Issue 56 (2017)

Aktan Arym Kubat: Centaur (Kentavr, 2016)

reviewed by Gulbara Tolomushova © 2017

A Prayer about Forgiveness

centaurThe world premier of Aktan Arym Kubat’s new film Centaur took place at the 67th Berlin IFF, where it received the CICAE Art Cinema Award (International Confederation of Art House Cinemas). The national premier was held on 26 March 2017, the director’s sixtieth birthday, and distribution in Kyrgyzstan started on 31 March.

Aktan Arym Kubat not only directed Centaur but, as in his previous film The Light Thief (Svet-ake, 2010), he played the lead role of a little man with noble ideas. But, if the character of Mister Light had a permanent job—an electrician who is always in demand, the Centaur lives on temporary jobs and has an irregular income, even though in the Soviet era he used to have permanent employment as projectionist in the rural film club.

Nowadays the club has been transformed into a house of prayer. This building actually exists in the director’s native village and features practically in all his films. In his film The Swing (Selkinchek, 1993), the club was being closed, but the young people followed the old habits and continue to hang around nearby: one by one, the lads give the girls a ride around the club on the only bicycle in the village. In The Light Thief the same club featured as a venue for pre-election campaigns.

centaurIn Centaur the theme of the relationship between the individual and the surrounding world is more pointed: this world shows ill will to the individual. In this connection the scene in the prayer house, when the Centaur rises from his knees during prayer and leaves the building, is indicative. He climbs an external ladder to his abandoned projectionist booth, loads a film and projects it.

That is, perhaps, the most bewitching scene in the film. In the twilight, over the backs of the bowing preachers (davatchi), the magic beam hails from Centaur’s illustrious past: on the screen his favorite actors Tattybyubyu Tursunbayeva and Suimenkul Chokmorov, in Kyrgyz national dress, skip next to one another in Tolomush Okeev’s Red Apple (Krasnoe iabloko, 1975). The Centaur rejoices like a child when he looks at the screen. Softly, without aggression, he thus expresses his protest against the dubious universal Islamisation of the Kyrgyz people, where part of the male population has already adopted the Muslim dress code with a long white shirt and loose pants. They wear rather un-aesthetic full beards without moustache (in the Chechen Republic such a style of beard is considered to be one of the attributes of support of extremist ideology). The spreading of an alien culture of behavior and a way of life is reflected not only in public life, but also in everyday habits. Girls and women who lead their life as devout Moslems must also change their fashion: instead of the traditional bright headscarves they must then wear hijabs, instead of habitual dresses long abayas. The Centaur’s trick of projecting a fragment of Okeev’s film outright frightens the davatchi preachers. In order to prevent a repetition, they not only secure the door to the projection booth with a huge lock, but they also board it up.

centaurThe director has expressed his consternation that the number of mosques in Kyrgyzstan today has exceeded the number of schools. Even rituals and traditions have transformed, and for some reason the Kyrgyz people now believe they must bury their relatives according to customs that actually belong to other people, or that man should recite the prayer in Arabic. Arym Kubat has voiced opposition to the Arabisation of the Kyrgyz people.

Even during the shooting, Arym Kubat spoke with pain about his concerns: “I am disturbed very much by the situation in our society. I constantly ask myself: what is happening with our people? For my hero the meaning of life lies in the search of god; indeed, everyone has his own god. And to search for god means to try and find a release. Everyone calls the hero Centaur, because nobody remembers his real name. Importantly someone says: “Your name’s extinguished.” From total ignorance we have impoverished spiritually. The crucial question is whether we can sustain ourselves as a nation.

centaurCivil activists, public figures and politicians in Kyrgyzstan have remarked that since the 25 years of the country’s independence, no national ideology has been formulated; no strategic concept for the state has been developed. Instead, centers of various extremist currents covering themselves in the green banner of Islam have emerged and try to take roots.

A part of the population searches for, and finds, orientation and support in Islam, without understanding the nuances of these currents: As the director for the Center “Religion, Right and Politics” Kadyr Malikov stated as early as 2013: “There are no more official mosques. In parallel, the Djamaats [Jamia] and other religious groupings gain foothold, struggling for spheres of influence, for flock. The Djamaats are externally managed. The low level of education and of access to verified information, as well as the presence of a multiplicity of information sources prevent the young generation to correctly position their moral values” (Malikov 2013).

centaurBut there is still a large percentage of an ideologically stable population, which remains loyal to the ideals of their youth. In this connection not only the destiny of Centaur, but also his spouse Maripa and the lonely woman by the name Sharapat, who trades with boza (a national drink from barley, corn, wheat and millet) is interesting.

The Centaur is a silent, modest, slightly odd man with his own world view; he has grown up on ancient legends and has preserved a belief in fairy tales which his grandfather and grandmother told him when he was a child. Therefore he has chosen his trade as projectionist, which allowed him to plunge himself into the illusory world of cinema. At home the Centaur has a poster of the Kyrgyz film Red Apple pinned to the wall. And at his old workplace, in the projection booth, he has among several old posters the image of the boy Nurgaz listening to the fairy tale of grandfather Momun from White Steamship (Belyi parokhod, 1975, dir. Bolot Shamshiev). To his beloved and only little son Nurberdi, the Centaur often tells his favorite legend about centaurs.

In the Soviet era, in remote rural areas the same old, well-known and beloved film would be shown time and time again, as Sharapat remembers, obviously sympathizing with the Centaur. Sharapat even sings a song from the popular Hindi film Sangam (1964) by the well-known Indian director Raj Kapoor.

centaurAnother image comes from the Soviet times: that of the hero’s wife Maripa. This deaf-and-dumb young woman can read a Russian phrase from the lips of her interlocutor or communicate via notes written in Russian. As the director discovered during the production of the film, in Soviet Kyrgyzstan all deaf-and-dumb children were trained only in Russian at specialized schools. Maripa misses her years of study, because she quite often looks at the old film that beholds those years. The bright memories of the recent past have helped many simple people to get through the difficult years of change of the 1990s, and even now these memories are dear to their souls and prevent them from falling into depression, even if their lives are clearly not easy.

But the fellow-villagers have not only iridescent memories of the recent Soviet past; many young men have done the war in Afghanistan. Someone have returned, others perished there. The hereditary horse thief Sadyr, who has served in Afghanistan, wears the clothes of the Afghani Mojahedins with his typical pashtun cap. Between the embittered, aggressive Sadyr and the gentle, timid Centaur a conflict emerges, and this has ideological roots. The Centaur has grown up on myths and legends of the past, and thanks to them he has formed a fascinating, but utopian concept of the spiritual revival of the people.

centaurThe hero considers the Kyrgyz people as descendants of centaurs and is convinced that Heaven has punished his omnipotent people for uncountable abuse of other peoples. The concept of salvation lies in the idea that man must saddle the best racer and ride across the nocturnal steppe, praying for forgiveness for the acts of his ancestors. Then the patron of divine horses, Kambar-Ata,[1] will appear and lift the curse. Then the people will be empowered again, and wisdom and nobleness will return. To achieve this utopian aim, the Centaur “borrows temporarily” the best racers from the stables of rich men, doing it masterly and originally.

The horse-thief Sadyr has nothing sacred in his soul. He drives stolen Kazakh herds to Kyrgyzstan and the other way round, for the purpose of slaughter. He hates the gentle, good-natured, modest Centaur with his rich inner world, his spirituality and nobleness. Each time, when the Centaur steals (that is “borrows”) racers, he releases the horses after a majestic ride across the steppe with a treasured prayer for pardon; the owners quickly find their horses again. For Sadyr, each horse in the stolen herd represents market goods. Therefore, when Sadyr and his accomplices once again drive a herd from the village, the Centaur—imperceptibly for the horse-thieves—releases the horses. He cannot act differently. And Sadyr does not miss the chance to finish off the Centaur.

Translated by Birgit Beumers


1] Kambar-Ata is a figure of Central Asian mythology, brought from Islam. In Muslim mythology Kanbar is a loyal servant, horse-keeper of the fourth, “right” Khalif Ali. For the Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Uighur people, Kambar is the guardian of horses. At the root of this image lies an ancient, pre-Islamic god.

Gulbara Tolomushova

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Works Cited

Malikov, Kadyr. 2013. “V Kyrgyzstane usililas’ radikalizatsiia veruiushchei molodezhi,” 13 August.


Centaur, Kyrgyzstan, France, Germany, Netherlands 2017
Color, Kyrgyz language, 89 minutes
Director: Aktan Arym Kubat
Screenplay: Aktan Arym Kubat, Ernest Abdyjaparov
Director of Photography: Khassan Kydyraliev
Editor: Petar Markovic
Music: Andre Matthias
Actors: Aktan Arym Kubat (Centaur); Nuraly Tursunkojoev (Nurberdi); Zarema Asanalieva (Maripa); Taalaikan Abazova (Sharapat); Ilim Kalmuratov (Sadyr); Bolot Tentimyshov (Karabay); Maksat Mamyrkanov (Teit)
Production: Oy Art (Kyrgyzstan), Pallas Film (Germany), ASAP Films (France), Volya Films (Netherlands)
Co-production: Kyrgyzfilm Studio & Bitters End
World Sales: The Match Factory

Aktan Arym Kubat: Centaur (Kentavr, 2016)

reviewed by Gulbara Tolomushova © 2017

Updated: 08 Apr 17