Issue 51 (2016)
Zhasulan Poshanov: Toll Bar (Shlagbaum, 2015)
reviewed by Olga Klimova© 2016
Zhasulan Poshanov’s film Toll Bar is the first example of a newly established artistic movement in contemporary Kazakh cinema, Partisan Cinema, represented by Adilkhan Yerzhanov, Askar Uzabaev, Zhassulan Poshanov, Aleksandr Sukharev, Talgat Bektursynov, Denis Borisov, and Viacheslav Kornev. Three members of Partisan Cinema participated in the production of Toll Bar: besides Poshanov’s role as director, Uzabaev acted as producer, while Yerzhanov wrote the script.
In Toll Bar the filmmakers carefully follow the main points of their own manifesto which they published on Internet in the summer of 2014. The principles of the new cinematic movement include low budget, social realism, and new forms. Their manifesto is the result of the disappointment which the young directors feel about the film industry, not only in Kazakhstan but also in Russia. According to them, “cinema and society have separated and no longer cross each other’s paths” (Erzhanov, Uzabaev, et al. 2014), and most contemporary films aim at moneymaking and not at addressing the most burning social issues in society. They chose Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson, Ken Loach and other representatives of the British “Angry Young Men” movement of the 1950s as their role models for a kind of filmmaking that reveals social ills through simple, but innovative cinematic forms. Similar to the Brits, the young Kazakh filmmakers want to make new films that focus on real, concrete situations and problems of society, whilst avoiding parables and varnishing of reality.
The filmmakers of Partisan Cinema are not afraid of making films that are “simple, honest, bold,” films that “dissent, [are] out of place, and unpopular” (Erzhanov, Uzabaev et al., 2014). Poshanov’s Toll Bar embodies all of Partisan Cinema’s principles and intentions. Despite his previous experience with commercial filmmaking, making two films, Zhel Kyzy (The Girl-Wind, 2010) and Fashyk Zhurek-2 (Cocktail for the Star-2) and the TV series Sunkar (2013) and Kuliash (2013), Poshanov does not attempt to make his new film a financial success. His goal is rather to create a cinematic text that will start new tendencies in Kazakh filmmaking similar to the “Angry Young Men.”
With a budget of only USD 15,000, and without support from the Kazakh government, Poshanov and his crew have utilized every opportunity to make an interesting and socially acute film. They use natural lighting and local settings to save money: they even moved the fight scene at the nightclub from the street into the interior, because there was not enough light outside. They were able to keep within budget also because the producer, Askar Uzabaev, has his own film studio and all the actors worked without pay. The crew spent only eighteen days making the film, which also saved some money. Besides keeping his budget low, Poshanov also tries to be faithful to the second principle of Partisan Cinema: he made a film about social and class issues in contemporary Kazakhstan. Following the principle of social realism, he relies on a true story for his film’s narrative. Toll Bar is based on real events—a conflict between a rich man and a guard—that happened in Shymkent, Kazakhstan, in 2007 or 2008 (Azarov 2015). Poshanov’s film has proven that even a non-blockbuster, low-budget type of cinema can be appreciated by audiences and receive recognition among film critics and professionals.
Toll Bar has become Poshanov’s open ticket to the festival circuit. Starting with the Moscow International Film Festival, where the actor Yerkebulan Daiyrov received the Best Actor award, it was presented in the Central-Asian competition of Shaken’s Constellation during Eurasia Film Festival in Almaty, at Busan IFF and Phnom Penh IFF. Originally intended only for the festival circuit, Toll Bar, with a story that is simple and relevant to the contemporary situation in Kazakhstan, was distributed in the country and reached a large audience nationally and internationally since October 2015.
The film’s title signifies the important narrative and metaphorical image of a toll bar. The film begins and concludes with similar bird’s-eye-view shots of a toll bar in a parking lot, and it appears throughout the narrative multiple times. It also links the two protagonists—Rauan and Aidar. Rauan holds out two jobs: at the private parking lot in a residential area, and as a security guard at a nightclub. He has to support his young brother, with whom he lives in a small rented room, unable to pay the rent. Because Rauan is always tired, he fails to lift the toll bar to let residents leave the parking lot. Moreover, the equipment often does not work, and on numerous occasions the buttons fail to function properly, just as Rauan’s life gradually falls apart. He dreams about college for his younger brother and a professional career as a boxer for himself; however, because of his busy work schedule, he constantly falls asleep at his workplace and cannot attend his boxing training regularly. The other protagonist, Aidar, is one of the residents of the elite apartment building, who has to deal with Rauan’s “bad” work habits and wait a few extra minutes to leave the parking lot. He comes from the affluent family of an oil tycoon, lives in a luxury apartment, studies at a foreign university in Almaty, and prepares to apply to a British university. Thus, the toll bar separates two worlds—Rauan’s world of struggle, desperation, poverty, and disrespect from his employers and clients; and Aidar’s world of money, luxury, the opportunity to study abroad, and support from an influential father.
The narrative slowly follows both protagonists and their everyday routine. The viewers get a chance to see Rauan’s two workplaces and his boxing club. Poshanov manages to convey the feeling of depression and despair by showing the space of the tollbooth and the nightclub as confined and claustrophobic. Most of the scenes in these places use medium shots and are usually in the dark or in dimmed light. Even during the day, the camera looks at Rauan sitting at the tollbooth through a blurry glass with the reflection of the street on it. Framed by the window of the tollbooth, Rauan often looks lonely, lost and confused. The domestic space does not provide him with much comfort and stability either. Moving to Almaty from the Shymkent region for better job opportunities, he has to rent a room without much furniture. He and his teenage brother sleep and eat on the floor; the camera is usually static in this space and never shows more than one part of the room at a time, thus visually hinting at Rauan’s limited, restricted opportunities.
Unlike Rauan, Aidar is usually depicted in large, bright and clean open spaces—of the university, the library, or his apartment. He has the freedom of choice and much better financial and career opportunities because of his social status and his father’s money and connections. However, he also has a metaphorical “toll bar” in his seemingly smooth and easy life. He owes written assignments to the American professor at his university, and this poses an obstacle for his plans to go to a British university independently, without his father’s help. The professor refuses to act upon the corrupt rules of Kazakh society and insists on Aidar fulfilling all the requirements for his course before he will approve his stay in England. This dilemma, which might not be as serious as the problems that Rauan encounters—losing his job at the night club, being beaten up by the club’s owners, and kicked out by his landlord—shows that the life of the rich might also be not as perfect as it seems on the surface. Many of Aidar’s actions and decisions have an ulterior motive: to break from his father’s smothering care and patronage. When the two protagonists’ paths cross once again, this time at the lowest point of their lives, it leads to a tragedy, unexpected and inevitable at the same time.
The gradual development of the events in Rauan’s and Aidar’s lives and their life-changing final resolution have an ironic continuation in the final ten minutes of the film. The last scenes are the most representative of the second principle of Partisan Cinema’s Manifesto: the expression of social reality through cinema. The active involvement of Aidar’s father in his son’s destiny reveals the vices of Kazakh society at the very top of the power structure. As Poshanov suggests in his film, connections and bribes can fix any situation whilst neglecting moral and ethic values and laws; and such practices are common in contemporary Kazakhstan.
These film’s finale also serves as an example of the last postulate of the manifesto: the use of “remonstrative forms.” After the tragic resolution between the protagonists, the story continues and focuses on Aidar’s father—a narrative trick that might be somewhat unconventional for traditional melodramatic structures and unexpected for the viewers. There is no redemption, but rather an open ending, in which Poshanov makes his last “partisan” statement. Aidar and his father are sitting in the car with the toll bar blocking their way home; and a loud, repetitive sound of car horn disrupts the peaceful, quiet urban landscape. The discrepancy between the tranquil image of the elite apartment block and the disturbing, demanding diegetic sound might be read as the director’s last attempt to wake up the dormant consciousness of Kazakh society.
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Erzhanov, Adil’khan, and Askar Uzabaev, Zhasulan Poshanov, Aleksandr Sukharev, Talgat Bektursynov, Denis Borisov, Viacheslav Kornev. 2014. “Partizanskoe kino. Manifest.” Likbez: Literaturnyi al'manakh 25
Azarov, Aleksei. 2015. “‘Shlagbaum’ na perekrestke nepokhozhikh sudeb.” Radio Azattyk (7 October).
Toll Bar, Kazakhstan, 2015
Color, 63 minutes
Director: Zhasulan Poshanov
Producers: Askar Uzabaev, Gaukhar Aitzhanova
Screenplay: Zhassulan Poshanov, Adilkhan Yerzhanov [Erzhanov]
Production Design: Gaukhat Abutalif
Cinematography: Azamat Dulatov
Editing: Ernar Nurgaliyev
Music: Alim Zairov
Cast: Yerkebulan Daiyrov, Azat Zhumadil, Didar Kaden, Elina Shakeeva, Aldash Shalbaev
Production: 567 Creative Laboratory
Zhasulan Poshanov: Toll Bar (Shlagbaum, 2015)
reviewed by Olga Klimova© 2016