Issue 36 (2012)

Gaziz Nasyrov: Gakku (2010)

reviewed by Sergey Dobrynin © 2012

Philosophy students have not fared well in the movies ever since The Student of Prague made his deal with Satan almost 100 years ago. Could the reason be they drink, think and talk too much? The off-screen narration in Gaziz Nasyrov’s solo feature debut Gakku often translates into three or four lines of subtitles in one frame, which does not make for easy viewing if you do not know Russian. Even if you do, this is too much information to digest in a single bite. Before you give up on this little gem from Kazakhfilm that quotes extensively—and deliberately—from Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Ortega-y-Gasset, Camus, Sartre, Hesse and Charles Bukowski,  let us consider the facts of the case.

gakkuThe story is told as a flashback: in the “now” part of the film, Temirlan Tlepov (engagingly played by Elzhan Amirkulov) is a successful editor of an Almaty newspaper who is suddenly kidnapped, savagely beaten and forced to confront his past, specifically the summer of 1999, just before the solar eclipse that some superstitious folks were prepared to take for the end of the world. The film could be called Days of Eclipse had that title not been taken. Two months before the event, Temirlan and his fellow students had graduated from the now-defunct Department of Philosophy and Economics (!?) of Almaty University, but are still living in a decrepit dorm sometimes resembling a bombed-out ruin. Since “nobody needs philosophers,” they celebrate by torching their newly acquired diplomas. This prompts a sarcastic remark from their German mentor who acknowledges that what she has taught them has no value in the real world.

gakkuThe real world is that of the 1990s, not a “dashing” decade (as the subtitles suggest), but a reckless, ruthless period of transition, all the more so in a republic that has broken its ties with Russia but has yet to find its new post-communist national identity. Everybody still speaks Russian, with just a few smutterings of Kazakh, which would probably be the other way around now. There are no jobs, especially not for the self-styled thinkers: “We live in a hapless time,” complains Temirlan to his roommate Kostia Paniotis, aka Pan (Kairat Kuanyshbaev), a guy as tense as a coiled spring ready to snap. “Time can be sold,” retorts Pan. “We will let our room by the hour.” And so begins our heroes’ first business venture. With the help of the dorm’s boorish overseer Arsen (Kuatbek Baibekov), they turn the room that belonged to Mercedes (Marian Gaibova), the Mexican student who has just committed suicide, into a brothel where various odd couples find refuge in the kingsize bed under the condescending gaze of Lenin who implores the guests not to scream or groan too loudly. The visitors pay with what they can, “the equivalents of time,” including, incongruously, a big grandfather clock.

gakkuTime becomes an obsession for the main characters. Despite the stated premise that they had “stopped talking to each other in their third year” at university, Temirlan and Pan communicate quite a bit. Their conversations often happen under clocks and posters of clocks, or Post-It notes with reminders of times to do this and that. Time is everywhere in this supposedly timeless society. Time is the force that will inevitably consume your energy and strength, Pan explains to a sympathetic policeman who prefers another drink to all this talk. After all, hasn’t it been said that, while chemists drink until they lose reaction, philosophers drink until they lose consciousness? Perhaps inevitably, the wiry, strong-willed Pan decides to conquer time in one stroke by robbing a bank on the day of the eclipse. While he prepares himself for the task and despairs over his spineless comrades, another thing happens: he and Temir both fall in love with the same girl, the beautiful Rita (Elivira Yasanina), who is wary of both of them.

On the day of the eclipse, Rita rejects Pan’s kneeling proposal and thus sets in motion his ill-conceived plan. The stoic and rationalistic Pan is now free to go ahead. He has calculated everything except one simple thing: that there might be a security guard in the bank. Seriously wounded, he escapes and disappears… until, years later, now a blind man, he comes to torment Temir for the presumed betrayal of their friendship. Freed after prolonged physical and psychological torture, Temir is overjoyed with a new lease on life and does what Pan has failed to do: he brazenly robs the same bank and runs triumphantly through the city streets to the evocative strings of Aiman Kuanov’s song “Almusha” in an exhilarating and crowd-pleasing, if somewhat unlikely, ending.

gakkuApart from clocks and watches, the film employs another visual metaphor. In the aftermath of the attempted robbery, the sofa in the dorm room, covered with Pan’s blood, has to be destroyed for obvious reasons but also as a symbol of the recent past. Temir struggles with the piece of furniture, reluctantly and slowly at first, but then begins to enjoy sawing and hacking it to pieces. It turns into a ritual of parting with a friend, an exorcism of old demons, a cleansing of memory. Gone are the portraits of Foucault, Nietzsche and others from the wall; gone are the millennial fears and crazy plans; welcome to a new life. Only painful memories, like old friends, have a tendency to come back when you least expect them. And people often come back to the place from which they have escaped, vowing never to return.

Gakku, which—according to the press release—means “a celebration before a dramatic dénouement,” is a highly watchable film. Kyrgyz cinematographer Sapar Koichumanov (The Death of Otrar [Gibel’ Otrara]) supplies some exquisite images. The ponderousness of the voiceover is compensated by a brisk pace and a short running time. The dialogue, for all its philosophical asides, is artless and realistic. (The screenplay was penned by the director and Didar Amantay, on whose novel the film is based). No one is looking for the usual scapegoats, the phantoms of communism that continue to haunt so many post-Soviet films. To quote from the narration, “There are times when whole generations are caught up between two epochs and two lifestyles. As a result, they lose their naturalness, their traditions, their sense of security and their innocence.” In other words, we witness a society that has, to use the film’s central metaphor, simply run out of time.   

Sergey Dobrynin

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Gakku, Kazakhstan, 2010.
Black&white and color, 70 mins.
Director: Gaziz Nasyrov.
Screenwriters: Gaziz Nasyrov and Didar Amantay, based on the novel by Didar Amantay
Cinematography: Sapar Koichumanov
Production Designer: Alim Sabitov
Cast: Elzhin Amirkulov, Kairat Kuanyshbaev, El’vira Yasanina, Marian Gaibova, Murat Patarov, Aleksei Filimonov, Kuatbek Baibekov.
Producer: Didar Amantay
Production company: Kazakhfilm

Gaziz Nasyrov: Gakku (2010)

reviewed by Sergey Dobrynin © 2012