Issue 39 (2013)

Darejan Omirbaev: Student (2012)

reviewed by Ian Garner © 2013

studentDarejan Omirbaev’s Student (2012) is a film adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, with the action transposed to present-day, post-communist Kazakhstan. Here, our Raskolnikov, Ali (Nurlan Baitasov) is a university student who moonlights as an assistant on a film set. He witnesses the brutal power of beauty and money to dictate, through physical violence, to the weak and the poverty-stricken. In this rendition of the classic novel, Ali, driven to murder by this dog-eat-dog, money-driven status quo, obtains a handgun and murders a shopkeeper along with one of his customers. Omirbaev is highly faithful to various scenes from Dostoevsky’s novel: as Raskolnikov is disturbed by workmen while committing the crime, Ali’s murderous reverie is interrupted by a deliveryman; Ali carefully counts the steps away from the murder scene. He retreats to his pokey basement flat to a world of feverish guilt, donates the money from the shop’s cash register to a washed-up poet, and falls in love with the poet’s deaf daughter, Saniya (Maya Serikbaeva). Eventually, he confesses to Saniya and hands himself in to the police. Omirbaev rehashes Dostoevsky’s epilogue with Saniya visiting Ali in his cramped and freezing cell. Having been shown at Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival, Omirbaev’s work is a serious and partially successful attempt at applying a 19th-century philosophy to the present day.

studentThe film opens with the conclusion of Omirbaev himself directing a scene. In the break between shots, a runner spills tea over the beautiful young star of the film, who promptly calls in a group of thugs to severely beat him while Ali watches. Ali, ever the outsider, stands mutely as natural law is enacted in its most brutal form: money and power rule in this Kazakhstan. Discussions of social Darwinism take place in the Kazakh lecture halls where Ali studies, and at one point, Omirbaev even brazenly splices into the narrative a scene from a nature documentary of lions tearing at a giraffe's hide. It is clear to the viewer, especially one armed with knowledge of Dostoevsky's novel, that the film prompts us (or, more accurately, the Kazakh audience) to question modern Kazakhstan's social conventions. In Omirbaev’s eyes, social Darwinism and the neo-liberalist free for all of post-communist Kazakhstan have a clearly deleterious effect. As Crime and Punishment was penned at a moment of cataclysmic economic and social change in Russia, Omirbaev reiterates its key themes because, in his words, “the historic period in which it was written is very similar to the period we are living in today in Kazakhstan” ( “Omirbayev follows in the steps”).

studentAs in Omirbaev’s previous efforts, Student is highly influenced by French New Wave cinema, especially Robert Bresson. This is somewhat problematic in the context of Crime and Punishment. The jerky motions of the actors make them appear as puppets in the hands of the director, while the faux-meta style of Omirbaev’s appearance in the opening scene reminds us that this is a piece of film-making, rather than a fleshed-out, autonomous world. Unlike in Dostoevsky’s novel, the protagonist remains an almost complete stranger. He speaks barely a handful of lines, his dialogue climaxing as he confesses his guilt to the deaf “Sonya.” Although Omirbaev pays diligent tribute to the work of Bresson, the distance from the protagonist means we never truly understand what leads him to commit murder, or the extent to which he is tortured by his guilt after the crime. The laconic, Bressonian style fails to capture the complexities of Dostoevsky’s frantic heteroglossia. As a result of the measured, even pace of each shot and the stilted puppetry of the acting, Ali’s decision to turn himself in to the police and the ensuing visit of Saniya to the penal colony seem somewhat inexplicable. This Raskolnikov is hardly tortured by feverish, insane guilt; he is a vassal of the director. Of course, those familiar with Crime and Punishment will immediately associate Ali’s chaotic dreams with those of Dostoevsky’s protagonist. Apart from some carefully selected clips playing on televisions in various decrepit backrooms and the university discussions of social Darwinism, the philosophical depth of Dostoevsky’s novel is lacking in Omirbaev’s film. It is left to a pared-back subtext and the text of Crime and Punishment to point to Omirbaev’s fears for the direction of Kazakhstan’s development.

studentIn this sense, the use of New Wave elements makes Student a triumph of style over substance: it is not an independent philosophical statement, but a limpet clinging to the complexities and subtleties of Crime and Punishment. Although the message of the film is clear, its nuances are lost without a detailed knowledge of Crime and Punishment as a text. The scene of a wealthy, 4x4-driving Kazakh beating a donkey to death would make little sense without reference to Raskolnikov’s dream of a horse being whipped to death. Here, it is spliced into the film without explanation, and the driver never reappears. However, at certain points, the stark, confrontational style is highly effective: cutting Ali’s dreams sharply into the film’s fabric merges reality with fantasy in a manner that is almost reminiscent of Raskolnikov’s obsessive madness.

studentOmirbaev claims that “we should save the village! Only by saving it we can save our language, our origin, and our ecology” (Khrabrykh). Certainly this is an admirable and understandable sentiment in response to the inequities of the post-communist landscape, and Student is a fascinating attempt at transposing to screen and to the present day an extraordinarily complex novel. Omirbaev succeeds in generating a great deal of sympathy for the debt-ridden, hopeless youth of 21st century Kazakhstan, but by his adherence to an inflexible style, he fails to generate the same kind of sympathy for the killer himself. Dostoevsky’s greatest achievement is making us empathize with a murderer, but Student makes us empathize only with the socio-economic plight of Kazakhstan’s poor, rather than their most extreme actions.

Ian Garner
University of Toronto

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Works Cited

Khrabrykh, Olga. “Killer – student,” MK Kazakhstan, 7 May 2012

 “Omirbayev follows in the steps of classic Russian literature,” 17 May 2012.

Student, Kazakhstan, 2012
Color, 90 min.
Director and Scriptwriter: Darejan Omirbaev
Cinematography: Boris Troshev
Composer: Baurzhan Kuanyshev
Sound Editor: Ilya Biserov
Executive Producer: Limara Zheksembayeva
Cast: Nurlan Baitasov; Maya Serikbaeva; Edige Bolysbaev; Bakhytzhan Turdalieva
Production: Kazakhfil’m

Darejan Omirbaev: Student (2012)

reviewed by Ian Garner © 2013