Issue 46 (2014)

Zhanna Issabaeva: Nagima (Kazakhstan, 2013)

reviewed by Volha Isakava© 2014

nagimaNagima is a visually stunning and narratively bleak art-house drama and the fourth feature film by Kazakh director Zhanna Issabaeva. Acclaimed by critics, the film premiered at the Busan Film Festival, screened at the Berlinale Forum section and won the Grand Prix at the Deauville Asian Film Festival. The eponymous heroine, Nagima (Dina Tukubaeva), works as a dishwasher in a restaurant, where she collects meagerly wages and leftover food to take home. She lives in a shantytown on the outskirts of Almaty together with pregnant Ania (Maria Nezhentseva), whom she takes care of and calls “sister.” Both young women are orphans and bonded at the orphanage where they both lived from an early age. Marginalized by society, they live in poverty and have no official papers or access to healthcare, while Ania is suffering from pregnancy complications. The only people who show them kindness are their prostitute neighbor, Ninka (Galina P'ianova), and a shopkeeper (Aidar Mukhametzhanov), who occasionally loans Nagima food. Fairly quickly into the film Ania is taken to the hospital where she dies in childbirth. Nagima is left alone, traumatized and bewildered by the loss of her only intimate human connection. The rest of the film centers on Nagima’s desperate search to re-establish this connection, denied to her every step of the way.

nagimaIn various interviews Issabaeva mentioned that the inspiration for Nagima was the fact that all orphans upon their graduation from the state-run boarding schools are given the records of their real parents, who abandoned them. Nagima starts her journey by going across the country in search of her birth mother. But the mother she finds dismisses Nagima with cruelty and violence. The depth of Nagima’s despair and isolation are particularly felt when she faints upon her return from the trip, and later desperately asks the shopkeeper to tell her he loves her. After visiting Ania’ baby, who is now also placed in an orphanage, Nagima steals the child when she is not granted the adoption of the baby-girl. Finally, she seems to have found someone to love and care for. The young woman, however, is unable to care for the baby: she lacks both the knowledge and the means to sustain a child. In a dramatic finale, instead of returning the baby to the orphanage, Nagima tries to smash the baby's head with a boulder. Unable to go through with it, she throws her off a cliff, convinced that “nobody will ever love her,” and the baby would grow into suffering, neglect and isolation, very much like Nagima herself.

nagimaNagima has a minimalist storyline that underscores its themes of isolation and abandonment. The camera adopts an observational mode, with prominent long takes and minimal dialogue (the first words are uttered thirteen minutes in). The film is deliberately devoid of human presence and has only a handful of characters, most of them women. Nagima’s focus on women, female friendship, motherhood, and prostitution, delegates male characters to the sidelines (it is women who make all the hard choices). At the same time, it indirectly implies men's complicity with the system that victimizes women: Ania dies during childbirth and the father of her child is never revealed; the shopkeeper, while kind to Nagima, is unwilling to involve himself to help her; the landlord gives Nagima a break only after receiving sexual favors from Ninka. Women are left alone to struggle and nobody is more isolated than Nagima herself. The film repeatedly centers on Nagima’s small fragile body placed against empty surroundings: she is alone on the bus, in her room, at the bus stop, in the street. Nagima appears both stoic and emotionless, she barely speaks and her blank stare rarely betrays the depth of despair she experiences at the loss of her “sister.” Played by a real orphan and a first-time actress, Dina Tukubaeva, Nagima’s character seems to be taken out of Robert Bresson’s playbook. Similar to Mouchette (1967), for example, social commentary and personal misery in Nagima are even more powerful given the restrained acting, and the emphasis on visual rather than verbal narration.

nagimaThe film's bleakness and shocking finale also put Nagima on a par with independent cinema that is interested in the social rather than the psychological. The celebrated Romanian films of the 2000s (like 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Mungiu 2007) or The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Puiu 2005)) come to mind, as well as some recent Russian films that are particularly attuned to the issues of social justice and could be seen as rejuvenating this trend in Russian cinema: The Fool (Durak, dir. Iurii Bykov, 2014), Hope Factory (Kombinat Nadezhda, dir. Meshchaninova, 2014), Correction Class (Klass korrektsii, dir. Ivan Tverdovskii, 2014), or Leviathan (dir. Andrei Zviagintsev 2014). Nagima is both the victim and the product of a dysfunctional system that delegates people like her to the fringes of society. The film does not shy away from showing the socio-economic woes of living on the margins (hunger, poverty, disease, terrible living conditions). However, it is most concerned with the metaphysical consequences of social marginalization: Nagima is discarded and abandoned, isolated and unwanted, by the state, society, community and family. Having lost her only friend and anchor to the “normal” world of human connection and compassion, Nagima is adrift for much of the film unable to grasp any other normality, and finally embraces the monstrous crime, infanticide, as the only way to escape the world where nobody “would ever love her.”

issabaevaThe last scene of the film is particularly shocking. Using a shot-reverse shot technique, the scene juxtaposes Nagima wielding a heavy rock with the baby's angelic face for what seems like eternity, before Nagima, unable to go through with the gruesome, but possibly more merciful killing, throws the baby abruptly off the cliff, which ends the film. Issabaeva is no stranger to rattling viewers' sensibilities: the sexually explicit content of her last film Losing Virginity in Alma-Ata (Teriaia nevinnost’ v Alma-Ate, 2011) stirred public controversy, leading to difficulties with the screening of the film. It seems that during the final scene, the somber restrained pace Nagima adopts for much of its running time, wavers in favor of exploitation of human despair and deprivation that the film worked hard to establish in an oblique, objective and “paradocumentary” way (Abdullaeva 2014). This over-dramatization of social malaise is not the only excessive tendency in the film. Nagima is very rigorously done and is a particularly beautiful film. Similar to Twelve Years a Slave (McQueen 2013), for example, where violence and despair of protagonist’s situation are set against the backdrop of lavish Southern nature, the brutality and hopelessness of Nagima's narrative is juxtaposed with formally complex, beautifully executed visuals. Nagima's visuals gravitate towards meticulously arranged spaces in Rodchenko-like geometrical patterns and expressive angles. For example, the motif of restrain or blockage that Nagima experiences is visually represented with various bars that cross the frame or constructions that obstruct our vision. In other words, Nagima is almost artificially well-done. It is a terrible tragedy that is told in an aesthetically pleasing way. Unlike in Twelve Years a Slave, this contrast does not call for revulsion in the viewer, making the spectator more acutely aware of the tragedy the film describes. Rather, Nagima reminded me of the dilemma posed by the “tracking shot in Kapo” in the text by Serge Daney (1992), which deliberated whether there is an ethical breach in creating cinematically beautiful images of immeasurable suffering (the original text dealt with the Holocaust). It is an overindulgence in the craft, the ability to create beauty out of any image, regardless of its message. Nagima strives to capture life in its social despondency and personal despair, but slips (or maybe just tilts) towards excess of dramatic story-telling and aesthetic self-gratification. These minor observations aside, Nagima is a formidable film that is an outstanding contribution to the new Kazakh cinema.

Volha Isakava
Central Washington University

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Works Cited

Abdullaeva, Zara. 2014. “Ne liubov'.”  36th Moscow International Film Festival Blog. 10 July  Iskusstvo Kino.

Daney, Serge. 1992. “The Tracking Shot in Kapo.” Traffic 4.


Nagima, Kazakhstan 2013,
120 minutes, color
Director: Zhanna Issabaeva
Producer: Zhanna Issabaeva, Erlan Bazhanov
Script: Zhanna Issabaeva
Cinematography: Sayat Zhangazinov
Art Director: Anton Bolkunov
Sound: Adil Merekenov
Company: Sun Productions
Cast: Dina Tukubaeva, Galina P'ianova, Maria Nezhentseva, Aidar Mukhametzhanov

Zhanna Issabaeva: Nagima (Kazakhstan, 2013)

reviewed by Volha Isakava© 2014

Updated: 04 Oct 14