Issue 44 (2014)

Adilkhan Yerzhanov: The Constructors (Stroiteli, 2013)

reviewed by Peter Rollberg © 2014

stroiteliThis hour-long film, shot on a shoestring budget, tells a seemingly simple story: three siblings (two teenage brothers and a younger sister) are evicted from their apartment after their mother suffered a stroke. Their last hopes rest on a plot of land outside of the city, to which they have a legitimate claim. Officials arrive in a jeep to tell them that, unless they build a foundation within the next two weeks, the land will be confiscated. With borrowed instruments and stolen material the brothers manage to complete the foundation when another law is issued, requiring a finished house, at least a temporary one, in order to keep the plot. Aliya, the little girl, gets sick and is taken to a hospital; Rauf, the older brother, is beaten up for stealing cement and bricks and is later arrested. The last man standing is Yerbolat, who is willing to finish the roof so that the state will have to provide him with an apartment in exchange for the confiscated land.

stroiteliThe synopsis implies an existential social drama with tragic undertones, but this is not the film’s focus. The siblings’ sad prehistory only becomes clear from three brief verbal attacks that Yerbolat launches against his older brother. First, he accuses him of having mortgaged their apartment and having caused their mother’s stroke. Then, each time when a new loss occurs, Yerbolat adds another accusation – the younger sister’s illness, the theft of construction materials. And yet, when Rauf is about to be arrested, the brothers quietly look at each other for a long time, and their facial expression slowly turns to a shy, warm smile. At this point, Rauf gives Yerbolat final instructions, demonstrating that he will never give up and implying that neither will his younger brother.  

stroiteliSimple the story may be, but what matters more than the social framework and even psychological finesse  is the cinematic execution. The plot’s unpredictability, combined with a high degree of visual and acoustic control and the relaxed seriousness displayed by the performers, gives The Constructors a rare freshness appreciated by festival audiences around the world. Thirty-something Adilkhan Yerzhanov is an auteur in the truest sense of the word; he wrote the screenplay, directed, and was in charge of cinematography and editing. The film is shot in rich black-and-white. Of particular significance is the picture’s lighting structure during the many night scenes, in which sharp rays from artificial sources aggressively intrude the siblings’ joint space that they are trying to secure and from which they are to be evicted. Darkness offers at least some protection, whereas daylight brutally exposes the incompleteness of their project and their own uprooted state. The film’s inner rhythm is intriguing: its shifts from night to day and back, from dialogue to silence, from raw diegetic sound to haunting music. Some scenes resemble absurd theater, especially when the state officials show up, or when a buffoonish salesman—“Timur Tilman” (his real name)—in a weird quasi-Western outfit advertizes his company’s newest lamps. Other scenes are touching precisely because of the overall laconic tone, conveying the warmth and care that the three siblings feel for each other and the selflessness that they display. Thus, when Rauf and Yerbolat go out on a mission to steal bricks, they put two plastic bottles on sticks and tell their scared little sister that these improvised dolls represent them. When the brothers are about to be detected by guarding neighbors and their dog, Rauf decides to leave his hiding place and confront them, saving his younger brother who had just chastised him in the most brutal manner. Rauf seems to do everything he can to earn, or regain, Yerbolat’s respect and justify his leadership status as the oldest.

stroiteliWhile the preposterousness and cruelty of the bureaucratic state and its representatives is obvious, the more intriguing issue is what gives these three forlorn youngsters the strength to go on. One clue might come from the opening—a brief, never explained sequence of historical footage to which little Aliya tells the history of Kazakhstan in two minutes, beginning with the great nomadic nations, through the Mongol occupation, the Soviet period, ending with national independence—and in the kitchen where the three siblings sit in silence, under a shaky lamp reflecting their current unstable circumstances. But this sequence is never commented on or referred to later. Except for Yerbolat’s verbal assaults against his brother, the three usually react to each new stage of the drama with complete, samurai-like silence. Nobody complains, nobody whines. There is a quiet inner drive in them that, if we take the opening sequence literally, originates from their ancestors. Without ever preaching, the young title characters display a stoicism that is vital for their survival and part of their identity, conveyed as an unconditional willingness to ignore or resist adversity and to stick together, regardless of state harassment or occasional filial rivalry.

stroiteliDespite the young characters’ coolness, Kazakhstan comes across as profoundly inhospitable: a huge country that has neither space, nor concern, for its young. Yet the three, despite tensions and a chain of bad luck aggravated by arbitrary, punitive legislation, quietly continue to build their future. In addition to the historical and mythical allusion in the opening scene, there is a spatial element suggesting the origin of their proud endurance. The siblings create the foundation of their home against the backdrop of a long line of houses covering the horizon. However, when the camera shows the opposite side, the constructors’ background is formed by an array of mighty mountains. At the end, when Yerbolat remains all by himself, there can be no doubt that he will continue to build, because that’s who he is.

Peter Rollberg
The George Washington University

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The Constructors, Kazakhstan, 2013
Black & White, 67 minutes.
Language: Russian
Director: Adilkhan Yerzhanov
Screenplay: Adilkhan Yerzhanov,
Cinematography and Editing: Adilkhan Yerzhanov
Producer: Serik Abishev, Ol’ga Khlashcheva
Music: Aleksandr Sukharev
Cast: Rauf Khabibullin, Yerbolat Yerzhanov, Aliya Zayulova
Produced by Short Brothers, Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC), Soros Foundation Kazakhstan.

Adilkhan Yerzhanov: The Constructors (Stroiteli, 2013)

reviewed by Peter Rollberg © 2014

Updated: 16 Apr 14