Issue 45 (2014)
Emir Baigazin: Harmony Lessons (Uroki garmonii, 2013)
reviewed by Tatiana Filimonova© 2014
Bleak steppe landscapes, gory details of rural life, depictions of a crumbling educational infrastructure, socially charged dialogues, and naturalistic scenes of human and insect torture come together in this Kazakhstani feature that is part classroom drama, part psychological thriller and part dreamy meditation on the social implications of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. While adding to the set of Kazakhstani films that romanticize the steppe and its nomadic culture (e.g. Sergei Dvortsevoi’s Tulpan, 2008), the film also joins Abai Kulbai’s Strizh (2007) in exploring the social dynamics of adolescence. However, contrary to audience expectation, Emir Baigazin’s position remains closer to that of an objective observer than a didactic moralist. While stylistically Baigazin borrows heavily from the masters of auteur cinema, his film proves more innovative in its content.
Set in rural Kazakhstan, the film follows its reclusive teenage protagonist Aslan both at school and wandering through the surrounding steppe. Aslan’s preoccupation with cleanliness and with the physical capabilities of his body is highlighted in the domestic scenes early in the film. The opening sequence offers static glimpses of late summer in the grassy steppe, echoing the beginning of Nikita Mikhalkov’s film Urga. Close to Eden (Urga, territoriia liubvi, 1991). Mikhalkov comes to mind again when Aslan slaughters a lamb at his grandmother’s request in a scene that sets up the prevailing naturalistic tone for the rest of the film. Aslan is covered in blood, but, like Mikhalkov’s protagonist, he does not seem afraid to get his hands dirty as he extracts the lamb’s organs through a cut in its abdomen. His grandmother’s reminder to utter the purifying Muslim “bismillah” suggests that the lamb’s slaughter is a ritualized act of purity that should not tarnish the boy. However, his failure to pronounce this phrase will have negative repercussions later in the film.
The film then cuts to Aslan and his schoolmates as they undergo a medical examination that involves tests of physical strength, drawing blood, and a urological examination. Alluding to the beginning of Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (Zerkalo, 1975), the camera focuses on a neurologist examining Aslan with a small hammer. Unlike in The Mirror, the viewers follow the boy through other parts of the medical exam. Angered at appearing weaker than Aslan in the tests, the school bully Bolat plays a cruel prank on him at the urology clinic, branding him as unclean in front of the other schoolboys. Bolat secures Aslan’s pariah status by declaring a boycott against him. This scene also establishes one of the film’s persistent motifs: the importance of cleanliness and purity, both in spiritual and moral terms as well as physical.
Purity provides a pathway to happiness and harmony throughout the film. For Akzhan, Aslan’s love interest, purity goes hand in hand with the harmonious laws of the Koran. Akzhan adamantly proclaims her desire to wear a headscarf that protects her from “dirt and immorality” and “preserves” the beauty “given her” by Allah. For her, cleanliness and purity are part of the spiritual realm.
For Mirsayn, Aslan’s only friend throughout the film, harmony and happiness are directly linked to his childhood memories of a carefree life in the city, before he moved to the country following his parents’ divorce. He carries a voucher card for the “Happylon” arcade center, a totem symbolizing this happy time when his thoughts were free from anything but arcade games, which provided a distraction for him from the challenges of growing up. Throughout the film, the “Happylon” card becomes a persistent symbol of unattainable harmony for both Mirsayn and Aslan as the boys dream of escaping the rural settlement.
Physical or medical purity is exemplified by Aslan’s obsessive compulsion with hygiene. The camera often fixes on Aslan examining himself in the mirror, zealously washing his body, or attempting to correct a minor neuro-physiological flaw: his inability to touch the tip of his nose with his right hand. Aslan’s obsession with hygiene intensifies after he watches a program about cockroaches on television. Compelled to catch all the roaches in his house, Aslan is unable to kill them with his hands as they are unclean, unlike the lamb whose blood covered Aslan’s arms and clothes earlier in the film. Instead, he invents sophisticated ways of killing the insects, paving the way for the sadism that appears later in the film; he applies his knowledge of physics to electrocute the roaches, foreshadowing both the imaginary and real torture of the boys in the second half of the film.
There is a sharp shift in the mood of the film when an incident in the chemistry classroom exposes Aslan as “unclean” and sparks conflict between Bolat and Mirsayn. Standing up for his friend, Mirsayn gets beaten up after class by Bolat’s gang. This incident marks a drastic turn in the plot as Aslan swears revenge on the bullies. Drawing on his knowledge of various school subjects, Aslan draws up a plan to shoot Bolat and manages to build a gun. Here, the film emphasizes the irony of the education system: the school purportedly teaches Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence, but the dry, formulaic instruction fails to deliver its essence to students. Aslan instead derives his logic of violence from a crude version of Darwinian natural selection, the rudiments of which he has also acquired at school. Even though the murder happens off-screen, the audience is led to assume that Aslan is responsible for Bolat’s murder.
The second half of the film is devoted to the police investigation of the murder, in which both Aslan and Mirsayn are initially implicated. The boys are detained together in a cell, and are subsequently questioned and tortured at the police station. The naturalism of the first part of the film gives way here to lengthy scenes of torture and sadism, heavily alluding to the grim style of recent films by Lars von Trier. The boys now turn against one another and try to implicate each other in Bolat’s murder. When Mirsayn denounces Aslan, Aslan responds by killing Mirsayn and staging his murder as a suicide. Fearing they will be blamed for Mirsayn’s death, the police release Aslan from jail.
The last scenes of the film demonstrate how the clash of value systems in rural Kazakhstan, the perils of social ostracism and the physical challenges of adolescence can combine to affect the mind of a teenager. Aslan cannot sort out the hierarchy of values between personal friendship, the street law that dominates the school, religious and physical purity, and the consumerist happiness of urban childhood symbolized by the Happylon arcade. Religious motifs become prominent in the film’s final scenes. Aslan sees his resurrected victims waving from across a lake, challenging him to walk across the water like Jesus. The slaughtered lamb is resurrected too, and happily runs on water across the lake. Is forgiveness the final answer? Or is the careless childhood of arcade games, now inaccessible to Aslan, the path to inner harmony? The subdued colors throughout the film serve to emphasize the brightness and radiance of the final scenes at the arcade and imaginary lake. This contrast suggests that ultimately purity and harmony can only exist in Aslan’s imagination, in which he appears innocent of the committed murders and does not face punishment.
The film is rich with symbolic imagery, visual and semantic parallels and intertextuality. The scene that Aslan witnesses on his winter walk—a rogue fisherman illegally blasting fish—parallels Aslan’s electrocution of cockroaches. Aslan’s torture of the insects is mirrored by the police detectives’ torture of the boys and strategy to turn them against each other. The persistent geometric imagery—blackboard drawings in the mathematics classroom, origami, and patterns on oriental rugs—systematically reflect Alsan’s obsessive compulsion with cleanliness, symmetry and harmony. Even the appearance of twin brothers to challenge Bolat’s authority in the school fits into the neat arrangement of symmetrical motifs. Bolat’s criminal authority at the school is highlighted by a scene that portrays him as the powerful “Godfather,” alluding to Francis Ford Coppola’s classic film. The overall meditation on the purity of rural life and contemplation of childhood, adolescence and growing up is reflected in numerous allusions to Tarkovsky’s The Mirror. Baigazin uses recurrent images of mirrors, spilt milk and the almost verbatim reproduction of the Brueghel sequence on the wintery hill.
Harmony Lessons follows in the tradition of not only Tarkovsky, but also, as critics have noted, Robert Bresson (Rooney 2013). Tarkovsky praised Bresson’s work as an ideal of simplicity, admiring his cinema because “nothing incidental could ever creep into his rigidly ascetic selection of means of expression” (Tarkovsky 1986: 189). Baigazin’s film visually reinforces the idea of purity and physical cleanliness, aiming to be simple and laconic in style. The frame is often sterile, with few objects carefully complementing the mise-en-scene. The film is characterized by slow long takes, with the camera mostly static, offering long focus landscapes and close-up portraits of the protagonists. Baigazin achieves an even greater degree of asceticism and purity by avoiding non-diegetic sound throughout most of the film. Sound and music dominate only two brief shots throughout the film, first accompanying Aslan’s dream about Akzhan, and then in his imagined interaction with his resurrected friend at the arcade.
A Kazakhstani, German and French co-production, Harmony Lessons has enjoyed favorable reception among international film critics. The film brought an Award for Outstanding Artistic Contribution at the 2013 Berlinale to cameraman Aziz Zhambakiyev, making it the first Kazakhstani film to earn an award at the Berlin International Film Festival. Unfortunately, despite critical acclaim, the film’s beauty is marred: the prolonged sadistic scenes at the police station seem gratuitous, and the all-too-evident religious motifs at the end of the film undermine what seemed to be the predominantly aesthetic position of the director. However, the film’s cinematography and style, as well as its unorthodox exploration of the social, physical and mental world of a teenager undoubtedly deserve praise.
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David Rooney (2013) “Harmony Lessons: Berlin Review.” The Hollywood Reporter, 14 February.
Andrei Tarkovsky (1986), Sculpting in Time, Austin: University of Texas Press.
Harmony Lessons, Kazakhstan/Germany/France, 2013
Color, 115 minutes
Original language: Kazakh, Russian
Director: Emir Baigazin
Script: Emir Baigazin
Cinematography: Aziz Zhambakiyev
Cast: Timur Aidarbekov, Aslan Anarbayev, Mukhtar Anadassov, Anelya Adilbekova, Beibitzhan Muslimov
Production: Kazakhfilm, Shaken Aimanov; The Post Republic Halle; Rohfilm; Arizona Productions
Emir Baigazin: Harmony Lessons (Uroki garmonii, 2013)
reviewed by Tatiana Filimonova© 2014