Issue 40 (2013)
Ermek Tursunov: The Old Man (Shal, 2012)
reviewed by Emily Schuckman Matthews © 2013
Produced, written and directed by Kazakh filmmaker Ermek Tursunov, The Old Man (Shal 2012) is the second in a trilogy which began with Kelin (2009). Tursunov describes Kelin as a tribute to the past, The Old Man as tribute to the present and third film, Kenzhe, will represent the future (Prokopenko). Erbulat Toguzakov, the 64-year-old, non-professional actor, received the National Film Award for Best Actor, as well as the “Actor of the Year” award in the “Choice of the Year” film festival (Shimyrbaeva) for his role as Kasym. Tursunov’s stunning depiction of the Kazakh steppe, the deeply humane qualities of the protagonist and the film’s subtle humor have inspired many Kazak bloggers and film critics to provide overwhelmingly positive reviews of the film, with several hailing it as a “truly national film” (Urynbassarova).
The opening credits of the film inform the viewer that the plot is loosely based on Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Tursunov substitutes a shepherd for the fisherman, sheep for the marlin, wolves for the sharks, and a grandson for the novel’s young apprentice. The director makes the story his own by crafting an engaging tale of survival, perseverance, and an old man’s deep connection with the steppe and his grandson. The expansive fog- and snow-covered Kazakh steppe serves as the backdrop for the Kasym’s final stand, a setting that shares the mysterious, elusive and disorienting quality of Hemingway’s turbulent sea. The epic journey, which is likely the last in the old man’s life, is paralleled by the journey his grandson takes to find him—a journey which marks his entry into manhood.
Mankind’s relationship with nature is a central theme of the film, with particular focus given to the impact that humans can have on the delicate balance of the steppe’s ecosystem. The battle between man and nature is foreshadowed when a flashy SUV filled with Russian-speaking hunters and a wealthy native Kazakh man pulls up to the Kasym’s modest home to ask directions to a particular valley in the steppe. The old man is weary of the crew, but offers them directions anyway, warning them that it is a closed season because the wolves just birthed their pups. Ignoring his warning, the hunting party speeds off—ominous extra-diegetic music interrupts the diegetic sounds of nature. The next day Kasym sets off through the steppe to lead his flock to the wintering grounds and unwittingly becomes embroiled in the conflict between the wolves and man which was sparked when the hunters’ slaughtered several wolf pups. After the old man discovers himself lost and disoriented on his journey through the densely foggy steppe, he is left to not only find his way in the vast expanse, but to save himself and his flock from the wolves that are in constant pursuit.
Throughout the film the old man fights fiercely to survive through direct struggle, cunning skill and the energy of a person half his age. His strength and resourcefulness are so impressive that the head of the rescue team tasked with finding him declares that it seems they are looking not for a pensioner, but for Rambo. At one point Kasym literally kills a wolf with his bare hands and later clubs another to death. Despite this violence, he maintains a deep reverence for the wild creatures. His primary opponent in the battle is a mother-wolf who tracks his every move. Shots of her piercing eyes watching him through the thick grasses of the steppe evoke the thrill of a stalker film. Kasym identifies closely with the mother, empathetic with the grief she feels at the loss of the pups. At his core he appreciates the need for restoring the equilibrium of the steppe—even if it means accepting the death of his beloved horse at the jaws of the wolves or sacrificing his flock. And though he readily accepts the deaths of the hunters, he refuses to sacrifice himself.
Nature is personified throughout the film with the old man talking aloud to the wolves, calling his sheep by name and mumbling to the world around him. The steppe’s majestic beauty is also captured in such a visceral way by Marat Aliyev’s cinematography that it makes the land a full-blown character in the film. The steppe’s life-giving and life-taking qualities are emphasized through the ferocity of the wolves who inhabit it, the birth of a baby lamb that is the only survivor in the flock, the death of the hunters who disturb its delicate balance and the old man’s deep connection with the land. While mostly shrouded in fog throughout the film, Tursunov allows the blanket of whiteness to rise above the steppe just enough to capture glimpses of vast blue sky, landscapes unmarred by development and even offers aerial views from the search-and-rescue helicopter which capture the limitless nature of the steppe’s peaks and valleys. If the fog is a metaphor for the troublesome times the country experiences (Anon.), these glimpses of the sun and the openness of the steppe reveal optimism about its future. In a conversation with the Kazakh hunter, Kasym ponders religion explaining that he never traveled to Mecca as his grandfather and ancestors had, but made the steppe his God. This message of the film resonates throughout and it is clear that this land with its vast openness is an essential part of Kazakh identity.
The relationship between the old man and his grandson Erali, whom he calls Shaitan-bek (“Devil”), is another central focus of the film. Kasym is the primary male figure in the fatherless boy’s life and has a sometimes tense relationship with the adolescent. An avid soccer fan, Kasym is glued to the television set at the beginning of the film, watching a match and ordering the boy to pull himself away from video games he is playing to adjust the family’s rickety, roof-mounted antenna for clearer reception. The boy is equally glued to his handheld gaming device, annoyed to be pulled away to adjust the dated antenna. The old man complains that Erali is too attached to his games and does “nothing” all day while the boy continually calls his grandfather mad. Their differing relationship to technology also comes through when Erali is enthralled with the eight-liter, super-charged engine powering the hunters’ SUV while the grandfather asks how it could possibly be that impressive since it doesn’t even have a hitch.
Tursunov captures well the natural intergenerational conflict between the old man and his grandson, but also depicts with equal compassion the deep connection they have. He balances scenes in which the boy tells his mother he would rather hang himself than turn out like his grandfather with more poignant moments. One such scene shows the boy lovingly putting his grandfather to bed after the old man has fallen asleep watching television. The old man’s cantankerous rants about the boy’s addiction to his gaming device are balanced with a conversation in which the old man reveals that his will to survive is motivated solely by his desire to see his grandson grow up and explore the world, something he was never able to do. He brags to the Kazakh hunter that Erali is a good boy “with character,” which will serve him well as a man, and he describes with pride how his grandson will leave the farm, get educated and achieve things he never did. Erali’s deep love for his grandfather is reinforced when he begs his drunken uncle to search for his grandfather in the fog—eventually sparking a full-scale rescue party search by the authorities.
The old man’s aging mind is also explored with compassion and even humor. When he realizes he is lost, his frustration and anger with his aging mind (“I could walk these fields with a blindfold back in time”) evokes sympathy in the viewer. The old man’s philosophical connection with death is explored through several dream sequences which place him outside of a gate as a young boy, watching a motherly figure tend to several lambs. The third time the old man has this vision he is a nearly dead in the snow and for the first time is able to open the gate and move toward the shining white lights surrounding the beautiful woman and her lambs. This vision offers a glimpse of the old man’s heaven—a return to his mother, his love for his sheep and the peace he finds amongst them. While most moments of the film reflect on aging with thoughtfulness, one of the kitschier scenes depicts the old man’s encounter with a cellular phone. The desperately lost man stumbles upon one of the dead Russian hunters just as his phone is ringing. Kasym fumbles to answer it, mumbles in Kazakh as a Russian wife on the other end of the line berates her husband for being drunk and incoherent and orders him to return home. Baffled by the device, the old man buries the hunter, placing the phone atop his grave, never even thinking to call for help.
As Kasym battles for his life on the steppe, Erali is on his own quest to find him, riding along with the men in the search party, scouring the steppe for signs of his grandfather. The boy’s growing confidence is evident in the way he steers his horse through the rough terrain and the maturity with which he ushers his worried mother home to tend to the farm while they search for the old man. Lured off the path by sheer instinct, it is Erali who ultimately finds his grandfather crumpled and barely alive in a snow ravine. This impulse to enter the ravine not only illustrates his enduring connection with his grandfather, but shows that the young boy possesses Kasym’s deep understanding of the land. As the elated Erali runs in slow motion toward the search party with his weary grandfather and baby lamb atop his horse, the two are being closely watched by the mother-wolf who has been stalking the old man. After seeming to nod with approval at the reunification of the man with the boy, she wanders into the steppe followed closely by her pup—the first live baby we have seen and an indication that nature’s equilibrium has been restored.
Despite its sometimes meditative pace, mostly unchanging foggy landscape and long scenes with just the mumbling Kasym and his flock, Tursunov keeps the viewer not only engaged, but fully enthralled with the old man’s journey. Toguzakov’s face is so singularly expressive and captivating that one gets lost in its lines and in the twinkle of his eyes. The crescendos of the film when the wolves attack or a hunter’s frozen and maimed body is discovered or the boy finally approaches his grandfather’s near dead body in the snow are perfectly timed to keep the viewer on the edge of his seat with anticipation. The viewer feels as intensely deflated as the old man does when, after a day of traveling, he comes upon the same Holy Tree which, when first encountered was a spiritually uplifting moment for Kasym, but is a sign of despair and disappointment when, upon seeing it the second time, he realizes that he is still hopelessly lost. And while at first the intense close ups of the scowling mother wolf hunting down her human prey seem juvenile and forced, it is a testament the power of the film that by the end the viewer feels more for this creature than for the dead hunters that stood in her path. Overall, the film offers the viewer an exquisite journey through the vast Kazakh steppe and into the heart and soul of a man who embodies the traditions and values of a rich nation.
Emily Schuckman Matthews
San Diego State University
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Prokopenko, Vladimir. “Shal movie to be screened at Berlin Film Festival.” Tengri News. 22 October 2012.
Urynbassarova, Zeena. “The Old Man and the Steppe.” West Kazakhstan Today. 22 November 2012.
Shal: The Old Man, Kazakhstan, 2012
Color, 98 minutes
Director: Ermek Tursunov
Screenplay: Ermek Tursunov
Cinematography: Marat Aliyev
Production Design: Bolesh Zhandaev
Music: Kuat Shildebayev
Cast: Erbulat Toguzakov, Arynbek Moldakhan, Isbek Abilmazhinov
Producer: Aleksandr Vovnianko
Ermek Tursunov: The Old Man (Shal, 2012)
reviewed by Emily Schuckman Matthews © 2013