Issue 45 (2014)

Serik Aprymov: Little Brother (Bauyr, 2013)

reviewed by Vitaly Chernetsky © 2014

bauyrThe latest film by one of the leading figures of the so-called Kazakh New Wave that emerged in the late 1980s, Little Brother continues many of the thematic and aesthetic concerns characteristic of Serik Aprymov’s earlier work. His films are typically set in a village, focus on children or young people, and present an unsparing, pessimistic view of life. Aprymov frequently underscores his affinity to the traditions of the French New Wave cinema, its predilections for seemingly fragmented, minimalist plots, rejection of expensive and fancy sets, frequent use of non-professional actors, and preference for natural lighting (Kudarova 2013).

Based on Aprymov’s own script, the film focuses on Yerken, a nine-year-old boy who, we are shocked to find, lives in a house all by himself. A loner also at school, seemingly not friends with any of his schoolmates who routinely tease him, he is curiously stern and mature in some aspects of his behavior. He earns money by making adobe bricks and has an older female neighbor cook for him. Yerken helps his school principal when the latter is having a stroke and is waiting for medical attention; later, he also helps one of his schoolteachers, a drunken old man unable to get back into his own home, enter the house; in a telling role reversal, Yerken even puts the old man into bed. In another episode, Yerken is the only child among adults at a fellow villager’s funeral, participating as an equal. But some of the boy’s behavior seems odd, alternatively hyper-rational to the point of autism and overly trusting of the adults who, on a number of occasions, behave in a brazenly cruel and mendacious way towards the child. Yerken doggedly follows what he thinks is the right way to behave, all the abuse notwithstanding. But what propels him, and why is he all alone?

bauyrThe boy tells the adults who inquire about his family that his older brother is studying in the city, his father is away on a business trip, and his mother died when he was four years old. But Yerken expects his brother to come back soon, and he is even keeping a sheep he intends to slaughter to have a feast for the neighbors when the brother comes back. However, when the older brother Aidos, in his late teens or early twenties, does come back to the village, things don’t go as Yerken had planned. Yerken is full of joy at first, but the brother’s behavior seems odd; while it feels like he indeed cares about Yerken and in his own inept way tries to mentor him, the results are hit-or-miss. In some respects Aidos is even poorer at communication than Yerken. He does try to teach his little brother some martial arts to be able to stand up to bullies; the two also go to a local cinema, where they are the only spectators in the hall while a saccharine-looking children’s film plays on the screen. After an abrupt turn of events unexplained to the viewer, Aidos comes home badly cut and bruised and announces he has to leave the following day. As the two brothers talk, it emerges that the reason behind their father’s absence is darker and more shameful: he has left the village and Yerken to live with another woman. The plot twists, such as the story of the boy caring for a sheep, the theft of that sheep by an unscrupulous man, and Yerken striving to replace the lost treasure so that he could meet his returning brother with proper dignity; or Yerken’s interaction with the teachers and staff at school and various other villagers—these episodes add up to create a well-rounded, penetrating psychological study of the boy. At the end of the film, he walks down a highway, all alone, into the sunset. On some level, we have come to know him very well; still, in many ways Yerken remains an enigma.

bauyrLittle Brother premiered in the Horizons program at the 2013 Venice Film Festival. In his directorial statement included in festival materials, Aprymov emphasized that he conceived it as a loving but unsentimental depiction of the boy’s world. The viewer is made to follow Yerken’s footsteps and see the world from his perspective as he tries to learn and find a logical explanation in situations that often look illogical and regrettable. Yerken is determined to go on, survive, and continue on the journey of discovery of the world he lives in and of the contradictory rules that govern it. During the film, he is genuinely happy only once, and he cries only once; otherwise, his face bears a look of stern resolve or puzzlement.

bauyrThe visual aspect of the film is truly remarkable: a humdrum remote Kazakh village becomes a strangely poetic, mesmerizing place. The dominant colors are subdued, faded browns, blues, and reds. The palette is established in the very first moments of Little Brother, when from a close-up of a young boy’s feet stomping clay mixed with straw, then his hands filling with this mixture the mold for making adobe bricks, we move to see him washing his hands in a pale blue plastic bin; then the camera pans to a sun-drenched panorama of a house on a dusty village street on a hot day in late spring or early summer. Twice in the film, in a stunning clash with the washed-out colors of the world presented to us, we see a Fellini-esque appearance of a clown, dressed in garish-colored clothes and riding in a donkey-pulled cart, travelling to and from a children’s party in some other village. When Yerken discovers the remains of the sheep stolen from him, this also happens in a breathtakingly beautiful landscape of arid grassy hills reminiscent of the American Southwest; the boy even meets there a man on horseback who looks like a Kazakh cowboy; like the clown, he comes across as a mysterious messenger from the outside world that Yerken strives to understand.

bauyrThe camera’s meditative pans, pauses and retreats, as well as the shifts of focus in the frame help build a psychological connection between the viewers and Yerken, zeroing in on the only world the boy knows. In interior spaces, medium close-ups predominate, helping create an impression of intimacy; the point-of-view shots are only from Yerken’s perspective. There is no voiceover narration, and the dialogue is sparse, helping establish the overall sensation of meditative slowness punctuated by puzzlement. The characters populating the film come across as simultaneously eccentric and banal in their eccentricity. The film presents itself as a small, intimate work, low on action and emphatic on the atmosphere, both creating a detailed, palpable, un-exotic view of contemporary Kazakh countryside and appealing to universal themes.

Vitaly Chernetsky
University of Kansas

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Works Cited

Kudarova, Elena (2013), “9 faktov iz zhizni Serika Aprymova,”, Brodvei 25 October.

Little Brother, Kazakhstan, 2013
Color, 94 minutes
Director: Serik Aprymov
Screenplay: Serik Aprymov
Cinematography: Aleksandr Rubanov
Editing: Sylvain Coutandin
Art Director: Aleksei Shindin
Music: Myrzali Zhienbaev
Cast: Almat Galym, Alisher Aprymov, Dokdurbek Kydyraliev, Murat Omarov, Aidos Bektemir
Producers: Gulmira Zaripova, Dinara Aprymova

Serik Aprymov: Little Brother (Bauyr, 2013)

reviewed by Vitaly Chernetsky © 2014