Issue 55 (2017)

Adilkhan Yerzhanov: The Plague at the Karatas Village (Chuma v aule Karatas/ Karatas auylyndagy oba, 2016)

reviewed by Inna Smailova© 2017

A sentence of society to protect human conscience

Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s film The Plague at the Karatas Village had its world premiere at Rotterdam IFF in 2016, where it garnered the NETPAC (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema) award; it subsequently received the Grand Prix at the Kinoshok Film Festival (Anapa, Russia) and the prize for Best Direction at the Eurasia IFF in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The film focuses on the imperfections of society. Taking its inspiration from German expressionism, Yerzhanov here continues a theme dear to Siegfried Kracauer to show that the rehabilitation of physical reality is possible today only through its annihilation.

Yerzhanov defends a fiery concept of film language and promulgates auteur style; in each film he challenges the rules of cinema and of life to build his own universe of thought with idiosyncratic means of expressiveness.

karatasIn Plague at the Karatas Village the director turns round almost 180 degrees, even in relation to his previous work. If earlier, the reality and the hero served as a springboard for the creation of the Yerzhanov’s main idea, then in this film the author’s thought forms the basis for the creation of a conditional, or stylized, reality with an imaginary village Karatas, with imaginary heroes and with the absence of plot and action; a conditional, but recognizable reality.

From the very beginning, when the young mayor (akim) with his pregnant wife walk along the road, Yerzhanov immerses us in the strange world of semantic and graphic images through darkness, light, strange shadows of gods in the shape of balbals and masks on the wall. The plot stops being history, the action almost comes to a halt, the camera persistently refuses to move, and only Karatas’s space fancifully envelops us with an almost shamanic breath of life and dance.

Karatas appears like a certain substance of our archaic consciousness with a glorified tradition and a human nature of fear before its indestructible laws. Karatas is part of the same series as the mythological Golem, which—in the Soviet period—was used for rigid satire on time and power by Evgenii Shvarts in his play The Dragon (Drakon, 1944; later turned into the film To Kill a Dragon [Ubit’ drakona], 1988, dir. Mark Zakharov), and now in Plague at the Karatas Village for the figurative grotesqueness and to assist Yerzhanov’s magic stylization of conflict between human will and nature.
Karatas grows to become a hero and—unlike other static characters—is dynamic and endowed with magic. This monster, the illness, the plague god who is a thousand years old, appears in the shape of balbals or monuments to leaders; it has a powerful ritual breath. Water, earth, fire, light and shadows magically turn this reality of backwardness into a live, almost magic picture of the shimmer of the Plague’s breath as it digs the graves for the people. Light from candles in a hospital ward flooded with water, where a patient or prisoner asks for help, stops our breath in horror and simultaneously the magic of the frame. In the top angle foreshortening only the broad-shouldered back of the patient is visible; the small, frozen figures of the akims, young and old, flicker in the illusiveness of the blinking in the room and the modulations of water and light, where on the wall patches of light appear and disappear (the fine camerawork of Edige Nesipbekov) to the sounds of drops of rain (sound by Aleksandr Sukharev). The scene comes to an end in a manner reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker: the chief physician goes through a doorway into the depth of the frame as if on water, to repeatedly show his bent, almost humble back and to complete the magic sensation of hopelessness.

karatasThe director’s magic lies in his skill to purposeful dispose of external action and plot, and thus (for the first time in Kazakh fiction film) reduce the physical reality to conventionality and graphic figurativeness. But this his experiment does not end here: powerfully animating this dead space, he forces the horrific monster Karatas to breathe and live, thus creating a mythological image. At first we glean in the nocturnal light only light beams that fall accidentally onto objects, so that the camera may then move to the pandemonium of fire, graves, rounds of masks and a death-dance. Like Andrei Zviagintsev in Leviathan (2015), Yerzhanov raises his fist at society and the system which generated this monster and put them on a throne, but he goes further with the final conviction, showing that human nature itself gladly obeys the degenerate monster.

The film’s heroes are the young and the old akim, the hero’s wife, the doctor: they lose out to Karatas’s mighty breath; they are not heroes, but supernumeraries. In the theater of the absurdity of life, each of them plays his role of a victim. And the protagonist, somehow especially pathetic in his helplessness and repetition of questions, has—like all the others—positively succumbed to his role. The actress Tolganai Talgat (who plays Tori) is through her plasticity harmoniously integrated into the general rhythm of the image of the death-dance and consistently plays her part of a vamp. Her female image is not inspiring: it is a silent, cold, cruel image behind glass; she can prudently close the curtain, drown or submerge through intrigues, give or take life. Like the others, she is born of Karatas; with the monotony of the sound of the tambourine rhythm (the musical score of UDHA) around the dance of death masks she shapes and tightens the noose for the hero. But the horror is precisely that the hero is not enough. If the scene of the circular dance serves in the film The Stranger (Zhat, 2015) by Ermek Tursunov as a metaphor of the hero’s death, in Yerzhanov’s Plague the little fainthearted idealist is not enough; the horror in this scene lies in the fact that the death of one hero does not get rid of the plague, the indifference of human nature dispassionately devours the next victim and continues the blasphemous dance in praise of permissiveness.

The film’s finale, where a handful of ash and a hat symbolically remain from the hero, forces us to return to the scene after viewing the documentary Ten Seconds (Desiat’ sekund, 2016) by Ukrainian director Iuliia Gontaruk. In one of the plotlines, a young woman stands on the ashes of her house after it has been hit by a shell, and shows what remained of her husband: a chain, and the same ashes. That’s when you feel cold sweat running down your back, because Yerzhanov’s film is profound and pitiless when speaking about the overall outcries of our time.

Today, when the cultural and territorial foundations have collapsed, Yerzhanov—by means of his auteur style outside the context of national cinema, because it comes under the same heading as Gontaruk’s film—creates almost a document of conscience, because—like the young Akim—he is doomed to fight against limitations and dogmatism, but in close brotherhood and support with those whose camera also went against the current, such as Sergei Paradjanov or Andrei Tarkovsky, and Andrei Zviagintsev, as well as other lone idealists in the world of literary humanists.

karatasYerzhanov’s Plague at the Karatas Village goes far beyond the framework of what is accepted in cinema and in life, freakish and conditional at the same time, recognizable in the awful breath of Karatas. This world is painted in dark colors, with artificial filters, with the light of candles and lamps, with “Dutch” camera angles and deep-focus shots by the cameraman Edige Nesipbekov, with artistic details and objects, and with its literally isolated and cut-off  space by production designer Ermek Utegenov; this space is limited by darkness and closed-off from roads, shown with minimalism and static shots, a world with a Sisyphus-like suitcase on the back, a feeble scream from under the earth and a pair of no longer needed boots which have been thrown out on the general heap of dirt—this is the diagnosis of a dead society.

Therefore the director and his team, with a minimum of means and opportunities, have achieved a high artistic level, and through original film language they have pronounced a guilty-verdict of Time, this “praise of stupidity” of society, in protection of human conscience.

Translated by Birgt Beumers

Inna Smailova
Kazakh National University of Arts (KAZNUI), Astana


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The Plague at the Karatas Village, Kazakhstan, 2016
Color, 86 minutes, DCP
Languages: Kazakh, Russian
Director: Adilkhan Erzhanov
Script: Adilkhan Erzhanov
DoP: Edige Nesipbekov
Production Design: Ermek Utegenov
Sound: Aleksandr Sukharev
Composer: UDHA
Cast: Aybek Kudabayev, Tolganay Talgat, Nurbek Mukushev, Konstantin Kozlov, Baymurat Zhumanov, Erbolat Erzhanov, Ademoka.
Producers: Serik Abishev, Olga Khlashcheva
Production: Short Brothers with support from Soros-Kazakhstan Fund

Adilkhan Yerzhanov: The Plague at the Karatas Village (Chuma v aule Karatas/ Karatas auylyndagy oba, 2016)

reviewed by Inna Smailova© 2017