Issue 52 (2016)

Zhanna Issabaeva: Bopem (Kazakhstan, 2015)

reviewed by Peter Hames© 2016

bopemIn a director’s statement about Bopem, Zhanna Issabaeva states how she feels pain at injustice and comments on her interest in the theme of revenge. Indeed, this is the ostensible subject of her film. When he is a little boy, Rayan and his mother are involved in a serious road accident involving a drunken policeman. His mother is killed and Rayan falls into a coma. As a result of a brain tumor, he is classified as disabled. When he develops a hematoma nine years later at the age of fourteen, he is told that he doesn’t qualify for free surgery even though he has only a few months to live. The situation increases his recall of childhood hopes, and leads to a course of revenge in which he kills his father, the policeman, and his aunt. Only the death of the policeman is premeditated.

Yet, while the film’s narrative is important, it is more of a structure promoting other levels of response and perception. For much of the film, actions come as a surprise and Rayan’s motivation is unclear. In fact, the basic situation is not revealed until two thirds of the way into the film and the film’s “explanations” fail to provide a definitive account of what we are seeing. We can contemplate a “rational” response to the situation and can feel Rayan’s mental pain, but there is no indication that the course of events could be different. Indeed, Issabaeva suggests that the judicial system is often imperfect and that “only the victim can estimate the degree of the crime and figure out an adequate punishment” (Issabaeva 2015). The violence is sudden and explosive but non-gratuitous.

The film’s action takes place in an environment of permanent impoverishment in which there seems to be little hope or prospects for improvement. The initial accident is caused by the policeman but is covered up as a result of bribes paid to Rayan’s father. While Rayan is not suspected of the murders due to his disability, they also are covered up in order to maintain reputation and to manipulate statistics. When he kills his father (who we presume to be an alcoholic), it is against the background of a television news program of meaningless commentary on endless disasters. Indeed, it is the report of a killing that seems to trigger his action. However, while the film presents a negative perspective on social conditions and an implicit criticism of the police and of medical provision, it is not really a “social” film. The narrative reaches out toward classical tragedy and the suffering that must be faced, with references to Rayan’s “journey.”

bopemThe narrative takes place on the borders of what was once the Aral Sea—the world’s fourth largest lake that was notoriously destroyed by Soviet-era irrigation projects.  Frequently described as the world’s greatest ecological disaster, a key image is the rusty hulk of a ship abandoned against an endless “desert.” The destruction of life and of thriving communities provides a clear parallel (even an explanation) for Rayan’s situation. We learn that his father had worked hard before the sea dried up. Issabaeva refers to the fact that the sea had provided a rich life that has been destroyed by human stupidity.

The film’s overwhelming power derives primarily from its evocation of landscape—the dried up sea, the empty roads, the abandoned processing plants and factories, and the houses with their peeling paint and facades. The images create a strange beauty and a striking background for Rayan’s pain and unfulfilling search for revenge. It’s a pain which we can only approach since we cannot know the emotional effects of his physical and mental injuries.

bopemThis pessimistic vision contrasts strikingly with the film’s opening and closing scenes—the mother and son approaching and departing against a rich landscape covered in red poppies. These mental flashbacks also occur three times during the course of the narrative and again at the end.  In the beginning, the young Rayan asks why the sea is dying. When his mother replies that it is sick, he asks if it can be cured. In a later scene, again by the sea, he asks why ships need flags. His mother replies that the flag is the soul and that, while it is still high, you are alive. When he sees the flag flying, he will remember his home and his mother. He will have his own flag. It is the first scene in which there is a close up of the mother’s face. In a later scene, she tells him that they are travelers, and that their home is beyond the horizon. There they will also find the gates of heaven. Those who pass through the gates will never be thirsty. Rayan’s name means he who quenched his thirst. Throughout, there is consistent reference to finding and remembering the home and the mother. The mother’s lullaby—the traditional Ay, Bopem (Oh, My Little One)—is repeated in the final scenes and she calls to him to catch up.

In many ways, the film is therefore about memory—symbolized by the black-and-white photograph of his mother that Rayan finds in his father’s old cardboard box. On a wider level, he finds an old Soviet flag in a trunk on the abandoned ship. He spends time mending it until he is finally able to fly it at the end of the film. Why is it red, his friend asks. “I don’t have any other,” he replies. In a world in which it is impossible to move on, his terms of reference are all to the past and to what has been lost. On a visit to town, the old Soviet era statues and symbols form part of the overall decay—the sense of a past that still frames the present.

bopemRayan is not without friends and is invited to late night drinking sessions, which explicitly occur after the first two murders. In three scenes, the camera follows his friend Tasbulat to Rayan’s house. Tasbulat asks him direct questions. In two scenes, he encounters a young girl and watches her closely.  In the first, there are unusual close ups of her ear, neck and hair.  Is it a reflection of what might have been or a further echo of the past?

The film’s use of image and sound is meticulous. Even the sound of goods being wrapped and that of a coin on a counter produce their own effects, or the fluttering of curtains in the bus on which he returns from town. However, it is visual imagery that carries the film, making it a succession of poetic statements that evoke rather than depict. There are montage sequences of almost still images. The sound of the wind seems omnipresent. Perhaps, the only overt flourish is Rayan’s reaction to a storm (he is particularly susceptible to the sound of rain). The image of rain on the window is angled, and his bodily reaction exaggerated. But this is a deeply felt and sincere film in which the central story achieves a universal resonance.

Issabaeva’s previous film Nagima (2013) achieved something of an international breakthrough. Bopem, as far as I can tell, has so far competed at the Warsaw, Gothenburg, and Kerala festivals but has yet to receive the same recognition. Like Nagima, the film addresses the themes of isolation, abandonment, and loss, has minimal dialogue, and emphasizes long takes. In Nagima, the heroine kills her baby rather than consign it to a world without love. In both films, the central characters are searching for security, a lost mother and a “home.” In Bopem, Rayan takes revenge on a world that has destroyed the beauty of love, yet the final image asserts a transcendence—that finally Rayan will be reunited with his home and his mother.

bopemIn her emphasis on the world of “people who have little,” Issabaeva reflects the documentary impulse of the Kazakh New Wave and, as Volha Isakava noted in her review of Nagima, her “Bressonian” approach to the use of actors exerts a powerful force (Isakava 2014). We feel but cannot know the reality of Rayan’s journey. Yet, in Bopem the beauty of the film’s style and formal structure is even more apparent than in Nagima. There are three murders and the flashbacks to the relationships with the mother provide a rigorous dramatic form. There is nothing accidental about the images of the bus or the apparently incidental presence of camels or goats. Is it “style-centered”? In some ways, the answer is yes—there’s a classic structure and impressive imagery. But isn’t this also true of most neo-realist films? I would argue that its structure and imagery provide a resonance that takes it beyond the details of its story, that the montage of images is presenting its own parallel “story.”

The framing device of the mother and five-year-old son contrasts with that of an everyday reality. Perhaps it verges on the sentimental but that also is part of a wider truth. The bond of mother and child is, after all, worth remembering as is childhood simplicity and the hope for a world beyond what is given. In fact, it is given primacy. It is the real world that seems to intervene when the doctor is shown giving his prognosis within the world of the young Rayan. It would be fair to describe the film as a narrative poem.

In the center of the film, and outside of the film’s central story, we encounter a biker travelling the roads in what we assume to be a lifetime’s adventure. He flies the Union Jack so is presumably British. We learn later that the village boys have “captured a foreigner.” Rayan finds his naked and abused body on the road, and wheels him back to the adults. It’s a curious scene that breaks the narrative. It has a dramatic purpose therefore, suggests compassion, and reveals the fact that Rayan’s violence is not indiscriminate. Whether it reflects an actual occurrence or signifies something wider (Tasbulat comments on the whiteness of the foreigner’s skin) is a matter for speculation.

Peter Hames
Staffordshire University

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Works Cited

Isakava, Volha. 2014. “Zhanna Issabaeva: Nagima (Kazakhstan, 2013)”, KinoKultura 46.

Issabaeva, Zhanna. 2015. “Director’s Statement”, Warsaw International Film Festival.


Bopem, Kazakhstan 2015.
78 minutes, color
Director: Zhanna Issabaeva
Script: Zhanna Issabaeva, Viktor Nemchenko
Producer: Zhanna Issabaeva
Cinematography: Mikhail Blintsov
Art Director: Anton Bolkhunov
Editor: Azamat Altybassov
Sound: Andrei Vlaznev
Company: Sun Productions
Cast: Ruslan Abibullaev, Bekarys Abdigappar, Aikyn Kalykov, Almagul Alisheva, Raikhan Aitkozhaeva.

Zhanna Issabaeva: Bopem (Kazakhstan, 2015)

reviewed by Peter Hames© 2016

Updated: 09 Apr 16