Issue 49 (2015)
Marat Sarulu: The Move (Pereezd/Köch, Kyrgyzstan 2014)
reviewed by Anna Nieman © 2015
Beyond the River. A search for home and identity in Marat Sarulu’s The Move
In the award-winning three-hour long meditative narrative of alienation and spatial displacement The Move, Kyrgyz filmmaker Marat Sarulu revisits the issues of family and personal and national identity at the center of his earlier films Song from the Southern Seas (Pesn' iuzhnykh morei, 2008), Rough River, Placid Sea (Burnaia reka, bezmiatezhnoe more, 2004), and My Brother, the Great Silk Road (Brat moi, shelkovyi put', 2001).
Sarulu tells the “small tragedy” of a small family, made even smaller by the ascetic geometry of the panoramic landscapes against which it is set: the five-year-old Ainazik (Ainazik Bekbalaeva), her grandfather Sagyn-bayke (Sagyndyk Makekadyrov) and her mother Perizat (Perizat Ermanbetova).
In a mud hut on the banks of the Naryn River, Sagyn-bayke and Ainazik lead what seems to be a very simple but content life. The grandfather works at a water-pumping station while the little girl happily roams about, exploring the grassy hills along the river. The two share an almost symbiotic relationship: in one scene, filmed with a quiet familial intimacy that Sarulu excels in portraying, Ainazik walks on the old man’s back to ease his pain.
Perizat comes back from the city to insist that her father and daughter move and join her in a new apartment that she is on the verge of securing. For Sagyn-bayke the move means leaving behind the home that extends beyond the whitewashed walls—a farewell feast with friends takes place on a cliff over the river—and the graves of his wife and son, killed in the Afghan War. Ainazik would have to say goodbye to the river and its banks, which she treats like a safe playground. In return, Perizat promises, the family will have a future together within the walls of the apartment she has been working for so hard.
Water as home, water as identity
The film opens with a lengthy shot of the river Naryn, the main water artery in Kyrgyzstan. The waters of the river flow steadily and freely in the opening shots of the film, and the daily routine of the two characters flows along with it. Sarulu employs water as both visual and thematic counterpoint to illustrate changing fortunes of his characters while recognizing the role the river, with its dams, reservoirs and hydroelectric stations, has played in the life of Kyrgyzstan—a water-rich nation when compared to its arid neighbors.
As the curvature of hills, mimicking the undulating waves below, is about to be replaced by redundant horizontal lines of cables and rails and repetitive geometric patterns of utilitarian architecture, the actual flow of water on screen is restricted in multiple ways. Once the difficult decision to move is made, Sarulu cuts to the massive dam of a hydroelectric power station. The mighty Naryn now trickles slowly, its natural flow interrupted and its brilliant blue gone. Before the departure, Ainazik is given a jar with a goldfish which will accompany her through her trials, mirroring the fate of the girl for whom “home” will come to mean entrapment. Within the city limits, the water struggles to find its way, much like the characters: it’s forced through a faucet, as Perizat toils over a sink in a Chinese restaurant; it swirls, murky and sudsy, in a washing machine of a children’s home.
In attempt to replicate the routine of morning tea-time, Sagyn-bayke goes to fetch water, but instead of the free-flowing river he has to get it from a rusted cistern. The growing scarceness of an unabated flow becomes a symbol of the familial dissolution and homelessness. Homesick, Ainazik begs her grandpa to “go to the river,” but when they reach the bridge they discover only a dried-up riverbed. The quite real drought that plagued Kyrgyzstan during the filming becomes a metaphor for the loss of home and, with it, the threat to national identity that is tightly connected to the water resources.
While Sarulu chooses not to address the issues of the water shortages in his country directly, the reality of the crisis is felt throughout the film. The undeniable connection of characters’ identity to the river becomes obvious later: Perizat reaches her nadir as she walks into the reservoir and lets out a gut-wrenching cry; she can’t return home and yet she can’t go on. She has failed in her attempt to create a home for her family beyond the riverbanks. Her wading, waist-deep, into the water can also be seen as atonement for her failure.
Ultramarine: Beyond the Sea
The desaturated, but high-contrast palette of The Move is punctuated throughout with brilliant ultramarine. Sarulu uses the color as a signifier of sorts, modifying its saturation and frequency of occurrence as it relates to the characters’ search for home, until the very end when the color is diluted and muddied, turning into faded, institutional oil paint on the walls of the childcare home where Perizat is forced to abandon her daughter.
Blue, the color of the Naryn and the sky, is the color of home in Sarulu’s ascetic production. Figures and faces of his characters are consistently presented as framed within the frame of the screen, almost inevitably by a blue window or a door. The juxtaposition of color and geometry is most pronounced in the scenes inside a train car where the fragile family makes its temporary home. Perizat brings her older son, who lives with his father, for the weekend. There is a fancy cake with butter-cream roses as the family gathers around a tiny table for some tea. Some hope for the future home still lingers as the characters settle. The entire car is painted blue, inside and out, but the windows of the trailer have prison-like steel bars and the distant hills are no more than a reflection in the window pane. The shaky hope quickly fades as Perizat loses both her savings and her apartment, and is forced to leave for the far-away Moscow, where she hopes to find a job.
Ultramarine, the precious pigment of Jan Vermeer’s palette, is used in the film both as an ethereal, elevated color born from the precious lapis lazuli, and a purely utilitarian shade of cheap oil-based paint.
In his review of the film for Iskusstvo kino the critic Sergei Anashkin recalls a book of photographs by Shailo Djekshenbaev that Sarulu published and for which he wrote an introduction in 2006. In the asceticism of the self-sufficient landscapes the director found “content-less meaning”—it dissolves “within the static atmosphere of the shot, consumes it with a general mood,” creating a special “chronotope of silence,” when “time transitions into space.” (Anashkin 2014). Anashkin sees a direct connection to the future film in Sarulu’s interpretation and curation of the photographer’s work.
The artfully deserted landscapes of The Move communicate a profound sense of sublime loss and nostalgic yearning that the Germans call Sehnsucht,and—as the catalogue entry to the Rotterdam International Film Festival (2015) stated: “In evoking the feeling of sorrow about the fragility of existence, the director mirrors a trend in Japanese art that is called yugen.”
Sarulu: “True human form”
In their devastating beauty, the derelict outskirts of Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, are somewhat reminiscent of the outskirts of industrialized Ravenna, where Michelangelo Antonioni filmed Red Desert (Il deserto rosso, 1964), his story of human alienation and dissolution set against an industrial background. The figures of Sagyn-bayke and Ainazik silhouetted against the river intimate those of Giuliana and her small son with the billowing smoke and the orange flashes of smokestacks burning off the oil behind them.
While Antonioni’s film is focused on the discontent of the middle-class, The Move’s characters are what Kyrgyz people sometimes call by the derogatory term myrk, which can be roughly translated as “bumpkin,” or “country trash.” In the radio contribution “The inner nomad and the alchemy of language,” Sarulu, who considers the term to be culturally and racially charged, delineates the binary opposition of “a country Kyrgyz and a cultured city Kirgiz” and connects the term with lack of personal, individual voice, to which he counterpoises “true human form,”directly associated with Logos. (Sarulu 2014)
When it comes to expressing themselves, with the notable exception of Ainazik, the characters’ verbal exchange may seem emotionally stilted and limited to simple sentences; they possess great, if inhibited, emotional capacity. For Perizat the expressions of internal turmoil come in paroxysmal outbursts among the stubbornly desperately stoic attempt to create a home for her family. Ainazik, the fearless explorer of the external spaces, is explicitly connected to the natural world along the Naryn River; she expresses a clear, if idealistic, concept of home: she tells her grandfather of a dream in which all of them finally gather around a dinner table. Later, she takes her brother to see her “dream house,” located literally on the other side of the tracks. Among the forlorn and decrepit apartment buildings and piercing lines of the railroad, the sturdy white house looks almost otherworldly. Perhaps, her connectivity to the outer spaces (earlier in the film she sways in perfect harmony with the tall grasses), signals acute perception and a quiet mind (Sarulu 2014).
For Antonioni’s mid-twentieth century characters, the transformation of the landscape was pretty recent; the industry was booming, complex structures were coming up to “send signals to the Martians,” and the director found a certain beauty in it. Sarulu, of course, is a man of a much different time and place. In an interview with Gulnara Abikeeva back in 2003, the director lamented the state of his country, an experience common in the post-Soviet space: “In Silk Road, My Brother […] one of the characters says a very important phrase: ‘We all lost our Motherland’. Motherland is not that patch of land that we are walking on; it’s something grander. And we are losing it... We now have blank type of people.” (Abikeeva 2003) The notion of home, or Motherland, as an internal, spiritual state is perhaps central for Sarulu as a filmmaker-philosopher. As he contemplates the idea of myrk and the loss, or rather inhibited development, of individuality, Sarulu states: “Our existence is held together not by nature, nor nurture, nor the inertia of tradition, nor the native tongue, nor the notorious ‘genetics,’ but the true human form that exists at the edge of ability and is being created through personal efforts.” (Sarulu 2014). The “personal efforts” of his characters may seem futile, but as the Naryn keeps its waters rolling against the dam, they keep on going.
This feeling of a limit that has been reached is rendered through the static camera (cinematography by Boris Troshev), passively observing the plight of the characters. The view is often obstructed; our eye can’t travel freely, as it meets frames, door jambs and corners. Vermeer’s legacy is felt again in the chiaroscuro that draws the viewer to characters’ faces through the shadows that threaten to swallow them. The passivity and the slight elevation of the viewpoint may suggest the presence of another necessary part of Logos: the universal absolute Reality bearing witness to the melancholy journey. As the journey is winding down, and both Ainazik and her grandfather are entering the walls of state institutions, the light streaming through the windows is dimmed and long hallways appear tunnel-like, subterranean.
It is no wonder that Ainazik cannot bear to stay there. Indifferently innocuous workers of the children’s home become cruel in their treatment of the girl—not because they wish to harm her, but because the institutional routine that harks back to the Soviet era is meant to strip her of her identity, her “human form.” Notably, Ainazik is forced to sing the same traditional ditty that she and her grandpa happily sang on the banks of the river in the beginning; her refusal to sing sends her into a timeout. The girl’s eventual escape may be interpreted as the very “personal effort” that, according to Sarulu, is required for creation of “true human form”.
Be that as it may, when the evening falls and the screen fades to black, Ainazik is still a five-year old left alone in trash-strewn post-industrial wasteland.
Antonioni said: “I think filmmakers should always try to reflect the times in which they live – not so much to express and interpret events in their most tragic form, but rather to capture their effect upon us” (quoted in Strick 1963, 8). Marat Sarulu has undoubtedly achieved this by taking his patient audience on a journey to experience the effects recent history has had on his homeland and its people.
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Abikeeva, Gulnara. 2003. “To Preserve the Nerve Alive,” Interview with Marat Sarulu, KinoKultura Special Issue #1,
Anashkin, Sergei. 2014. “Marshrut Bespriyutnykh. ‘Pereezd’, Rezhisser Marat Sarulu.” Iskusstvo kino 11.
Sarulu, Marat. 2014. “Vnutrennii kochevnik i alkhimiia iazyka,” Radio Azattyk, 26 June.
Strick Philip. 1963. Michelangelo Antonioni. London: Motion Publications.
The Move, Kyrgyzstan 2014
Color, 178 minutes
Director: Marat Surulu
Screenplay: Marat Sarulu
Cinematography: Boris Troshev
Production Design: Shailoobek Jekshenbaev
Editing: Gani Kudaibergen
Music: Aleksandr Yurtaev
Sound: Murat Ajiyev
Cast: Sagyndyk Makekadyrov, Perizat Ermanbaeva, Ainazik Bekbalaeva
Producers: Marat Sarulu, Gulmira Kerimova, Taalaibek Kulmendeev
Production: Mandala Film, Kyrgyzfilm
Marat Sarulu: The Move (Pereezd/Köch, Kyrgyzstan 2014)
reviewed by Anna Nieman © 2015