Issue 26 (2009)
Sabit Kurmanbekov: Seker (2009)
reviewed by Jane Knox-Voina © 2009
The gentle comedy Seker (“Sugar”, name of the heroine) is Sabit Kurmanbekov’s second full feature film. Devoted to the director’s hometown village Chubar it is set in the beautiful but austere “Kazakh Alps” (Kurmanbekov’s words), the Taldykorgansk Region north of Almaty. The film’s genre falls into several categories: comic drama, a children’s film for adults, a growing-up story, and, the rejuvenated category of Kazakh cinema, a “village” film—as is also true of Rustem Abdrashev’s A Gift for Stalin (Podarok Stalinu, 2008), Patchwork Quilt (Kurak Korpe, 2007), and Island of Rebirth (Ostrov vozrozhdeniia, 2004, or Zhanna Isabaeva’s Karoy (2007)and many others. Kurmanbekov himself argues that it is no surprise that “my film is based on the ‘aul theme’, because I am a village person [sel’skii chelovek]—the village is my homeland.” As is often the case in Kazakh village families, Kurmanbekov was given to his grandmother for upbringing and was named after his grandfather, Kurmanbekov. His mother was raised like a son to become a “masculinized, strong Soviet woman of the 1970s,” who spent little time with her family. This theme informs also the story line of the film.
With the exception of the heroine’s father (Bolat Kalymbetov), the buksa or village shaman (Nurzhuman Ikhtymbaev) and a few actors who often play stereotypical village roles, the film’s cast consists of non-professionals from the village. The children, including the heroine, come from the local orphanage. Certain secondary characters are played by the same actors who appear in Kurmanbekov’s earlier Hurly-Burly (Aurelen, 2008).
Sabit Kurmanbekov began his career twenty years ago as production designer and actor in “New Wave” village films of Kazakh director Serik Aprymov, first in the role of the prodigal son in The Final Stop (Konechnaia ostanovka, 1989) and then Aman in Aksuat (1997). According to Gulnara Abikeeva, in the latter film “it was clear that Kurmanbekov could relive Aman in exact detail, sincerity and simplicity, the reserved but expressive character whose deep feelings are hidden behind his calm surface” (Abikeeva 108). With Seker Kurmanbekov revives this earlier village genre but rehabilitates both landscape and characters, now austere and beautiful. The characters seems to grow from the landscape, just as the more negative image of villagers in early New Wave Kazakh films matched the dismal, empty, and depressing landscape, reflecting the dilapidated dysfunctional social life at the end of the Soviet era. As director, Kurmanbekov restores to the screen colorful memories of country life in all of his films: the short film The Highway (Trassa, 2006), Hurly-Burly and now Seker.
The plot is based on the life experience of the director’s mother, who, by an unexpected but not so rare turn of events, was brought up as a son by a father who wanted his first child to be a boy as tradition in the countryside family demands. Only when the heroine Seker approaches the age of adolescence does she face a mandate from the local school: put on a dress or don’t return. So finally gaining her father’s permission she turns from a fist-fighting boy into a blossoming young girl. The narrative structure may seem simple, but this is intentional. Kurmanbekov uses the same minimal and austere artistic language as that of his favorite artist, Andrew Wyeth, about whom he writes “The most universal language is no doubt the language of simplicity, and Wyeth is the epitome of this language—his characters show neither nationality, nor ethnic characteristics, they embody the universal human traits we all share.” As in Wyeth’s works, Seker paints a few meaningful moments of a small person from a simple life against a severe, rugged landscape. “The art of Wyeth is very close to cinematography, because the artist knows how to dwell on shots from life, to find unexpected moments in simple plots.” (Kurmanbekov)
The young girl Seker with her short hair, strong physique, and dressed as a boy, fights and often beats up the school bullies; she rides a horse and races as well as any of them. Until one day the school director, knowing she is really a girl, forbids her to return to school in the fall unless her father agrees to have her come back in a dress. The thought of becoming a young woman obviously stirs up anxiety, fear and great distress in the young heroine, played by a young girl from the village orphanage. Kurmanbekov states, she had the spunk and character to play this role. In his words, “only in such a place can one find the tough emotions and feistiness today needed to play a girl brought up as a boy.” (Kurmanbekov)
As Kurmanbekov’s two earlier films, Seker presents the same understated subtle sense of humor that keeps his audience from taking traditional village images or themes too seriously. Kurmanbekov’s comedic scenes offer welcome relief from the rush to include national iconography that celebrates the yurt, dombra, kumys, traditional clothing parading before viewers on public Kazakh television today. In Bakhtin’s sense, humor “dethrones” the public’s growing tendency to idealize past cultural myths and traditions. One of the funniest moments in the film is, after all, the image of a yurt. A large yurt, still in tact, moves across a field with moving feet under it. Even Seker’s father drops everything and runs to join all the other the feet. “I saw just such a moment, the owner was simply too lazy to dismantle it,” quips Kurmanbekov.
It’s normal that a person should laugh at him or herself. Humor instills a kind of optimism, warmth. When we take our selves too seriously, this can repel [the viewer/onlooker], and, as it is, we have too much tragedy and problems in life. Through humor we can take a breath. I am very fond of Georgian film because there is plenty of self-irony. The ability to laugh at oneself can save a person. I also really liked Charlie Chaplin, who, laughing at himself, laughed at everyone. And with humor he solved problems that others could not. In general, humor in any situation comes directly from life…and for me familiarity with the object or image is most important. (Kurmanbekov)
Viewers love the comic underdog: with his laughter, pretended or real, the simple person outwits or overcomes most enemies and obstacles. Kurmanbekov returns the tradition of the Kazakh comic hero to audiences (comedy best illustrated by Shaken Aimatov in his own role as the beloved “beardless joker or trickster, Aldar Kose, 1965). Although such comic heroes may suffer at the hands of a callous, sometimes mocking society, it is still easier for the average person to identity with such a character than with legendary heroes whose monumental feats are far removed from ordinary everyday life. Still, the comic is but one step away from the tragic so we can only laugh in defense. Take the memorable bitter-sweet moment in Seker at the village coming-out party, when all the little old women sit in a line at the food tables and stare at the ridiculous super-sized white fluffy bow attached to Seker’s closely cropped head. A close-up of Seker’s face reveals tears of humiliation trickling down her cheeks
Kurmanbekov interjects elements of the folktale to underscore the young Seker’s anxiety as she rebels against the frightening thought of «turning into a girl» almost against her will. The viewer sees her re-occurring dream: images from a local legend her father told her. A young heroine dressed like Kys Zhibek of the eponymous film, rides in a beautiful flowing white dress and headscarf toward a deep ravine on a steed whose eyes are covered by a flowing white scarf (to keep the horse from seeing what is ahead and stopping). In the tale or dream, the father had promised not to marry her to someone she does not love. Out of anger and despair the legendary heroine charges her «blinded» swift horse over the steep mountain cliff.
The comic genre, associated with the masses, has always served the role of entertainment for simple folk. Subtle humor is the main ingredient of all Kurmanbekov’s films. His short film The Highway provided a sequence of humorous types supposedly found in the steppe: a nomadic camel-riding shepherd asking for a cigarette; a traveling Indian salesman; a frumpy wife straight from peddling wares at the town market with those big ubiquitous checkered bags. There the main hero himself is a gruff, scruffy, short, pensive quizzical daydreamer who sits passively by his car in the steppe, accepting everything and everyone who comes his way during that one day in the life on the steppe. A similar type plays Seker’s father. He is a good- hearted country bumpkin in the best sense of the word. Kurmanbetov explains, “I purposely chose Bolat Kalymbetov for the role because I realized I wanted not a stalwart idealized ‘tall djigit,’ but someone more real, nearer to the average down to-earth man in the country side.” (Kurmanbekov).
The cinematography of Seker is representative of the isolated creative images of Kurmanbekov’s The Highway, showing the talented eye of an artist. Before this film Kurmanbekov’s primary contribution to film has been that of an artist as a scene decorator who chose beautiful natural location as opposed to grandiose artificial film sets. Now his setting becomes a character in the film. A simple natural image or object speaks with a voice louder than words.
For example, Kurmanbekov captures the exquisite moment of this young “girl-boy” heroine’s awakening of and transformation into womanhood in an exquisitely beautiful image of white butterflies swarming in the warm sun-light just after they burst into to life from their cocoons, an event that can be seen for only two weeks in the year in the mountain village. “I love to compare nature and human life” stated Kurmanbekov. Seker, at this moment, is precisely an “endemic species” like the powerful image of the rare tiny white underwater creature swimming in a pure mountain stream. Together with a young village boy Seker searches the stream as the camera finally catches an underwater image of this exquisite, almost transparent tiny creature. As vulnerable and fragile as the white butterflies, this “endemic” species is found only in the pure clean water of this mountain brook, and “instantly dies once the water is dirtied!” (interview). This moment captures both the innocence and twangs of first adolescent love as girl and boy seek to find “something beautiful in the world” in the words of Kurmanbekov.
Ultimately, according to Kurmanbekov, this is not a time for gender experimentation as in the West. Struggling to build a strong family-oriented nation, “conservative Kazakh society will win out.” Seker puts on that pink dress to signal a feminine side bursting through her pubescent cocoon. Still, more importantly for the director, “Seker will maintain her tough character. She will need that strength from her mountain village to survive as a woman in Kazakhstan.” No doubt the final image of Seker in a pink dress striding through a field of fragile fluttering white butterflies will remain in the viewers’ minds. The tale has a fairy tale happy ending. Seker, outwardly transformed, all in pink yet still with cropped short hair, gazes through the school bus window at her newly-found friend. He gallops after her yelling, “I found it, I found the endemic species,” the symbol of an exquisite moment of adolescent beauty that emerged between them.
Bowdoin College and Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University
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Abikeeva, Gulnara, “My House, My Matches. Aksuat.” The Heart of the World. Films from Central Asia. (Almaty: Complex 2003).
Kurmanbekov, Sabit, “Simple America,” Kinoman 8 (2006), p. 21.
Seker, Kazakhstan, 2009
Color, 70 minutes
Director: Sabit Kurmanbekov
Director of Photography: Renat Kosai
Scriptwriters: Bekbolat Shekerov, Gaziz Nasyrov
Cast: Ayaulyim Ahmetbekova (Seker), Bolat Kalymbetov (father), Nurzhuman Ikhtymbaev (Shaman or buksa), Murai (Kenzhe, young boy)
Producer: Ermek Amanshaev
Sabit Kurmanbekov: Seker (2009)
reviewed by Jane Knox-Voina © 2009