Issue 52 (2016)

Marjoleine Boonstra: Kurai Kurai: Tales on the Wind (Netherlands/Kyrgyzstan, 2014)

reviewed by Robyn Jensen© 2016

kuraiMarjoleine Boonstra’s debut feature film, Kurai Kurai: Tales on the Wind (Kurai Kurai: Verhalen met de wind 2014), is a poetic exploration of a young man’s journey home to his native village, set against the backdrop of the ecological crisis facing post-Soviet Central Asia. Inspired by Andrei Platonov’s novel Dzhan, the script evolved from conversations Boonstra and the screenwriter Céline Linssen had with people in Uzbekistan about the contemporary situation in Central Asia. In interviews Boonstra emphasizes the resilience of these people and the power of storytelling in the face of disaster and hardship (Los 2015). Boonstra, a Dutch documentary filmmaker, has explored similar themes in her previous work. Her documentary The City and Its Desire: Seven New Orleans Sketches (De stad en het verlangen, 2007) consists of various stories about love and survival in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Unlike the floods which inundated that city, the severe drought affecting Central Asia is the focal point of Kurai Kurai.

The film opens with the main character Emo recounting how he awoke one morning when he was four to discover what he thought was a layer of snow on the ground. He runs out to play in the snow. But the snow, “hard as steel,” turns out to be salt. Emo describes this moment as the first time he was betrayed. The image of the small boy on a vast plain of salt brings into sharp relief the scarce water supply in Central Asia. Bodies of water, most significantly the Aral Sea, have steadily been shrinking since 1960 due to mass irrigation projects instituted under Soviet collectivization. Unlined and uncovered irrigation canals, combined with practices of over-irrigation, have caused major water loss and increased salinity levels in the soil. As a result of desertification, the region’s fishing industry—once one of the main fisheries in the Soviet Union—and agriculture have collapsed (Sievers 2003: 33–37).

kuraiThe connection between the salt plain and the fishing industry is made explicit as the film cuts from a shot of Emo as a child lying on the salt plain to the haunting image of a ship graveyard. A photograph of an abandoned ship stranded in the middle of a dry lakebed hangs on the wall in Emo’s room in the city, where he was sent to live as a young boy. Emo is now a young man, and his Russian girlfriend Vera is pregnant. When Emo questions whether he is the father, she says that she does not know. Taking this as another betrayal, Emo leaves the city and returns by train to his native village in the steppe of Kyrgyzstan.

As in most homecoming narratives, Emo must learn how to reconnect with his land and people. The train functions to introduce different people who share their stories with him. Emo first encounters a Russian man, who explains that this is the third year in a row without rain and that all the rivers have dried up. He says that the land here is “obstinate” (nepokornaia), that it doesn’t give itself to you like the women in the city. His language feminizes and sexualizes the land—an analogy for the former Soviet colonization of the area and the exploitation of its natural resources.

kuraiThe eponymous kurai (tumbleweed), however, offers an alternative model for interacting with the land. En route, Emo briefly steps out of the train and is greeted by the tumbling kurai. The kurai reminds him of his mother, who used to say that the “virile” kurai “spreads its seed across the land.” Although the tumbleweed is figured as masculine and sexual in a fashion similar to the Russian man’s depiction of the land, the kurai does not take advantage of the land. The kurai takes what is good for it, and leaves behind what is good for others. This symbiotic relationship offers a positive model for how to commune with the land, as opposed to the Soviets, who took what was beneficial for themselves, but left destruction in their wake.

The film, though, is not overtly political. Different reasons for the drought are offered: some mythical, some historical. On his journey, Emo encounters a water carrier called Botagos, who drives around with his niece. When his niece asks him why everything is so dry, Botagos tells her a story about a khan who fell in love with a beautiful woman. But the woman was married. The khan tells her husband that if he can solve his riddle, he can keep his wife. The khan poses the riddle of the kurai: where is the kurai going? The man cannot answer, so the khan kills him and takes his wife. The woman, stricken with grief, cries and cries until there is no more water in the land. This myth is repeated by other characters in the film as an explanation for the scarcity of water.

kuraiBut Botagos also gives Emo another reason: the production of cotton, one of the main exports in Soviet Central Asia, has sucked up all the water in the land. Formerly a fisherman, Botagos explains that he became a water carrier so that he could always keep the water of the lake near him. And yet, one of the recurring images of the film is the trail of water that Botagos’ leaky water truck leaves behind, thus linking the drought to contemporary issues of water waste in defective irrigation and distribution practices.

At the end of the film, Emo visits the graves of his parents. It is then that we learn that Emo’s biological father was a Russian soldier with whom his mother had an affair. When the husband discovered that he was not Emo’s father, he left the family but eventually returned. Thus, Emo’s situation with his pregnant girlfriend at the start of the film replicates his own mother’s affair. At his parents’ graves, Emo buries the headband that his girlfriend gave to him when they parted, and that he wore around his wrist in remembrance of her. He seems determined to leave the past behind. At this point, Emo comes to see that his mother understood the riddle of the kurai: the tumbleweed comes from where the wind comes, it rests in the valley, and then it goes where the wind goes. She said that you have to “live like the kurai” and not be bound by your roots. With this realization, Emo accepts a life of wandering. The film ends with him on his motorcycle, heading toward the distant horizon. Emo’s identity as half-Russian, half-Kyrgyz suggests the country’s broader post-Soviet hybrid identity. Thus, the riddle of the kurai—where is it going?—comes to signify a question about the future of both Emo’s personal life narrative and the larger historical narrative of post-Soviet Central Asia.

kuraiThe film has been screened at festivals in Almaty and Bishkek, as well as abroad; it won the Prix Emile Guimet at the Festival International des Cinémas d’Asie in Vesoul (2015). Prior to the release of Kurai Kurai, Boonstra also made a documentary called Keep on Steppin’ (2012), which comprises five short films about areas that have endured war or natural disaster. One of the short films, The Man and the Lake, was shot in Uzbekistan about the desertification of the Aral Sea. In 2012, Boonstra and Linssen also published Kurai Kurai (Koeraaj Koeraaj), a book of photographs and stories they gathered during their time in Central Asia. Thus, the 2014 feature film belongs to a larger body of work that has explored this region through different genres. Consistent across the three projects, however, is an interest in the stories that we tell ourselves to survive.

The film was shot on location in Kyrgyzstan in just 25 days, using only natural light.[1] The film achieves a poetic quality, as it is driven more by a visual fascination with the landscape than by a coherent narrative plot. On the whole, there is a tension between the film’s depiction of the desert steppe as a mythic, timeless space and as contemporary reality. Indeed, the film’s promotional material describes the film as “a myth in modern dress set in an unfamiliar land where the rules we know don’t apply.” Similarly, the choice to leave kurai untranslated in the title for international release encourages the viewer to see this film as a representation of an enigmatic “Other.” That the filmmaker is Dutch only compounds these issues of representation. While this film draws attention to the ecological crisis in Central Asia, it also risks aestheticizing the very same landscape as exotic and shrouded in myth.


1] Private Correspondence with Marjoleine Boonstra, March 13, 2016.

Robyn Jensen
Columbia University

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Works Cited

Los, Wouter (2015). “Interview Marjoleine Boonstra”. CineMagazine 22 April.

Sievers, Eric W. (2003). The Post-Soviet Decline of Central Asia: Sustainable Development and Comprehensive Capital London: Routledge.

Kurai Kurai: Tales on the Wind, 2014, Netherlands/Kyrgyzstan
Color, 83 minutes
Languages: Russian, Kyrgyz
Director: Marjoleine Boonstra
Screenplay: Céline Linssen
Cinematography: Goert Giltaij
Composer: Harry de Wit
Cast: Tatiana Gorobchenko, Tynar Abdrazaeva, Aman Mambetakunov, Talgat Kelimbetov
Production: Volya Films (Netherlands), Oy Art (Kyrgyzstan)

Marjoleine Boonstra: Kurai Kurai: Tales on the Wind (Netherlands/Kyrgyzstan, 2014)

reviewed by Robyn Jensen© 2016

Updated: 28 Mar 16