Issue 30 (2010)

Akhan Sataev: Strayed (Zabliudivshiisia, 2009)

reviewed by Achim Hättich © 2010

strayedStrayed in the steppes of Kazakhstan is a family of three: a father and husband (Andrei Merzlikin); a mother and wife (Alma Rulas); and their son (Ilyas Sadyrov). They are coming from nowhere and want to go to an unnamed city. The father is in a hurry as he has business to do in town. Along the lines of well-known horror movies such as The Wrong Turn (dir. Rob Schmidt, US, 2003) or The Hills Have Eyes (dir. Alexander Aja, US, 2006) it is well established that taking short cut is no use when in a hurry. The father does not know the terrain and makes his first big mistake when he leaves the main road. In this barren landscape of grass and sand, he leaves his mark of civilization when carelessly throwing a plastic bottle out of the window. Soon enough he comes to realize that he is driving in circles, when passing his very own plastic bottle. Relentlessly things take a turn for the worse: his car breaks down, the cell-phone loses connection, his wife gets nervous, and his son is losing patience. In this total isolation where no one can hear a scream, the tensions in his marriage find a valve. Exhausted, the father goes to sleep; when he wakes up, his wife and son have vanished. He spots a house in the distance, where he meets an old man (Tungyshbai Al-Tarazi) and a mysterious, snake-like girl (Ayganim Sadykova). The father badly needs to get help— to find his family, to fix his car, to find out his way out of this wilderness. But all he gets are shocking revelations about himself: his inclination to violence in the first instance, and his drug abuse in the second.

strayedStrayed delivers a universal message, without forgetting culture-specific content, dwelling on the mystery surrounding nomadic culture. Strayed can also be read as an allegory about the situation in Kazakhstan, which “strayed” from the Soviet Union and hovers between Europe and Asia, whilst being an integral part of a globalized economy with preponderant cultural influences from the west. Nevertheless, the mythical and/or spiritual foundations linger in the film; as Sataev suggests, the lot of ordinary people is at stake, caught up between a new world of organized crime and the old world of supernatural phenomena.

strayedMany mysterious things happen in the film, providing beautiful images that are often fraught with meaning. A burning car; a button with a snail pattern— like the buttons of the old man’s gown; the toys of the son in the attic; and a blood-covered jacket in the wardrobe. These images challenge our sense of reality: the father puts a note on the car’s window-shield, which he later finds in the well; he searches the house to find it empty, only to encounter the father or the daughter in a room seconds later; and he finds the house tidy one minute and in disorder the next. There is no rational explication for these occurrences, but such mysterious things are not unknown to happen; yet increasingly the viewer wonders whether the father is hallucinating, in a state of mental confusion, or affected by some supernatural experience. He hovers between the car and the house: the broken car, later with the wheels removed, represents the impossibility to move and the only possibility to leave this dire place; yet the house mysteriously attracts the father, who is pulled back there through the images of the snake-like, seducing Eve. Indeed, like Eve in the Garden of Eden she is a forbidden fruit: she throws her arms around the father, trying to seduce him, and the old man offers her as a wife. But unlike Adam, the father resists the temptation and stays chaste: he does not seize the opportunity to have sex with a much more attractive woman than his wife. In this bleak world there is no place for passion and fire, but desire is for water which is lacking: the well is near-empty, the water in the bucket filthy and unsuitable for consumption, and the plastic bottle has been emptied long ago, containing not even a last drop.

strayedMetaphorically speaking, the father has lost his way: he gropes around in the darkness of his psyche, searching the path for redemption, somewhat like the fathers in Andrei Zviagintsev’s masterpieces The Banishment (Izgnanie, 2007) and The Return (Vozvrashchenie, 2003), but with one major difference: they knew the reason for their redemption (an absence, a wrong suspicion). This father is disoriented: he is surrounded by shadows and fog. At the beginning of the film he is full of himself: he is optimistic, never loses hope, wears an American-style T-and drives a SUV. When leaving the car, he turns into a loser. His social status and wealth are built on drug-dealing: he is a dealer who failed to deliver the goods. In a rage he has throttled his self-sacrificial wife and accidentally killed his innocent son. As they struggle, the sun is setting: the pendulum of life swings between more violence—he knocks down the old man, breaks open the locked door, and beats his wife even in his vision of her—and more desperation—he sinks to the ground, gasps when carrying the tires; loses grip of a small spare part of the engine.

strayedThe showdown commences with an attack from both sides: again dualism, a dilemma, a binary opposition determines the film’s narrative. As frames change fast, the separation between reality and vision/hallucination is blurred. A series of flashbacks establishes the truth: The father killed his wife and son, buried them and took the drugs he had failed to deliver. A final flashback shows him in a meeting with the criminal bosses, who ultimately locate him in the steppe and kill him, and set fire to the house. The old man and the girl now protrude as figments of the father’s drug-induced visions and a guilty consciousness as he is plagued by remorse for the murder of his family. The old man remarks that devils, demons and fallen angels are just imagination, that they have no power, thus calling himself into question. The demons and angels consist of fire and disappear with the father as he perishes in the house fire.

In contrast to the spiritual world embodied by the old man and the girl, there is the drug mafia. Without a problem they find their way to the spot where the father got lost, and back. They are able to use their mobile phones without any problem, and one of them is filming everything. They represent modernity and civilization, with a grip on reality. Without hesitation and mercy they kick the father, beat him up and shoot him dead. Meanwhile the father asks for forgiveness for having “strayed” (zabliudilsia)—only it is not clear whether this refers to what he has done to his family or to the drug lords. With his last words he begs for God’s blessing. The film’s final scene shows the deserted steppe and the burnt-out house as snow is covering the land, forming a sharp contrast: the image of the white landscape is associated with purity, with innocence, with a fixed, frozen state.

strayedThe deserted space of the steppe allows for free-floating camera movements that become independent of the characters. In this endless and homogenous space there are nearly no objects to provide orientation. The film’s imagery represents the landscapes of the soul, as crisp as the grainy film material. The setting in the Kazakh steppe adds an element of mystery, which supports a minimalistic approach. The expanse of the steppe is juxtaposed to the interior of the house (and that of the car), both filmed in a grayish color palette. The house is sparsely furnished with traditional, old furniture (table, wardrobe, dressing table); its doors crack in the hinges; and the window are boarded up.

Strayed shows what seems like a metaphysical journey that is clearly drug-induced, as emerges from a flashback that shows the father injecting himself in the abandoned house. The film’s pessimistic ending leaves no opportunity for repentance in this world: the father perishes, the gangsters get away, while the old man and his daughter dissolve in the fire. The family, the foundation of society, is dead. Supernatural elements are assigned the task of moralistic agency, and in spite of all modern accomplishments, man succumbs helplessly and is at the mercy of these powers. Strayed talks about the inevitability of fate; it is rooted in existentialist philosophy, capturing the emptiness and incomprehensibility in a perfect match of contents and form. Sataev merges the nothingness of the modern world with the mysticism of the ancient world and tradition.

Achim Hättich
University of Zurich

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Strayed, Kazakhstan, 2009
Colour, 90 min
Director: Akhan Sataev
Screenplay: Timur Zhaksylykov
Cinematography: Khasan Kydyraliev
Music: Renat Gaisin
Cast: Tungyshbai Al-Tarazi, Igor Gorshkov, Andrei Merzlikin, Alma Rulas, Ayganim Sadykova, Ilyas Sadyrov
Producer: Akhan Sataev
Production: Sataifilm

Akhan Sataev: Strayed (Zabliudivshiisia, 2009)

reviewed by Achim Hättich © 2010