Issue 55 (2017)

Serik Abishev: Witness of Case No. 6 (Svidetel’ dela No. 6/ Kuager, Kazakhstan, 2016)

reviewed by Inna Smailova© 2017

Dead Souls in Case No. 6

svidetel delaSerik Abishev’s debut film Witness of Case No. 6 takes the viewer by surprise, since the director has boldly adopted a rather difficult approach. After all, Witness of Case No. 6 follows Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s The Plague at Karatas Village (Chuma v aule Karatas, 2016) and Zhasulan Poshanov’s Toll-Bar (Shlagbaum, 2015) in the guerrilla film movement Partisan Cinema [Partizanskoe kino], and thus runs the risk of lapsing into a certain repetition. But, to the director’s credit, he found his own approach. With a sense of urgent grief he turned not to the world around (as does Plague at Karatas Village) and not to resistance (as does Toll-Bar), but directly towards the viewers, caught up in the vicious aspects of our nature of consumption and sale.

Abishev is no newcomer to Kazakh cinema. He is the producer of all of Yerzhanov’s films, and he made an impact as director when clearly declaring his style with his student shorts, The School (Mektep) and Butter (Mai, 2008). These shorts abundantly make clear that Abishev’s restless heroes suffer from strokes of bad luck, but they challenge their fate (as in Mektep/School) or respond with humor (as in Butter) to try and get out of the misfortunes that have befallen them.

svidetel delaIn the new film, Abishev abandoned the primordial subject formula of situational construction, pushes it aside and goes further. In the process of the development and complication of plot turns, the story (based on Yerzhanov’s script) acquires an integral shape both externally and internally. The external reality consists of nocturnal spaces, during winter, of a police station, of the road and a car; and of almost existential spaces of internal thoughts and feelings, as well as those of the author.

The knot and the first turn of the plot create a situation which, unfortunately, has become typical to a degree of banality: the young son of a rich father causes the death of a poor construction worker. The cynical, almost black ecstasy consists in the fact that the lad is brought down, but more importantly to figure out how to profit from the death.

By deploying the visual arsenal of American noir movies, Abishev suggests that in Kazakh reality the opposite, inverse scheme could apply: an anti-noir. In his world, it is not so much that morals and human qualities are absent, but that there are no noir passions; everything is ordinary and monotonous, as are the police officer and hunters who are after the profit in such a confused and helpless manner. 

svidetel delaAccording to the police officer, he only deals with Case No.6; all the previous cases went without a glitch: the fathers paid compensation to free their children, and everyone was happy. But this sixth case has come to a halt, either because it smells slightly of Chekhovian melancholy or Gogolian devilry, or because we see things with the witness’s eyes.

The main figure in the case is the young Yerbol (Yerbolat Yerzhanov), who worked with the killed man. A helplessly darting gaze, stiff movements and indistinct speech characterize this figure. But he must become the hero, who stands on the other side of the events. From the moment when he is taken into the police station, a terrible and yet serious theater performance begins, that looks like a deal on a flea market where the stake rising to murder.

Dramaturgically the heroes function as a bait on a single chain of crime, compositionally the film no longer tells a story, while painting in almost noir dabs the display of a distorted, cold and hypocritical world.

svidetel delaA special atmosphere is created though the nocturnal and wintry landscapes. In the cold light of winter, the space of the yard, the street, the road, and the sound the crunching snow it seems that all feelings are frozen: everything has been cleansed or soiled, shuffled or neatly built by production designer Ermek Utegenov. The darkness of the night, with its light patches of black-and-white strokes, offers no direct evaluation. The director holds the viewer at a distance from the heroes, almost existentially showing the events with the alienation of a silent observer, gleaning only the heroes’ faces. Thus the dealers in death are not at all villains: there is less a sense of horror than of grief, bordering on repulsion.

The police officer gets tired of sitting in his stale and dilapidated witness box, which each detainee can leave. His figure is crooked, the face shown in the gloom of a half-visible frame. He is not seeking anything, as in old American crime movies, but quietly waits when the long-awaited jackpot falls onto him. Baimurat Zhumanov plays this role naturally, without raising his voice, speaking monotonously yet without forgetting the main thing: tired, but with some sadness, he gives his account and assessment of each participant.

svidetel delaHis assistant-nephew says almost nothing for the entire film, fading away into the background and emerging from the shadow. The victim’s father (Nurbek Mukushev) has a large family, three wives and children from each of them: “a pity, of course,” he says, “but what can you do, you have to feed the others, too.” Yerbol’s uncle is a finely tuned character thanks to Tulegen Baitukenov’s performance, much more pragmatic and impudent than the others. Keeping the nephew as a gratuitous worker in his big house, he senses where he can make money; directly and efficiently he moves aside the people in line to claim his share of the corpse. The lawyer of the golden son, who has a big deal in hand, comes onto the case. In a suit and with a cane, showing first only his face and then carefully revealing his whole figure with a small case of money (Rauf Khabibulin), he cynically assesses the false world, where everything is on sale—just for what price.

The bargaining scene in the police station is most picturesque, but terrible in content: the small, narrow, dark space, lit by a lamp from above, with a pack of black vultures around the table as they fight for every extra penny from the sale of the dead body.

Yerbol is the only vulnerable and ridiculous link in the entire bargaining scene. But his resistance and obstinacy to see the world not simply as black leave a small hope for something human, at the end veiling this fellow in a light of dawn.

svidetel delaThe icy winter road is a special place that ties everything together: the deserted waste lands, the iced windows of the police car, the estranged faces of the heroes, the frozen feelings. In the car, the camera lights up the heroes to unmask them and show, almost without pity,  the fatigue of expression in their faces. “Where and why should we go?” on Abishev’s road (we may remember here his short Butter): that’s how we might paraphrase the Gogolian question.

Witness of Case No. 6 is the final part of the remarkable (both in idea and form) film trilogy of the guerrilla movement, which logically concludes the three-dimensional coverage of our reality. The film, continuing to paint a time document, directs its charges not at the system or authority, but at the people in a particular space, depersonalized, numb and frozen in their fear and weakness, in their animalistic desire to snatch a piece of an imaginary fill. The dark world of Abishev’s Witness is not awful, not ominous, not expressive, but is simply cold and empty to the point of depression, because the filmmakers focus on the loss of the value of human life, where the entire world is part of the bargaining, and the people in it are witnesses, even sellers of dead souls.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

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

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Witness of Case No. 6, Kazakhstan, 2016
Color, 58 min
Director: Serik Abishev
Script: Adilkhan Yerzhanov
DoP: Yedige Nesipbekov
Production Design: Ermek Utegenov
Sound Design: Il'ia Gariev
Cast: Baimurat Zhumanov, Yerbolat Yerzhanov, Nurbek Mukushev, Tulegen Baitukenov, Rauf Khabibullin, Saltanat Nauguz, Galym Abet, Bauyrzhan Kaptagai
Producers: Ol'ga Khlashcheva, Serik Abishev
Production: Kazakhfilm, Partizanskoe kino

Serik Abishev: Witness of Case No. 6 (Svidetel’ dela No. 6/ Kuager, Kazakhstan, 2016)

reviewed by Inna Smailova© 2017