KinoKultura: Issue 24 (2009)

New ‘New’ Wave Filmmakers Welcome Their Audiences’ Discomfort: Kazakh and Kyrgyz Youth Films

By Jane Knox-Voina (Bowdoin College)

“…But we are European!”[1]

The 2008 Eurasia Film Festival in Astana shifted away from its former international emphases to focus on Central Asian cinema, all under a new motto: “Window onto Central Asia.” This was done in the hope that the “outside film world would turn its attention to the new standards of cinema” here on the Silk Road, says Gulnara Abikeeva, Artistic Director of the Eurasia International Film Festival (Turarbekkyzy, “Events…”). Inna Smailova describes the orientation of this year’s festival in a similar spirit, saying: “On the one hand, the program of Eurasia IFF emphasizes the ethnographical identity of all republics; on the other, it reflects their social and political environments, too.” (Smailova) This is clearly seen in a new group of films: full and short features by young Kazakh and Kyrgyz directors anxious to record both their generation and their own life. This new focus on youth is, of course, more in keeping with the equally novel spirit of the young capital Astana.

It is impossible to overlook a similarity between these new, youthful films and former New Wave cinemas, for example, in France (1950s-60s), in Russia (1960s) and, of course, in Kazakhstan (1980s-90s). In Astana low-budget student films have once again emerged as favorites among the young population. Will this new generation repeat the earlier cultural phenomenon of 1984, that special class of young Kazakh and other Central Asian filmmakers (trained at VGIK in Moscow) who led the way for unique potentials with their debut films that became box-office hits? Is this new group repeating the experimental low-budget films of Rashid Nugmanov and others who then, according to Forrest Ciesol, produced “refreshingly inventive” films that alternate[d] “between the burlesque and the rejection or acceptance of genre conventions... [films that showed how] the power and emphasis of the republic’s filmmaking … had shifted abruptly to the young” (Ciesol 58)?

In the opinion of many viewers and critics alike, this year’s Eurasia Film Festival recalls the period some twenty years ago, when, stressing both their own independence and that of Kazakh cinema, “film students became the representatives of a young artistic intelligentsia.” (Abikeeva). Instead of million-dollar budgets and extensive on-site locations where whole villages are reconstructed with hundreds of extras for mass battle scenes, “new wave” cinema has appeared in the form of very low-budget, independent student films with non-professional actors. They are often made with the help of small private video studios. All one needs, it seems, is a camera, a group of friends, and the city itself whose busy streets and real-world interiors (apartments, cafes, or bars) set the scene. Such movies remind us of Aleksei Uchitel’’s new-wave Russian film, The Stroll (Progulka, 2006), which was shot entirely on the streets of St. Petersburg.

salamatIn Astana, the new young Kazakh director, Daniyar Salamat, took center stage with his debut Together with Father (Vdvoem s otsom), which received three prizes simultaneously: “Best Director” and “Best Actor” (Bakhytzhan Alpeisov, who played the father Karim in the film), as well as the NETPAC award. This full feature clearly differs from big-budget blockbusters with their special effects, large casts, and elaborate settings, now the signature of many the older filmmakers. One critic, when leaving this film’s press conference, noted caustically: “What an unfinished piece of work (syroi film)!” Perhaps this “greenness” was due not just to youth and inexperience, but rather to a new outlook on film. After all, this reminds us of other Kazakh directors at the beginning of their own careers.

Salamat provides a lackluster look at the seamier side of “life in the city”: this is naturalism in the strictest sense of the word. Abikeeva writes about Together with Father:

…we find something here from the films of “Kazakh New Wave.” The heroes are not afraid to be simple Kazakhs with their weaknesses, with their familial or money-related problems. This is not a golden stratum of society that rides around in jeeps. For the heroes of this film there’s insufficient money for even basic, public transportation […] it's better to be together with father, than without him. This, it seems, is a picture of yourself “as you are,” pure and simple. With the ability to love yourself and your people—as they are. It’s good that we have found a director who—without shame or staginess—talks about contemporary society. In my view, we’ve discovered a new name in Kazakh film. I would even say that a second Serik Aprymov has been born! (Abikeeva, 20)

In assessing the phenomenon of new, young filmmakers and their brand of cinematography, their ties to—or rejection of—the mentors who preceded them, it is necessary to look deeper into the problems and ailments of post-Soviet urban centers. While the urban environment of Kazakh cities like Almaty and Astana is certainly a far cry from the larger metropolises of Moscow or St. Petersburg, some of the same psychological problems of any city are apparent in post-Soviet space as a whole. “A peculiar character of contemporary urban topography [resides in] the quintessentially postmodern state of social and historical fragmentation. ‘The individual human body’ has been losing the capacity to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively map its position with a mappable external” (Jameson, 83).

Personal fragmentation and disorientation are endemic to all the large cities of the former Soviet Republics, and certainly Almaty is no exception. Encroaching globalism has spawned a sense of marginalization for some, and particularly for the youth. The emptying or reconstruction of national spaces after the collapse of Communism has resulted in a sense of loss: a confusion of identity. A resulting psychological instability has caused both significant inner turmoil and alienation from a society in which the youngest generation has not found its rightful place.

Earlier films that concerned the theme of maturation, such as Leila’s Prayer (Molitva Leily, 2002),Guka Omarova’s Schizo (2004), Nariman Turebaev’s Small People (Malen’kie liudi, 2005), or Abai Kulbai’s Strizh (2007), reflected a Kazakh younger generation that suffered from cultural amnesia on a grand scale.  This included a loss of traditional family values, including their own language, and an anti-romantic alienation or “asthenic” syndrome (Shipilova). Young people are often alienated within their urban surroundings or misguided by its negative influences, straying unavoidably into criminal activity, purely in order to survive. What we have in Almaty and Astana, perhaps, are divided, so-called “asphalt children,” a term coined by Omarova to describe her hero, Schizo. This is a generation who no longer feels connected to a traditional rural or Asian past. It seeks to create, however artificially, a new hybrid modern or global identity, and does so by turning to the West in order to fill the surrounding emptiness. It is these same asphalt children who are creating a new wave of Kazakh film.

As in Aprymov’s Aksuat (1999), so in young Daniyar Salamat’s film, life is once again presented “as seemingly random episodes…in fragments with an unvarnished documentary realism,” tо borrow words from Сiesol’s article on the Kazakhstan Wave (Ciesol 57). Salamat shifts attention back to the city to life turned inside out. Roles are reversed: a son is brought up not by his mother, but with a father (Bakhytzhan Alpeisov) who relies upon his 10-year old son, Baissal (Nurmakhanbet Aitenov). The boy must suffer his father's abnormal behavior, and even take care of him: his mother has gone to live with someone else who drinks heavily and beats her. Yet she can't seem to leave him and return to son or husband. Their lives are broken.

astanaThe actor Alpeisov had the following to say about dysfunctional family life in Astana and Almaty, Kazakhstan's rapidly developing, “shining new” cities: “There are many cases of lonely children or lonely single parents. This film was made for Daniyar’s generation, for the life he knows. Nowadays, many families have split up, and parents fail whenever they try starting a new path with other partners. Children vacillate like a pendulum between the two poles” (Press Conference). Another viewer wondered: “Why did Danyar not show us a happy positive life of the city?” Alpeisov’s answer was that “everything speaks for itself on the screen: we all want a holiday, but it seems to be taking place on someone else’s street.”

While feature-length genres dominated past competitions, this year they were somewhat upstaged by a second, equally important category: shorts by young filmmakers. In addition to the feature debuts of young filmmaker Daniyar Salamat and those from Uzbekistan, a whole new group of young filmmakers has appeared as part of a prominent project in Astana to compete for the Grand Prix with their shorter-length films.

Kazakh Youth Films
Harkening back to the Golden Era of artistic groups working collectively during the early years of the Soviet film industry, five graduating student-directors at the Zhurgenov Kazakh National Academy of Arts combined their shorter works as five parts of one, feature-length entry, In a City Called ‘A’ (V gorode A). The actors are all non-professionals. These five novellas are connected by one and the same theme: life as people live it in “our town.” They tell of love, disappointments, personal crisis, and a search for meaning in Almaty, the center of both art and culture for Kazakhstan. All but one of the film’s ten heroes is an artist or singer: Nariman Turebaev is the exception, as a taxi driver who witnesses and narrates this string of evolving tales. Kazakhfilm had collectively awarded Galiia Eltai, Talgat Zhanybekov, Erzhan Rustembekov, Erlan Nurmukhambetov, and Nariman Turebaev the budget for one full-length feature.  Thus everybody managed to shoot five novellas together.

As Zeinet Turarbekkyzy notes, films from the other regions of Central Asia paid more attention to plot, while Kazakh directors seemed preoccupied with genre, “form” or, somewhat bizarrely, its absence. If there is, however, anything in common between these films, it’s a new type of “dogma.” In other words, there’s an attempt to justify why these Kazakh young directors make their movies. The goal—established in hindsight—appears to be a haphazard joining of fragmented experiences, simply as life presents them. This is done without embellishment, melodrama, or flashy techniques and special effects. These young filmmakers seem intentionally to go against the grain, against the main stream of society.  They do so purposely, in order to shock their viewers. We have already established that they’re not the first Kazakh filmmakers to want to incite negative reactions in their viewers. During the festival’s discussion or roundtable sessions, older filmmakers would start shouting angrily at the young subversives: “Why is this all so ugly? Why is it so gloomy and horrible?”

At this year’s discussions in the hall—immediately following the screenings of short-length competition films—one could hear the same debates with the young Kazakh film directors. In reply the filmmakers said: “We’re not going to create a sense of comfort, because it doesn’t exist!” If the first Kazakh “Wave” filmmakers were alienated from the socialist system, today’s kindred directors are rejecting the 21st century’s consumer economy for new, wealthy Kazakhs. For many members of the young intelligentsia, life in the city seems alien, empty, meaningless, cruel, and utterly futile. If we take, for example, the character of a thief who tries to stop stealing, life won’t let him. We see as much in Serik Ibraim's film of the same name. Likewise we’re offered Kubych, an escapee from a mental hospital, or the overweight Fatso of Emir Baigazin’s Fat Shedder (Vesogonshchik) who cannot get slim enough to travel with his athletic teammates to a competition.  Ultimately he cannot join his friends who are strictly, even cruelly trained as little soldiers by a verbally abusive, insensitive trainer. Not surprisingly, someone in the audience protested: “What is this anyway? What kind of hero is this?” It comes as no surprise that the heroes of today’s young and creative artists will be “outsiders.” These are people who reject a reality that everyone else blindly accepts. They reject a system created by other people, an actuality that has no meaning for them.

At one of the open “Discussions with the Author,” an eloquent and cynical spokesman emerged for both the Kazakh “group of five” and the young Kyrgyz filmmakers. This was the loquacious Adil’khan Erzhanov, a student at the Zhurgenov Kazakh National Academy of the Arts. Without hesitation or doubt, this new enfant terrible laid out what he saw as the basic principles of young Kazakh and Kyrgyz film. He began by answering critics’ questions with a caustic, self-confident tone. For example, to the straightforward query, “Why are you making short films?” he answered: “It’s only realistic for us students to make short length films because they demand a certain laconic or minimalist style: that’s precisely the kind of freedom we have… for the time being.”

To the question, “Are you planning to make serials?” Erzhanov retorted, “I think that neither the Kazakh nor Kyrgyz mentality is disposed to do so—although other Central Asian countries both can and do. The problem here is that both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan tend to reject anything sentimental. …I consider there to be two conflicting influences on Central Asian film. First, you have an imitation of moralistic Asian film, or, basically Indian cinema. The other problem is  enthusiasm for European films, especially from France or Hollywood. You could say that our Kazakh-Kyrgyz bloc still follows the French Wave, the New Wave in particular. Moreover, all our Kazakh films fall into line with the art forms of Darezhan Omirbaev.” Omirbaev conducts Master Classes for at the Academy of Arts. He shares with his students the view that “There are more important things than one’s national culture to show in film” He rejects the newly emerging “Asian theme” in so-called Kazakh nationalist films (Knox-Voina).

What precisely do Erzhanov and his group take from their mentor and his recent work? Omirbaev pushes Academy students in new and different directions, to the short genre and to a different view of film art, shown in his recent About Love (one in a trilogy of shorts on love for a South Koreans film festival, April 2006). His first experiment shooting computer editing film shot digitally made it possible to make a film in a short period of time (two weeks) and without the financing of a big film studio.  He teaches students to focus on “still life and objects better shot on a digital camera resulting in a more pronounced texture” (Kostevich, ‘Yet again…’). Shocking and surprising audiences with a modern Kazakh rendition of Lev Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Shuga (2007), Omirbaev continues to espouse New Wave principles and his need for “a completely different system of coordinates.” No theatricality, literariness, melodramatic narratives, fanfare, beautiful extravagant sets, or “passionate actors.” “Emotions are shown with the help of the mise-en-scène, images, sounds and objects” (Kostevich ‘Yet again…’).

These principles clearly influenced the choices of Kazakh students making short films that also shocked and dissatisfied viewers. Among the shorter competition entries, Adil'khan Erzhanov’s Bakhytzhamal and Talgat Bektursynov’s 113th drew the most fire. In the post-screening discussion Erzhanov continued to set the example and tone for the other young filmmakers. In his words:

All we can do in our situation is not to make auteur cinema, but create a new laboratory or experimental genre …We are searching for a genre and the right language to establish our niche between giants: between India, Europe, and Hollywood. As they say in the Kazakh tale, we are between giants who want to gobble us up. You can accuse me for not knowing anything about our craft, and for purposely not observing any rules. You can say that I am making ‘dirty’ films, or that I’m making films that will fail. And maybe those kinds of accusations would be right. I am, however, creating something that’s my own![2]

astanaAt first glance Erzhanov’s movie appears to be a love story about a long-desired meeting with Bakhytzhamal, an ideal girl from the past. It would be difficult, however, to find anything melodramatic or romantic here: the young woman herself never even appears. Instead, the film revolves around the interaction of two young, oddball losers, bumbling Chaplinesque types who are former classmates. One is a pathetic recent escapee from a mental ward (Arslan Akubaev); the other an eccentric shopkeeper (Serik Abishev). Neither actor had any prior acting experience, though Abishev has now gained popularity through many roles at the Academy. A preference for non-professional young actors is another trademark of the New  New Wave films—natural, spontaneous performances are preferred over any theatrics or ‘proper drama’ from professional actors.

Erzhanov’s ‘buddy’ film unfolds from one sudden turn of events to another, from one mishap or ‘gag’ to another.  It gradually reveals the only meaning in an alien world: attachment to each other; people bonded as misfits. “Unlike traditionally handsome film characters, they are not tall or well-built heroes”—This scrawny pair (a kind of Kazakh Sancho Panza and Don Quixote) “grimace, dash and jerk about, fighting their own windmills”—all in search of their ideal girl Bakhytzhamal (Besturganova). It is no surprise that Erzhanov walked away with the prize for Best Director.

Erzhanov pointed out that whilst he is 26, he studies at the Academy together with people whose ages range from 18 to 36. He describes himself as a recluse who doesn’t really know his generation: “Basically, I sit at home and don’t participate in any social activities. I don’t really know my generation or how they live. I am somewhat asocial and don’t have to answer for or to anyone else. I shot the kind of film that I need; I had no intention of evoking any pity. If you noticed, I purposely left in the gags in order to instill a sense of humor, because in cinematography we need to avoid sentiment or pity at all cost.” In answer to the question, “What’s the meaning or message of your film?” Erzhanov quipped, “Well, I was expecting that classic question; and it looks like I haven’t escaped it. To be honest, there’s no meaning at all!” A few moments later, he added, as if joking, “Of course, you can’t expect feel-good films, because this is supposed to be a reflection of our reality. If you want good, positive cinema, then go and watch Indian films.”

More “shocking” and “outrageous” was Bektursynov’s 113th, shown earlier in the year at the Cannes Film Festival Experimental Laboratory. In Astana it won Best Film in the Shorts Competition. It is basically a silent feature with the exception of certain repetitive sounds, like the dripping of water, mechanical noises, or incoherent, even animal-like sounds made by the main character. He often cringes with strange facial grimaces, like a clown. The film has no complex narrative structure, only a minimalist storyline: it shows, from different angles, in various states and positions, a nameless and apparently incarcerated young man. His anonymous status, as 113, hints at some regimented, impersonal system or social institution. From time to time the camera shifts to a second minor character whose minimal role is to sit and watch the 'sick hero' through a peep-hole from another room.  It seems unimportant whether we’re dealing with a patient in a clinic, a ward, or a prison—even if this is someone who has perhaps inflicted this alienated mode of existence upon himself.

The greatest significance is perhaps that he’s observed twenty-four hours a day: surveillance was, of course, a well-established motif in Soviet and Russian literature and film. The interaction between the man being watched and a silent observer constantly causes complex psychological reactions in both parties. The following opinion was voiced by one member of the audience, himself an onlooking “spectator”:

It’s a reflection of our reality. After all, these directors made a film about a young guy shut away in a nut-house. That’s an image of our actual reality. In our society we are confined as if insane. They follow our movements… True, they don't beat us, and they do let us work, but they do watch us, all the same. This is our reality and there are certainly people who observe us through a lens… even if I don't want to name them. (Discussion)

The action in the film is minimal, confined and almost totally restricted to Raskolnikov-like spaces: 113th's small, cramped, bare, and disheveled room. The camera is positioned at different angles that give a skewed vision, both of the room and of the hero therein. This is a space that reflects his own inner world.  First, the hero curls up asleep in a fetal position, then sits or stands, staring blankly; he paces back and forth, or begins to draw spastically on a wall. Next he will gaze out of a window—through which he finally escapes. Once outside, a change of clothes (into a new suit) signals the hero's metamorphosis and return to the “real” world beyond—to the modern, bustling city.

astanaAs can be expected, 113th stirred so much debate that the young filmmaker Talgat Bektursynov had to defend himself arduously, even against such well-known critics as Hans Schlegel at the “Discussion with the Author.” The latter drilled him with blunt questions and critical asides: “Why do you want to torture us?”—“Why don't you like your viewer? It was like going down the Via Dolorosa! I can't understand anything; there is no structure, and so much repetition. Are you purposely fighting me, destroying all my emotions, so that I’ll fall asleep or walk away angry?!” Bektursynov responded: “According to my initial plans - that I set down in the second year of my studies - I wanted to create an atmosphere where the viewer would feel what it’s like to be enclosed in a cramped space: he or she should feel just as enfeebled as my hero. Minimal activity was supposed to occur only in one place, and the hero was not even to have a name - so that we wouldn’t grant him a personality.”

Erzhanov interjected: “It seems to me that the form of this short length film fully explains its content and atmosphere.” Although at times drawn-out, monotonous and repetitive, Bektursynov does indeed show some sense of character development. Once #113 starts making broad, sweeping hand gestures on the wall, he seems to create wonderfully expressive figures. They resemble primitive cave etchings from some past civilization. From here onwards, character development becomes noticeable.

Bektursunov defended his picture: “I wanted to show that initially my actor was filled with disgust and repulsion… but then, when he begins to draw and tenderly caress a white dove releasing it through the window (the symbol of his own coming freedom), something warm is felt in his life. This is a person who determined precisely when he would leave his restricted space.” Bektursynov, however, left it to the viewers to decide for themselves what exactly this limited space symbolizes in his urban Kazakhstan: it could be the Academy, youth itself with its troubling experiences, or some regimented place in his own life, where someone’s always watching over his soldier, a place where everything has been dictated by others. These “others” could be adults, more established film directors, teachers, or members of the older generation from whom he must now liberate himself.

In many of the Kazakh shorts there is a noticeable absence of heroines, in direct opposition, say, to American or Uzbek and Indian films where often everything revolves around quest of the female character. Here again the group’s spokesman, Erzhanov, explained the one-sided or singularly gendered content of his film. He did so by citing his own approach to women: “In essence I am a caricaturist and everything I do is scandalous, perhaps absurd. And my films reflect this: any character that appears in my movies is simply one more addition to a chain of related caricatures [misfits]. They often look disgusting, but a woman is a poetic and tender creature.  You can’t portray her in this way! It’s impossible!” 

Most of the Kazakh short length entries avoid the fairer sex. When they do portray women, as in The Thief, that representation is skewed by the hero’s point of view. These same films also avoid the “national” theme of recent ethnographic, traditional cinema from the older filmmakers, i.e., the grand, full-length features mentioned above with their Dolby sound, panoramic ethno-landscapes, or scenes of ancestral village life. When questioned about the absence of this “national theme,” Erzhanov adamantly asserted that because his ‘bloc’ grew up in the city, he wanted to make a film that reflects an existence both he and his peers “know inside-out. That’s a plan we’ll be sticking to.”

Youth Films of Kyrgyzstan
Four young Kyrgyz filmmakers are following the Kazakh tendency to make social and psychological shorts. The “Special Jury Prize” was split between Temir Birnazarov’s Code of Honor (Parz / Dolg, 2007) and Tynai Ibragimov’s The Bridge (Most). InThe Bridge (produced by Kyrgyztelefilm) the hero overcomes some inevitably outdated principles of the past, moving onwards to a progressive view of the future. Code of Honor is perhaps the stronger of these two shorts. A 23-minute drama produced by a private studio, Aitysh-Film, it shows a young villager, alone and down on his luck. This is a young man who once had gone astray and now shares a similar fate with the hero of the Kazakh movie The Thief (Vor). This repeated theme indicates that today’s youth, those outside of any upper or moneyed class, are forced to live outside the law, simply in order to survive.

Just released from prison, the young hero ends up losing his freedom again when circumstances force him to return to stealing: following a village tradition, he must carry out a duty to his father and provide for his proper burial. As a member of the newer generation, too proud to break with tradition or to rely on others for help, Parz simply employs the skills he has unavoidably acquired from urban society: he steals. He does so even though it means he’ll end up back in prison. When confronted with the strict social traditions of the village, he must rely on himself and, therefore, simply creates new rules of his own devising.

From the point of view of innovative form, Chingiz Narynov’s short 18-minute melodrama Rules of the Games (Pravila igry) reflects the highly professional level of the Master Classes at the Manas Kyrgyz Turkish University in Bishkek. Narynov was supported by the newly launched Fund for Film Development. The guiding principle here—that “life is a game and he who makes his own rules will win”—echoes a code of many other youth films. Without traditional village values to guide them, the “asphalt generation” devises its own methods in order to compete—especially when it comes the new “dating game” that’s equally divorced from past traditions.

The boy-meets-girl theme is an age-old narrative, of course, but this movie’s form is refreshingly innovative, even if it recalls early Soviet classics, such as Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. The opening shot indeed provides a close-up of a camera, followed by rapid succession of hand-held shots. The director cuts between images of a long-haired youth in a bright and colorful traditional shirt as he weaves in and out of busy traffic. Intermittently we are offered images of a young woman, stylishly dressed in blue jeans, a small chic black jacket, and black high-heeled boots, moving through a fancy department store, up and down an escalator. Close-ups of the male protagonist’s feet on bicycle pedals and that same escalator both emphasize a sense of perpetual motion.

The following close-ups capture different moods. Even though the expensive clothes and department store setting tell us we’re watching a woman who moves in elite circles, she appears serious, reserved, and perhaps dissatisfied with life. The protagonist, on the other hand, openly smiles and seems to enjoy his brisk, free movement, pedaling alone on a wooded street, then weaving in and out of Almaty’s fast-moving traffic. Rapid editing intensifies the tempo of the noisy street and bustling department store. Guitar strumming further punctuates the frenetic activity, all in order to continue the established sense of movement. With almost no dialog the frenzied inter-splicing of images tells a visual storyline focusing on young people—young couples, hugging, kissing, or just talking, glued to their cell phones as they walk.

Next we see a whole crowd of paparazzi, young people with cameras, trying to get images of the beautiful new rich emerging from the department store. Then we are introduced to the everyday life of our major characters: the bicycling photographer, the girl, and soon-to-appear new rich boyfriend with his fancy apartment and car. This is done the same way throughout the film: mise-en-scène accentuated by camera angles; shots of objects, faces or body-parts, often reflected in mirrors. The first shot of the boyfriend shows only a bare shoulder, the back of his crew-cut head, or the top of his razor as he shaves in the mirror. Even from this minimal information, a social class, life style, and situation all become clear.

Our heroine, on the other had, sits pensively at the kitchen table in her white robe, tentatively stirring a drink, waiting to be taken home after a night together. By coincidence, her boyfriend takes pictures from last night’s drunken party to a photographer’s shop. As in early silent film, most of the meaning and story comes to us visually. There is, as I say, minimal dialogue. We recognize one of the photographs, a medium shot of her face with hand held up, as if shielding herself from the photographer or viewer—or perhaps from life itself. Judging by her facial expressions, it’s a life she finds less than fulfilling.

Attracted to the photograph, our hero devises a way to meet the girl, and ultimately pluck her from what appears to be a very dull and empty relationship. Though the young man’s trickery hardly equals the deceit or dishonesty of outright theft, he nonetheless is equally obliged to create his own rules for the “game of life.” When he comes to her rescue, she—of course—smiles for the first time. As they meet on the street in the rain for the last shot, colorful umbrellas suddenly pop open like beautiful spring flowers.  This would remind the viewer of Thaw cinema, like July Rain (Iul’skii dozhd’, dir. Khutsiev, 1966). In that film, when young people find new love and new voices, they do so beneath spring rains. This is one of the few Kazakh and Kyrgyz films with a happy ending.

Akjol Bekbolotov’s social drama Everything is OK (U nas vse khorosho) was also produced by the Fund for Film Development Film and the Manas Kyrgyz Turkish University. While this film begins and ends with shots of a traditional village cemetery (as in many earlier Kyrgyz and Kazakh ethnographic films), little is left of any Muslim religious tradition. Instead of the usual Muslim prayer, a young orphan repeats an empty lie at his mother’s graveside: “Everything’s OK in school.”  He is hoping not to disturb his mother in death, the way he did in life. Between these two cemetery shots come the urban spaces that two homeless boys (Kyyalbek and Sheraly) occupy: streets, stinking underground water, a sewage system that serves as their shelter. To this we can add the hallway of a rundown apartment building, which reverberates with the loud voices of drunken adults - no doubt Kyyalbek’s parents who led him to run away from their dysfunctional family. He decides to take up company with a homeless vagabond, the orphan Sheraly. The latter tries to keep Kyyalbek from falling into street habits, such as drugs and fighting.

bekbolotovThe space that best conveys their empty life is the large, granite staircase near a railway bridge: here, with a few indifferent people passing by in the foreground, this little odd couple makes a pathetic attempt to sing some popular rap songs. They do so in the hope of getting money for food. When the older boy is hit by a car as he begs on the street, the younger is left alone, hunched on the stairs with only a small bird flitting about nearby. It chirps as it frantically pecks the stone for food. But then it also flies off, abandoning the lonely, small figure on the cold stone stair. He is no longer singing. The camera shifts to one step for a close-up of empty gray space. With nothing to do but repeat the vicious circle of the older boy’s life, the younger one goes in his friend’s place to the graveside. Here he utters the same meaningless words: “Everything’s OK in school.”

In general, young directors from both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan continue to create films in an environment of greater artistic freedom in comparison with the other Central Asian republics; this allows them, perhaps, to touch upon the darker and more tragic aspects of life.  They strip away the tinsel and glitter of their societies’ nouveaux riche, advancing their own heroes as outsiders, criminals, even thieves, all of whom are forced into ways of life that allow them to survive. At best, they find themselves in an ambiguous position vis-à-vis the new progressive market economy.

Jane Knox-Voina
Bowdoin College


1] Member of Master Class Taught by Jane Knox-Voina at the Zhurgenev Kazakh National Academy of the Arts, March 2006, Almaty, Kazakhstan.

2] Unless otherwise indicated, all comments by directors of the Short Film Competition come from “Discussions with the Filmmaker” that followed screenings and were moderated by Inna Smailova. 

Works Cited

Abikeeva, Gulnara. “Twenty Years of Kazakh New Wave”, Kinopro: Evraziia 5 (2008), pp. 22-23.

Besturganova, Alima. “Short-Length Films: In a Format of a Different Dimension,” Eurasia Kino, 9 (2008), pp. 28-31.

Ciesol, Forrest S. “New Wave,” Sight & Sound, 59.1 (1989), pp. 57-58.

Dissanayake, Wimal. “Issues in World Cinema,” World Cinema 18 (2002), pp.143-149.

Jameson, F. ’Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’, New Left Review 146 (1984).

Kostevich, Irina. ‘“About Love” –The short story of Chekhov on Digital. Interview with Darezhan Omirbaev’, Kinoman 3 (2006), pp. 4-9.

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Jane Knox-Voina© 2009

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Updated: 31 Mar 09