Issue 26 (2009)

Zhanna Isabaeva: My Dear Children (Oipyrmai  2009)

reviewed by Joe Crescente © 2009

opyrmaiZhanna Isabaeva’s new film My Dear Children is primarily about the maintenance of Kazakh family traditions and related generational conflicts. By the end of the feature, it is clear that the Kazakh family according to Isabaeva is more durable than both any rural/urban divide and economic inequality. As the title implies, the movie is about children, in this case belonging to one family. The film is accordingly broken into chapters focusing on each of those children, with the exception of Eldos (Telegenov). Eldos, the youngest of five, is soon to be married. Yet because Eldos is a portly mama’s boy and ultimately the softest or least experienced child, he has no money with which to host the lavish, 300-guest wedding he feels entitled to. Therefore he and his mother (Idrisheva), a hearty Kazakh matriarch, embark on a quest to collect the necessary funds.

Mother and Eldos first visit Kanat, who is in the midst of entertaining a boss whom he and his colleagues all secretly despise. This loathed individual, however, holds the promise of a loan that Kanat and his wife Raziya need to fulfill their lifelong wish of purchasing their own apartment. The film opens with Raziya thoughtfully preparing beshbarmak for some guests. A cacophony of voices drifts from the other room, although any exact words are drowned out by the sound of meat stacked high upon squishy noodles. Once everyone has been seated, the sycophantic toasts begun in praise of the boss, and the beshbarmak served, there is suddenly a knock at the door. Mother and son barge in and quickly ruin the party; Mother by using her fingers both to eat and serve the guests, ultimately shocking their urbane sensibilities, and Eldos by playing the boisterous and unending Kazakh ditty Dudarai on the dombra. When the boss is stopped from using the toilet (due to Mother’s decision to take an impromptu bath), he and his wife storm out, leaving Kanat to learn the reason for the visit. Kanat, who has already argued with his wife that evening over the presence of his mother, suggests sternly to Eldos that he get a job. He also reminds them of the fact that his wedding was not held, due to a lack of money.

Mother counters by posing a question: “Would you shame me in front of the whole world?” Her argument is such because she, unlike her urbanite children, exists in a limited world where pride is the main virtue and her local status can certainly be reaffirmed simply by persuading her children to throw a lavish wedding. Mother, of course, has already calculated the costs of the proposed event on a wrinkled piece of notebook paper and divided the expenses evenly among her offspring.

The rest of the film details similar visits to the other three children. Mayra is the unhappy child, middle-aged and recently deserted by her husband. She works three factory jobs to support her two kids and is insulted that they have come to beg alms for luxuries when she was never given any support. When Eldos suggests that Mayra take out a second mortgage on her modest dormitory room to make a contribution, she tosses a large hunk of raw meat at him.

oipyrmaiZhanibek works in a large market, helping stall owners to move their goods. Undernourished yet muscular, he plies his trade with pride. His evident loneliness and kind, yet sad demeanor are explained by his sickly nature: it was during an illness the previous winter that his girlfriend left him to marry someone else. He greets Mother and Eldos warmly and takes them back to his meager accommodations, consisting of what appears to be a concrete storage closet. He tells them he is well and saving money to soon purchase his own stall in the market. When told of the wedding-related plan, he unthinkingly offers to help, telling them that he can put his business plans on hold.

Finally Mother and Eldos visit Nuriya, travelling from the city through the steppe to a small town. Nuriya has married into a very wealthy family and when they arrive, it is discovered that the son of her stepmother (a cruel matriarch) has just that afternoon stolen a bride. While Eldos is sent with a cousin to offer forgiveness to the family of the stolen bride, the extent of Nuriya’s unhappiness is revealed. Isolated, constantly overworked and humiliated not only by her stepmother-in-law, but also by the wives of her husband’s brother, she is beaten by her spouse. Mother’s stoic advice to her daughter is to “Just keep holding on. It’s a women’s lot. There’s nothing you can do.” Nuriya agrees to ask her husband for money, as he will be “ashamed” not to help.

It was never really in doubt that the wedding would take place with all 300 guests in attendance. The day after the function, Mother thanks the children for helping her save face, leaving Eldos at his own mother’s prodding to wonder aloud – somewhat greedily - where “his” wedding gifts might be.
Oipyrmai is clearly trying to do something new in Kazakh cinema, to create a family comedy genre imbued with traditional national values for the masses. Predictably enough, it did indeed garner a mass audience, becoming arguably the most widely-seen Kazakh film of the year. The movie was shot on a small budget of $750,000 over the course of 22 days by Isabaeva, as the follow up to her directorial debut, Karoy (2007). Many of the main actors are new to the screen. Even star Alikhan Idrisheva’s largest roles prior to this film were mere supporting parts in Satibaldi Narimbetov’s picture Hamlet from Suzak (Gamlet iz Suzaka ili Mamaiya Kero, 1991) as well as Karoy. She is best known as a member of the repertoire of the Taldikorgansk Drama Theater in Almaty Province.

oipyrmaiThe response to the film in Kazakhstan was mixed. According to a poll based on more than 12,000 votes, slightly more people disliked the film (43%) than liked it (40%). Many of the approving viewers endorsed the feature because it purportedly shows the warmth and strength of the Kazakh family, as a “film for all ages,” something of a missing genre in post-Soviet cinema. The reasons, conversely, for disliking the film are best summed up by the words of one reviewer, “I don’t understand Russian trash, and even less so ours!” (Blog: Oipyrmai…).

Ironically, even though the film centers around a wedding ceremony, no one is shown as happy in their marriage, neither in the past nor in the present. In fact, for many of the children, their relations with the opposite sex seem to be the very root of their problems. Trying to suggest a solution to these dilemmas, the movie reads like a cinematic list of “positive” Kazakh traditions, from the careful visual attention paid to the preparation of beshbarmak, to the rituals surrounding a visit to the family of the stolen bride. Many national stereotypes are summoned for both comedic and dramatic effect, from the image of the meddling mother or mother-in-law, to the absent father and obedient wife. All of the children—with the exception of Eldos—are sympathetic supporting characters, all trying to build or hang onto their lives with as much dignity as can be mustered. Yet the two main figures are entirely unlikable: Mother is manipulative, occasionally cruel and meddling; Eldos is an undisciplined, irresponsible and cowardly letch that laughs at the misfortunes of his siblings.

Oipyrmai  seems to be trying very hard to become the Kazakh equivalent of a neo-Soviet comedy yet fails on this front consistently. The jokes and slapstick gags are often seen coming from across the steppe. In addition, what films of the Golden Age of Soviet comedy (the late 1960’s and early 1970’s) possessed in originality, this film offers in a stale regurgitation of clichés, some more intrusive than others, with many of them musical in nature. Tchaikovsky’s famous melodies from The Nutcracker repeat several times throughout the film to indicate moments of “drama” or “action.” There is another series of ridiculous musical interludes, mildly suggestive of Leonid Gaidai’s comedies, yet in reality are much more reminiscent of the antics of Dima Bilan’s wildly popular 2006 musical video Nevozmozhnoe vozmozhno.

The wedding scene itself is a Kazakh-style Bollywood dance number, featuring none of the intensity or drama of its Southern neighbor’s global appeal. There is nothing more than basic choreography and smiling faces, all attempting to represent the joy of the event. Isabaeva states that, “For me this final dance is the metaphor of a happy ending. The thing is, though that a wedding for Kazakhs is not just a happy ending, because everything keeps on going…The event is not only your celebration, but a celebration of the whole family, your people, and—if you wish–a celebration of your clan, too…” (Novoe narodnoe kino). Cinematically the scene is a chore to watch.

Oipyrmai deserves admiration for attempting to show the diversity of social layers in Kazakh society and how those same layers can have an impact on a Kazakh’s attitude towards the rigid, yet rich familial traditions of his homeland.  Yet it is also awkwardly engaged in its own mythmaking about the “nation.” Take, for example, the issue of language. Kazakh is spoken uniformly in the film, with the exception of a few lines in Russian at a marketplace, this in spite of the fact that most of the film takes place in Almaty, not exactly known as a bastion of the Kazakh language. In addition, and not surprisingly, while Oipyrmai was released domestically in both Russian and Kazakh, it is being distributed abroad only in Russian. The “purity” of the Kazakh tongue is less than evident here.

Summarizing these issues, Isabaeva states: “Every nation has its own unique family relations. Every land has special family traditions, peculiar to itself. More than that, though, my own film is about the strength of the family, about the spirit of family unity. Making this movie, I set myself the goal of filling it with both light and love. In My Dear Children we speak about values that are understood by every person, irrespective of age or homeland (Khrabrikh).” In spite of this striving for universality, the uniqueness of Kazakh family values shines through.

Joe Crescente
New York University

Comment on this review via the LJ Forum

Works Cited

Khrabrikh, Olga, “Na kogo telezhku katish, bratan?!”, Ekspress K, 19 December 2008.
Mendibaev, Askar, “Novoe kino ot kazakhstanskikh kinomatografistov,” KTK 19 March 2009.
“Novoe narodnoe kino,” G-Media, 2009.
“Oipyrmai ili Dorogie moi deti”, 2009.
Blog: “Oipyrmai ili Dorogie moi deti, kazakhstanskaia prem’era.”

My Dear Children, Kazakhstan, 2009
Color, 97 minutes
Director: Zhanna Isabaeva
Screenplay: Zhanna Isabaeva
Cinematography: Vladislav Zazherilo
Music: Pavel Li
Cast: Alikhan Idrisheva, Erbolat Tolegenov, Aikin Kalikov, Raya Adiganova, Erzhan Zharilkasin, Dinara Abikeeva
Producers: Askar Sembin and Bopesh Zhandaev
Production: Cosmos Art

Zhanna Isabaeva: My Dear Children (Oipyrmai  2009)

reviewed by Joe Crescente © 2009