Issue 37 (2012)

Nariman Turebaev: Sunny Days (Solnechnye dni 2011)

reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov © 2012

Nariman Turebaev’s feature debut received the Premio Boccalino film prize at the 2011 Locarno Film Festival and the best directing prize at the Seventh International Film Festival Eurasia. Before Sunny Days Turebaev worked as a scriptwriter and director’s assistant and released several shorts, including Antiromantika (2002), a 16 mm comic novella that received a prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

sunny daysIn Sunny Days, the filmmaker traces several days in the life of a nameless young man (played by the professional sound editor, Erlan Utepbergenov) who wanders around a wintry Almaty in search of income and in anticipation of his birthday. Turebaev’s art house vehicle demonstrates his craft as a film auteur, creates a cinematic portrait of Almatyy as a city integrated in the world economy, and meditates on the place of an individual in the increasingly global world. The filmmaker takes an ironic tone. Sunny Days was filmed under a wintry, overcast sky, and the sun appears on the screen at night as a steel bar ornament on the window of the protagonist’s room or on the fences next to the neighboring apartment buildings.

sunny daysMost of the time Turebaev favors distancing, cold colors: subdued hues of gray, white, or moonlight blue, a far cry from the sunny mise-en-scene promised in the title. Like Jacques Tati, he creates precise and playful visual compositions where the viewer has to pay attention to witty graphic matches (for example, the bent back of the protagonist and the curved desk lamp in his room) or to enjoy the interplay between a lonely bright spot, a yellow lamp, and the grayish white of the walls. In order to play with the viewer’s sense of depth, Turebaev puts warm colors in the background that tend to advance toward the viewers and foregrounds the colors that tend to recede in the composition.

sunny daysThe filmmaker also uses the color of sunshine ironically in the film’s narrative. When the protagonist finally finds a job as a driver, which brings the promise of good luck and sunny days, he travels through the thinly-lit, snow-covered streets of Almaty and runs into a sunny yellow spot amidst the street. The only bright spot is the yellow vest of a highway patrol officer who detains the hero, confiscates his vehicle, and gives him a big fine.

The filmmaker attempts to make sense of and capture the spirit of the nation’s largest city twenty years after Kazakhstan declared its independence. Turebaev’s “city symphony” is a truly postmodern project, highly skeptical of everything fast and sleek a modernist artist would find fascinating about urban life. If for a 1920s city symphonist the automobile is a visual fetish promising the avant-garde utopia come true, for Turebaev the automobile signals bad luck and another disastrous turn of events in the world of his protagonist. In his friend’s car he gets seduced by his best and only friend’s girlfriend, and because of this fleeting sexual encounter his friend ends their friendship Working as a driver of a corporate SUV, he gets robbed, loses all his documents, and eventually gets arrested. Finally, on his birthday he dies under the wheels of a truck. The bright headlights of the truck illuminate the protagonist’s last sunny seconds.

sunny daysTurebaev’s portrait of Almaty eschews the clichés of socialist realist visions of Central Asian urban utopia that combined the showcasing of socialist modernity with colonialist displays of local color. Twenty years after socialism Almaty is hardly distinguishable from any global city: familiar transnational brands (Audi, Toyota, Coca Cola’s Bon Aqua) and somewhat surrealistic heteroglossia (a local bum speaking Russian and singing in Italian). The difference between the West and post-socialist East appears only at the local flea markets. Instead of the familiar commodities at Western flea markets such as old vinyl discs and torn back issues of Playboy, Almaty’s flea market offers socialist-era medals, propaganda posters, and old appliances. The protagonist tries to sell a heavy Soviet-made iron, a failing proposition, or perhaps a performance art act, in a city oversaturated with mass-produced cheap appliances. What makes Almaty special is Turebaev’s cine eye, his keen sense of color, of the interplay of light and shadow that creates unique mise-en-scènes. For example, by playing with reflecting surfaces and adding a few sunrays to the darkness of a bar’s main room, the filmmaker transforms the local dive into a beautiful stage set.

sunny days Turebaev is not simply interested in the artistic potential of his cine-eye; he examines and sympathizes with his protagonist, whose identity is defined by a sense of instability, homelessness, and displacement. To begin with, he does not have a name. He gradually loses everything he has: his girlfriend, his best friend, his job, his documents, and eventually his life. The protagonist’s family exists only in his memories and is defined by a sense of separation and lack of communication. His mother got married and moved first to Astana, the newly built post-socialist capital of Kazakhstan, and eventually to Germany. He constantly calls her but gets only the answering machine. Eventually he gets help from his parent’s generation. His mother’s female friend gets him a job as a driver in exchange for sexual favors. Ironically, the most cheerful event in the film is the great luck that happens to the bartender who serves beer to the protagonist. She receives a phone call from the US Embassy that informs her that she has won the green card lottery and now has a chance to move—or be displaced to--a more affluent culture which, however, is completely alien to her . She feels lucky because she won the lottery; whether this move will make her happy remains unclear.

Turebaev’s choice to film Almaty in winter and the film’s title are the director’s homage to the Kazakh New Wave and specifically to Rashid Nugmanov’s The Needle (1988). The bleak atmosphere of Turebaev’s Almaty evokes The Needle’s closing scene in a deserted, snow-clad Alma-ata city park, where local thugs murder Nugmanov’s protagonist Moro played by Viktor Tsoy (the late Soviet rock-n-roll star from St. Petersburg). The film’s title comes from the title of Tsoy’s hit song, which concludes Turebaev’s picture.[1]  

Turebaev is a diligent student of Aki Kaurismäki and Jim Jarmusch, great masters of anti-climactic deadpan comedy. Like his favorite filmmakers, Turebaev is interested in sounds and images of urban displacement and in the ironic sense of self, which comes from the loss of the tokens of stable identity provided by traditional societies. While some reviewers are less than enthusiastic about Turebaev’s attempts to stage Night on Earth in Almaty (Felperin), in my view the filmmaker found his own auteurist voice, witty and sardonic, and recreated with great craft the mischievous intonation for which Kazakh new wave is remembered by cinephiles and film historians.


1] The song is one of cult hits from Tsoi’s underground debut album titled 45, released in 1982.

Alexander Prokhorov
College of William and Mary

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Works Cited

Felperin, Leslie, “Sunny Days,” Variety 23 August 2011.

Sunny Days, Kazakhstan 2011
Russian and Italian dialogue
Color, 101 minutes.
Director: Nariman Turebaev
Screenplay: Nariman Turebaev
Camera: Boris Troshev
Art Design: Aleksei Filimonov
Music: Anuar Baimuratov
Sound: Il’ia Biserov
Editing: Aizhan Bisimbinova
Cast: Erlan Utepbergenov, Inkar Abdrash, Asel’ Kalieva, Dmitrii Skirta
Producer: Limara Zheksembaeva
Production: Kazakhfilm, Kadam Studio, with support from Hubert Bals Fund, Locarno Film Festival.

Nariman Turebaev: Sunny Days (Solnechnye dni 2011)

reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov © 2012

Updated: 04 Jul 12