clearly admires his vision, thinking that “Ruslan only looks forward” .

“Ruslan & Co.” as Sayan euphemistically refers to the enterprise, quickly begins to prosper after joining forces with Zhan (Baizhanbaev), an ambitious young Kazakh businessman. In exchange for protecting Zhan's interests and introducing him to a Russian business partner (Vdovichenkov) they are to acquire a large share in Zhan's new factory. After years of service fending off threats from rival criminal groups and a competing factory that wants to procure Zhan's share of the market, Zhan becomes distant and makes no communication with Ruslan for two months. Concerned, Ruslan confronts Zhan in his office, where it is revealed that he has acquired a new partner and no longer needs the services of Ruslan and his entourage. Blaming poor market conditions, Zhan proposes to buy Ruslan off for a one-time sum of $200,000. Insulted, Ruslan abruptly leaves the negotiations. He is killed shortly thereafter in his apartment.

Sayan, the heir-apparent, takes control of the organization. Zhan does not make an appearance at Ruslan's funeral, fueling already tacit suspicion that he was responsible for his murder. After the burial Sayan sees Aman, a former associate, who has just been released after serving ten years for murder. While in prison, he had found Islam. While driving with Sayan after the funeral on the way to a mosque, Aman stoically muses about the lessons he learned in prison:

You know Sayan, I met many people in prison. There was an old man. He told me many things. He taught me to endure and to treat life as it was with contentment. You know every man has a bowl over his head. That bowl fills with all the injustices that person does. Someday that bowl might overflow. And all that evil will pour out on that person. […] A word of advice brother. Be wary before taking action. Do as you think you should…Mind you that nobody is going to blame you for anything.

Sayan does not know what he should do. In contrast to the steady Ruslan, who only looks forward, a trait that Sayan greatly admired in him, he is fraught with indecision. “What to do” is the first decision he has to make independently of Ruslan. Initially he holds Zhan hostage and threatens to kill him, putting a gun in his mouth. But he releases him, admitting that he does not know why he did not kill him. Sayan states that he will not hide, but he knows the end is near, even if he is afraid to admit this. At the final meeting with his friends he refuses to say goodbye to them. In the midst of his wavering, he is stabbed repeatedly by several thugs in a dimly lit parking lot. This scene is reminiscent of the final scene of Rashid Nugmanov's The Needle (Igla, 1989), a cult film starring Viktor Tsoi and the most important film of the so-called Kazakh New Wave, where Moro (Tsoi) is stabbed by a drug dealer he tries to put out of business on a snowy road. In Racketeer, the camera zooms to Sayan's face as he ponders his final thoughts:

That's it. That's my life. Nothing special. If I had a chance to live it again, would I choose another path? I don't know. Anyway, it was too late to change anything. I guess my bowl was overblown.

Racketeer was filmed over the course of three months, using a mostly amateur cast, and had a budget of $800,000. Murat Bisembin, who deftly and convincingly plays Ruslan, the calm, but ruthless criminal boss, worked as a security guard at a consulate in Almaty prior to filming. Newcomer Saken Aminov brilliantly depicts the rage and calm of Aman in his first major acting role. Other notable performances come from the two actors that had significant acting experience prior to the film. Zhanat Baizhanbaev is spot on in his portrayal of the slimy and morally challenged Zhan. A graduate of the Almaty Theatre Institute, Baizhanbaev appeared on the screen since the late 1980s, including the role of Timur in Vadim Abdrashitov's Armavir (1991), and has recently appeared both in Russian and Kazakh television serials and action movies, including Zinovii Roizman's criminal drama The Codex of Silence (Kodeks molchaniia, 1990) and the sequel (and TV version) The Codex of Silence 2 (Kodeks molchaniia 2: Sled chernoi ryby, 1993), and Andrei Kravchuk's Russian television series Gentlemen-Officers (Gospoda ofitsery, 2004). Veteran Kazakh actor Mentai Utepbergenov shines in his brief role as the intimidating criminal boss that joins forces with Zhan, eliminating Ruslan's stake in the enterprise. A collector of cinema paraphernalia, including stamps, posters and pins (collections he has made available in print publications), Utepbergenov starred in cameo roles in such films as Petr Todorovskii's late-Soviet classic Intergirl (Interdevochka, 1989) and Leonid Gaidai's comedies The Private Detective or Operation Cooperation (Chastnyi detektiv, ili operatsiia 'kooperatsiia', 1990) and There's Good Weather on Deribasovskaia (Na Deribasovskoi khoroshaia pogoda…, 1992).

Comparisons to other regional criminal dramas are inevitable. In nearly every review of Racketeer there are ubiquitous comparisons to the classics of the primarily Russian genre, namely Bimmer (Bumer, 2003) and The Brigade (Brigada, 2002). Vladimir Vdovichenkov, a familiar face of Russian cinema who has a diminutive role in the film as the Russian partner, had major roles in both of the afore-mentioned enterprises. Indeed, it seems he was cast to enable parallels with the genre as well as to ensure distribution on the Russian film market.

As a genre piece, Racketeer is effective. The film's brisk pace, coupled with an emphasis on showing recognizable scenes of street life in Almaty, and a decidedly unromantic, though realistic depiction of post-Soviet life in Kazakhstan made it a popular feature upon release, which grossed over $1 million at the box office. The violence is detailed, but not overwhelming. Sayan's relationship with Esel (Sagatova) is a convincing love story that is fraught with tragedy, namely the miscarriage of their child. While the film's primary language is Russian, there are a number of lines spoken in Kazakh, primarily to authenticate business transactions between Kazakhs and exchange pleasantries.

One particularly ordinary scene in the film occurs when Sayan reunites with several old classmates at a pub. One has just returned from study in America, while another occupies a high position at a bank. He admits to himself that he has nothing in common with these people anymore. While not judging them, he feels uncomfortable in their company. They have their lives and I have mine, he thinks. This scene, if anything, normalizes Sayan even further. The protagonist for the most part is not a flashy, manic, trigger-happy gangster, but a rather humble and quite normal guy from Almaty. While most men around him drink and smoke compulsively, Sayan enjoys orange juice and the occasional marijuana cigarette.

Prior to filming Racketeer, director Akhan Sataev was engaged in shooting advertisements. For his first feature he wanted to make a film that was commercially viable as well as entertaining to Kazakh audiences. Above all, he wanted to make a film that viewers of his generation, those born in the 1970s, would connect with.

Choosing modern Kazakhstan as a setting is a risky move according to film critic Oleg Boretskii. He states that, “in Kazakhstan right now the historical genre is very popular. There is nothing shameful here, simply our (Kazakh) directors really don't know what it means make modern cinema…Without a doubt it is easier to shoot a nostalgic film, easier to go away there into the past, as a failure to see the present” (Kazakhvud-2030, 2006). In modern Kazakh cinema, for better or worse Sataev took the road less traveled – and the film won the prize of Audience Sympathies at the V Eurasia IFF in Astana in 2008.

Joe Crescente
New York University

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Works Cited

Kazakhvud-2030. zona.kz 10 October 2006.

Kudriavtsev, Sergei. “Ne plach' v doroge (Zametki o sovremennom kazakhskom kino)” km.ru, 28 February 2003.

Shimyrbaeva, Galiia “'Reketiry', ili popadanie v desiatku,” Kazakhstanskaia Pravda, 1 November 2007.

Vlasenko, Ol'ga. “Za vse nado platit',” Ekspert (Kazakhstan), 16 July 2007.


Racketeer, Kazakhstan 2007
Color, 80 min.
Director: Akhan Sataev
Script: Timur Zhaksylykov
Producer: Azamat Il’iasov and Akhan Sataev
Cinematography by Khasan Kydyraliev
Composer: Andrei Lifinskii
Production Design: Bopesh Zhandaev
Cast: Sayat Isembaev, Murat Bisembin, Zhanat Baizhanbaev, Asel’ Sagatova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Mentai Utepbergenov, Saken Aminov
Production: SataiFilm

Akhan Sataev: Racketeer (Reketir, 2007)

reviewed by Joe Crescente© 2008

Updated: 27 Sep 08