KinoKultura: Issue 27 (2010)
Eugénie Zvonkine (Paris)
Satybaldy Narymbetov, born in Turkmenistan in 1946, is considered as one of the most famous Kazakh auteur cinema of the 1990s, which emerged thanks to perestroika and then flourished after the country gained its independence. His filmography is filled with the theme of national identity. After The Brother-in-law from the Countryside (Ziat’ iz Provintsii, 1987) and Hamlet from Suzak (Mamaya Kero, 1990), Narymbetov gained international fame with his Story of a Young Accordionist (Zhizneopisanie iunogo akkordeonista, 1994). The action of the film takes place in a village (aul) after the Second World War and questions the mix of nationalities on Kazakh territory and the interventionist attitude of the Soviet power. Gulnara Abikeeva emphasized how this desire to reconsider national history was crucial for film directors from 1998 to 2005, and even called this period a “step of conscious construction of national identity” (Abikeeva 2006: 195). At the same time, the film found its place amongst Central Asian “auteur cinema,” inspiring such films as Beshkempir (1998) by the Kyrgyz Aktan Abdykalykov and much later The Island of Rebirth (Ostrov vozrozhdeniia, 2004) by Rustem Abdrashev; not only did they go back in time, but they also combined in unusual ways colour with black and white. His next full length film was finished only in 2002: Leyla’s Prayer (Molitva Leily) is again a mixture between auteur cinema and an open attempt to settle old scores with the Soviet power. The young girl is at the same time an heir of Kazakh pagan traditions, a sort of a witch, and in the end of the film embodies Kazakhstan itself. She has been raped by a Russian soldier and while she stands, as a Madonna with a child, against an icon-shaped window, her silhouette is superimposed with the image of an atomic explosion, reminding the spectator of the Semipalatinsk atomic test site.
This personal quest at this point meets the strategy of the national film studio Kazakhfilm and of the Ministry of Culture of Kazakhstan. These institutions are clearly set on launching a wave of national blockbusters with a positive and powerful image of the country and the part it played in world history. In the expensive Nomad (Kochevnik, 2005), the entire Turkic mythology was presented as Kazakh mythology in an attempt to enhance the contemporary status of the country: the film ended by a quote from President Nazarbayev. The film Makhambet (script by Olzhas Suleimenov, directed by Slambek Taukel) pursued the goal of representing two important historical (political and cultural) figures, such as Khan Zhangir and the poet Makhambet. All of these films quite strikingly tend to borrow figures from the whole Central Asian region to re-write the history of the country, transforming their main characters in mythological heroes and representing famous episodes of Kazakh folklore.
In 2005 the government suggested a film should be made about Mustafa Shokai. The first scriptwriter said the idea came directly from the President. Nazarbayev cherishes and often quotes this character, presented during the Soviet reign as a traitor to his own country. But recent publications, even though some of them have presented Shokai in a different light, are still mainly negative and the majority of the population scarcely knows him or remembers his older image. Thus, it seems necessary to fully rehabilitate the character in the eyes of the Kazakhs. The anonymous introductory text to the published script of the film reads: “Time has come to restore historical justice and to rehabilitate Mustafa Shokai’s name not only amongst historians and researchers, but also in the minds of wide masses.” (Tursunov 2008: 4).
When faced with the project, Narymbetov finds there an interesting challenge, since it seems to be a happy encounter of a state command and a personal quest. The shooting started in October 2005 and ended only in September 2007, after several interruptions due to financial problems. The premiere took places in Astana in September 2008 during the Eurasia Festival and was introduced by government officials along with the film crew.
Let us recall briefly Mustafa Shokai’s biography. He was born in Turkestan in 1890, on the territory of the contemporary Uzbekistan. After attending a Russian school in Tashkent and studying Law in St Petersburg, he began an early political career. He worked as a secretary to the Moslem Faction at the 4th State Duma; then, in 1917, he was one of the main figures of the very short Kokand independency that was rapidly drowned in blood by the Soviets. Shokai fled repression and emigrated to France, where he was engaged in journalism, publishing anti-Soviet texts and disclaiming the way Soviets dealt with Central Asian territories. Most of his family and former friends were repressed during Stalin’s purges. During the Second World War, he agreed to negotiate with the Nazis in order to create the Turkestan legion. But documents prove that, after visiting prison camps, he finally refused to collaborate and died soon after that refusal of typhus fever or poison (this has not been firmly established).
The first thing we notice is that he is not a one hundred percent pureblood Kazakh. Even though his mother was a descendant of Kazakh khans, his main political contribution did not concern Kazakhstan directly: while he formed the Kokand independent state, at the same time (December 1917) the Alash independency was proclaimed on the territory which is now called Kazakhstan. But Shokai defended the idea of unity of Turkic countries and cultures, which makes him a suitable candidate for a Kazakh national hero. So, how was it possible to adjust his biography to that of a hero, and moreover—a Kazakh one?
In order to enhance his character features and to represent him as a national hero, the director uses cinematographic strategies. For instance, he shows Shokai through the eyes of other characters. Despite the fact that the film is titled after its main character, Shokai is often absent from the screen. Instead, the plot focuses on his wife or on other characters who think about Shokai, discuss him or wait for him. The story is introduced as his wife’s flashback. When they escape from the Soviets, Shokai and his wife have to separate. His wife’s itinerary is shown for some ten minutes, in which Shokai is present only through his voice as he reads out the notes he leaves her on the road. Ol’ga Khrabrykh compares this narrative strategy to that chosen by Andrei Kravchuk in The Admiral (2008): “The film Mustafa Shokai strongly resembles of The Admiral about Alexander Kolchak. In the first place, probably, because in both films the story of a controversial character is shown through the eyes of the loving woman. Both directors, so it seems, attempted to partially rehabilitate their heroes in the eyes of the people.”
The heroic aspect is represented through admiration or fear of others. When Shokai’s nephew Baidok, then a child, first meets him, to the cliché question as to who he wants to become he says: “Shahinshah Mustafa.” Another indirect way of transforming the character into a national hero is through the use of archival material in the film. It is used here as an "authoritative source" not so much to convey the atmosphere of the epoch, but to validate the alleged historical accuracy. For instance, while the letter in which Shokai finally refuses to collaborate with the Nazis—which is crucial for the rehabilitation of the historical character—is read out by a disembodied voice, some archival footage appears that emphasizes the authenticity of the text. In an interview, Narymbetov even says that the real letter is “shown” on screen, while it is not. This demonstrates that the archival footage replaces the authentic document.
The desire to rehabilitate this historical character stems from the desire of rethinking and re-writing national history in a more global way. Thus any interesting inversion of the situation can be seen during the overthrow of the Kokand autonomous government. The short sequence of the invasion reminds us in several frames, camera movements and even actions of the sequence of the invasion of Vladimir in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966).
Andrei Rublev by Andrei Tarkovsky (1966)
Mustafa Shokai by Satybaldy Narymbetov (2008)
While in Tarkovsky’s film the city is overthrown and destroyed by Tatars and Russians who have decided to fight on Tatars’ side and the sequence finishes in an orthodox church as Rublev claims that no sight is as frightening as that of snow falling inside a church, in Mustafa Shokai the attack is that of the Soviets and finishes on the steps of a mosque.
This reference serves to highlight that the Tatars, often considered as ancestors of Central Asian nations, were once invaders, but that lately Central Asia has been the victim of invasion by Russians. It is also through the idea of the original unity of Turkic nations that Narymbetov re-writes Kazakh history.
Shokai’s aspirations to the Turkic unity his ideas concern as much Kazakhs as much as the rest of Central Asia. Narymbetov emphasizes this element: the book by Shokai appears in the film in its first French edition under the title The Soviets in Central Asia, underlining a more global interest in the region than the most famous edition of the book (1935): Turkestan under Soviet power. Towards a characteristic of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Moreover, Narymbetov emphasizes the historical episode when Shokai was invited to be a member of the Alash government. The sequence in which he refuses the invitation because other members don’t share his goal to unify the region is longer than the one showing him at the head of the Kokand Government (3’10” versus 2’5”). This sequence is filmed in sepia, making it stand out in the film and enhancing its historical aspect. The leader of the Alash government blesses Shokai to leave the room because “different roads lead to one and same goal.” Surprisingly the sequence continues even after Shokai has left the room, suddenly revealing that the interest has shifted from him to the rest of the government, because it represents Kazakh history. In the foreword to the published script of the film, the historian Abduakap Kara devotes half a page in Shokai’s three-page biography to the leader of Alashorda: “Alikhan Bukeikhanov greatly contributed to the formation of Mustafa as a political figure. As leader of the national Kazakh movement “Alashorda,” A. Bukeikhanov was […] an unquestionable authority. […] Mustafa had somebody to learn from.” As Michael Rouland astutely puts it in his review of the film: “Mustafa Shokai is a mix of historical confusion and deliberate revisionism. Is he really a convincing Kazakh hero?”
While analysing the character, we discover that Shokai is a strange mixture of a Western film hero and a Kazakh hero. For instance, the film begins with him falling in love with Maria Gorina, married at the time to a Russian Imperial official. He falls in love listening to her singing (she is an opera singer), but the choice of songs is revealing: she performs Verdi in Italian, then Rakhmaninov in Russian, thus setting the cultural background of the film in European culture. But at the same time Narymbetov adds mythological and heroic features to his character, whose destiny is already written, since Aida’s aria “Return a conqueror” foretells that Maria and Mustafa will have to hide their identities and that Shokai will be torn between different allegiances. Then Shokai pays his first visit to her house and finds her singing “It’s nice here” by Rakhmaninov which prepares the nostalgia for the beloved country that both characters share.
Shokai also displays several features that would seem misplaced if he is to be a national hero: after the film premiere, Kazakh spectators were shocked by the fact that Shokai abandons his mother in danger and leaves the country to save himself. In the last half hour of the film, Narymbetov desperately attempts to attach all the attributes of a Kazakh hero to Shokai: we discover that he always carries on him a handful of soil from his home village and his wife sings a traditional Kazakh song. A flash-back, quite awkwardly introduced, shows their traditional Muslim marriage. Just before his death, Shokai’s disembodied voice states: “Only three people counted in my life: my father, my mother and you.” This sentence reinstates family values, insufficiently emphasized for a Kazakh hero earlier in the film. To put things simply, it is exceptionally admissible for a Kazakh hero not to have a family if he regrets it and considers it as a great source of sadness. At the end of Makhambet, the hero, ready to die, sings a poem about his lonely life:
That I gazed at myself in the stirred water of the lake, I don’t regret. That I never avoided any labour and often remained hungry, I don’t regret. That I have shared with the righteous and more often with the unrighteous, I don’t regret. That I washed with soot for theft and with snow in the morning, I don’t regret. That a sweetheart didn’t whisk butter for my trips, I don’t regret. That the dream of a friend remained a dream during long nights, I don’t regret. I didn’t have a son on my lap, didn’t caress his cheek, I don’t regret. […] I regret only that my destiny cannot be started over, I regret only to disappear as blows the wind on faces, […] that my sadness will not remain, that nothing will disturb me any more, no illness will attain me.
It is quite natural, that when asked to name his favourite moment of the film, the actor Aziz Beishenaliev names the encounter of Mustafa with his mother (Zhani), even though the sequence lasts only 90 seconds of a 140-minute film.
Mustafa Shokai also tries to pay homage to Kazakh cinematic tradition. It opens and closes with the same shot: the grown-up Shokai, on a train, tries to reach back to a boy running behind the train. This boy proves to be no other than his young self, because, when Shokai dies, the two characters finally manage to join hands. Michael Rouland notes that “the film opens with familiar images of a train and running water, two of the most often repeated motifs in Central Asian cinema.” But we could even go further and propose that, by introducing this boyish image of Shokai in the film, Narymbetov wants to relate his grown-up character to Kazakh cinematographic heroes at large.
Even in the last half hour the director keeps mixing both influences: Shokai gives his watch to his wife when he sees her for the last time in 1941. While he goes away, the watch mechanism plays a sweetly anachronistic Prévert and Kosma’s song “Feuilles mortes”, first performed only in 1946. The lyrics of the song (“Life drives apart those who love each other”) work again as an omen of their fate.
As we have already noted, Shokai’s character contains a mixture of Western and Kazakh features. Narymbetov tries to represent him as a recognisable hero and to convince the spectator of this status. In order to achieve that, he weaves together many threads, borrowing elements from images of leaders around the world in order to create a new one along the same lines. His character thus becomes a composite of various cinematographic and historical references. Narymbetov wants to show Shokai not only as an active leader, but also as an advocate of justice and great thinker. He does so by means of camera movement: several times in the film, he uses a tracking shot that very slowly approaches the character, eliminating from the frame everything and everyone around him and presenting him as the only righteous person fighting against the whole world. The first time such a shot is used in the Kokand government episode and unequivocally brings to mind the technique of the well-known film, Twelve Angry Men by Sidney Lumet (1957). Just as in this classic film, the hero at this moment is right and insists on his position, even though everyone thinks he is wrong to display such intractability. The camera movement gives an exhaustive account of what the film director thinks about the Kokand autonomy. The same technique is deployed several times, for example when Shokai writes the letter in which he refuses to collaborate with the Nazis.
Twelve Angry Men by Sidney Lumet (1957)
Mustafa Shokai by Satybaldy Narymbetov (2008)
Narymbetov has also made an unobvious choice to represent in the flesh two important and quite unappealing leader figures of Shokai’s lifetime: Stalin and Hitler. They both appear quite fleetingly, are performed by actors who do not resemble the leaders; the degree of fictional convention implied in these sequences made the Kazakh audience roar with laughter. Both characters are used in the film only to share some of their notorious “glory” with Shokai to make him “shine” through their interest, fear or respect towards him. The sequence with Stalin is framed by archival footage to underline the alleged historical veracity of the situation. We discover Ezhov, quite nervous, delivering an account of Shokai’s activities to Stalin. When he says that “all Shokai’s contacts and all his family links are under control”, Stalin argues: “Not all of them, it seems, judging by how well this author of anti-Soviet proclamations is informed. […] This one book is worth ten of our newspapers. Well done, Shokai, he has written a good book. It is all right to give one’s life for such a book.” He dismisses Ezhov with a disquieting warning: “And don’t make my head ache with your Shokai.”
More or less the same thing happens with Hitler, since his extremely short encounter (twenty seconds) with Shokai shows only the men greeting each other: Hitler is welcomed by the Nazis with a thundering “Heil Hitler!” and saluting with an outstretched arm while Hitler’s response is less energetic: he only raises his hand. During this exchange, Shokai remains seated and, after a long gaze at Hitler, he finally gets up and slightly inclines his head.
But the film borrows even more surprising elements for the figure of a leader. When the Nazis give Shokai the possibility to speak on the radio to his fellow citizens in Soviet Central Asia, this episode is supposed to explain at least partially why he later accepts to collaborate with the Nazi regime. It seems odd, however, that this episode, not so well known in Shokai’s life, gains such importance in the film. Shokai stares at his drafts, then takes off his glasses and improvises a poignant speech. It transforms the learned literary man into a “sheshen,” (Tursunov 2004: 46-51 and Adambaev) a typical Kazakh hero, known for his talents as orator. Moreover, Shokai starts talking before the transmission signal and goes on even when the tape is finished. Suddenly, when the film focuses on the finished tape rolling on, the reference becomes obvious. It is well-known that Charles De Gaulle’s first historical speech pronounced on 18 June 1940 was not recorded. The shot of Shokai’s face near the microphone reminds of the famous photographs of De Gaulle speaking on the radio. Just like the leader of the French resistance, Shokai, after a few moments of hesitation, looks directly at the camera during his speech.
Charles De Gaulle
Mustafa Shokai by Satybaldy Narymbetov (2008)
Finally, the two speeches have a lot in common. Shokai speaks about hope for his nation and the necessity to resist the invader:
Dear compatriots. Dear brothers. […] I’m so happy to address you today. And this is what I’m going to tell you: time will come, when the wind of freedom will scatter dark forces in the steppe. The sun will come out, the sky will become clear, and so will our minds. And we’ll straighten our backs. We were born free, the spirit of freedom dwells in the hearts of my people. And no force can break down this spirit of victors. Don’t believe those who say it’s all over, for nothing is over yet. We’re in for happy future […] And this is worth living and dying for.
De Gaulle does the same:
Of course, we have been, and we still are overwhelmed by mechanical, terrestrial and aerial forces of the enemy. […] But has the last word been uttered? Does all hope have to die? Is our defeat final? No! Believe me, who knows what he is talking about and who tells you that nothing is lost for France. […] Whatever happens, the flame of French resistance must not and will not go out.
One could, so it seems, produce an almost endless quantity of diverse references as Narymbetov aims to create this new national hero, but I cannot resist the temptation of one further example. When Shokai finds out that his nephew, whom he trusted totally, has betrayed him, he faces him, dejected by this tragic discovery. The shot reminds us of the famous Russian painting “Peter the Great questions Tsarevich Alexei in Petergof” by Nikolai Gay (1871).
Peter the Great questions Tsarevich Alexei in Petergof by Nikolai Gay (1871)
Mustafa Shokai by Satybaldy Narymbetov (2008)
To conclude, this composite character and film were to be expected from a film director whose previous films already established a very close relationship with Soviet cinema and with what Bauyrzhan Nogerbek calls the “screen folklore tradition.” The venture of creating a new Kazakh hero fails because of the ill-assorted influences and random references. But sometimes failure is more eloquent than success, and allows the researcher to observe a process in the making as Kazakhstan creates its national identity and national heroes.
2] Nogerbek notes that this theme was first introduced in Kazakh cinema in documentaries in the end of the 1980s (p.266). Stishova considers also that the most striking images in Leyla’s Prayer come from archival footage of the region affected by nuclear tests.
3] Gulnara Abikeeva underlines that, in order to create a cinematographic national identity, directors “appeal to the same components of national existence, summoning the community of history, of tongue, religion, cultural codes, traditions, mentality” (p.191).
4] “When I received the proposition to write a script on Mustafa’s life […] sorry, who proposed this to you? […] President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Once he called me home and we talked for almost three quarters of an hour. I was surprised that he remembered our quick discussion, when I had told him I was collecting material on Mustafa Shokai, that this theme really excited me. Two years had passed. He asked me how the script was coming on. I started to explain that I needed another year to finish it. The President was firm: I had to finish it in three months” (Rakhmetova).
5] Narymbetov states (interview with Shashkova) that “President Nazarbayev draws inspiration from Shokai’s oeuvre, regularly quoting them.” Several examples of this interest towards the public figure can be found on the site of the Kazakh official information agency, stating that Azerbaijan received in November 2008 a visit by a delegation of journalists for the project “On the roads travelled by Mustafa Shokai” (K ofitsial’nomu vizitu Prezidenta RK N. Nazarbayeva v Azerbaidzhanskuiu respubliku—MID RK, Kazinform, 1 October 2009. During his visit to Turkey Nazarbayev named Shokai in his speech: “We are creating a Turkic Council. […] So today the dreams of Atatürk, of Turar Ryskulov and Mustafa Shokai, their dreams about a united Turkic world become reality.” Nursultan Nazarbayev, quoted in an anonymous, paper about his visit to Turkey, CaspioNet, 23 October 2009. Zhanna Kydyralina states that “the ideas of practical Eurasianism […] put forward by Nursultan Nazarbayev […] come in resonance with Mustafa Shokai’s idea of unity and close relationship between Turkic peoples. Sadykova, a specialist on Shokai, claims that there is no official position of the Kazakh government towards Mustafa Shokai.
6] Shokai writes: “During the first days of December  I was sent to Orenburg to the Bashkirs and the Kirghiz, which at that time were also setting about organising their own autonomous administrations.” (Chokaev is referring to the Kazakhs, routinely called in pre-Soviet times “Kirghiz.”) Turkestan under Soviet power. Towards a characteristic of the dictatorship of the proletariat, November 1926
8] The title translated in the film with a mistake and an omission as Chez les soviets en Asie central (the proper title being Chez les soviets en Asie centrale; réponse aux communistes français (1928))
10] Abduakap Kara in Tursunov 2008, p.5. The same text compares Shokai with the national Kazakh hero Kenesary Kasymov, honoured by president Nazarbayev on 21 September 2002 on the bicentenary of his birth.
11] Gorina performs only the beginning of the aria: Ritorna vincitor! / E dal mio labbro uscì l'empia parola! / Vincitor del padre mio, di lui / Che impugna l'armi per me / Per ridonarmi una patria, / Una reggia e il nome illustre / Che qui celar m'è forza! [Return a conqueror!? / And from my lips came the impious word! / Conqueror of my father? of him / who takes up arms for me? / to give me back a country, / a kingdom, and the illustrious name / which here I am forced to hide.]
15] «Certes, nous avons été, nous sommes, submergés par la force mécanique, terrestre et aérienne, de l'ennemi. (…) Mais le dernier mot est-il dit ? L'espérance doit-elle disparaître? La défaite est-elle définitive? Non ! Croyez-moi, moi qui vous parle en connaissance de cause et vous dis que rien n'est perdu pour la France. (…) Quoi qu'il arrive, la flamme de la résistance française ne doit pas s'éteindre et ne s'éteindra pas.»
Abikeeva, Gul’nara. Natsiostroitel’stvo v Kazakhstane i drugikh stranakh Tsentral’noi Azii i kak etot protsess otrazhaetsia v kinematografe, Almaty: CCAK: 2006.
Abikeeva, Gulnara. “Ten Years Under the Winds of Different Ideologies“ KinoKultura Central Asian Special Issue, 2004, (also in her The Heart of the World: Films from Central Asia, Almaty: Kazakhfilm, Skif, Kinofilm: 2003, p.10)
Adambaev, B. Kazahskoe narodnoe oratorskoe iskusstvo, Almaty, 1997.
Khrabrykh, Ol’ga. “Zakliatyi drug, predannyi vrag. Kem byl Mustafa Chokai? Na ekrany vyshel novyi kazakhstanskii kinoproekt,” CentrAzia 221, 22 November 2008.
Kydyralina, Zhanna. [“Interview with Nursultan Nazarbayev,”] Informatsionno-analiticheskii tsentr, 23 October 2009.
Nogerbek, Bauyrzhan. Ekranno-folklornye traditsii v Kazakhskom igrovom kino, Almaty: RUAN, 2008.
Rouland, Michael. “Review of Mustafa Shokai,” KinoKultura 25 (2009).
Sadykova, Bakhyt. “Rodina-mat’ zovet… Ob otnoshenii Kazakhstana k Mustafe Chokaiu i turkestanskomu legionu,” CentrAzia, 18 (646), 6 May 2005.
Shashkova Liubov’. “Bezzakonnoe kino” (interview with Satybaldy Narymbetov) Megapolis, 2 July 2007.
Stishova, Elena. “Na oblomkakh imperii”, Iskusstvo kino, 9 (2004).
Rakhmetova, Gulnara. “Iarkii istochnik sveta vyzyvaet k zhizni i geniev t’my”, (interview wit Akim Tarazi), Baiterek, 4 (37), July-August 2009.
Tursunov, Ermek. “Akyny i baksy—drevneishie iz fol’klornykh tipov,” Kazakhstanskii kulturologicheskii al’manakh, 3 (2004), pp.46-51.
Tursunov, Ermek. Mustafa Chokai, kinoroman, Alma-Aty: Balalar edebieti, 2008.
Zhani, Feruza. “Fil’m o Mustafe Shokae neobkhodim ne tol’ko sovremennomu Kazakhstanu, no i vsemu tsentral’noaziatskomu regionu,” (interview with Aziz Beishenaliev), Fergana.ru 3 March 2008.
Eugénie Zvonkine© 2010
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