Issue 59 (2018)

Sabit Kurmanbekov: The Returnee (Oralman, Kazakhstan, 2016)

reviewed by Peter Rollberg© 2018


oralmanSabit Kurmanbekov’s fourth feature was commissioned for the 25th anniversary celebrations of Kazakhstan’s independence, a fact that has put its production and promotion under suspicion in some quarters. Thus, there were media reports that the Ministry of Sports and Culture, which financed the film, demanded a number of changes in politically sensitive episodes prior to the screening at the Eurasia International Film Festival in Astana in July 2017; subsequently, The Returnee won the festival’s Grand Prix. Be this as it may, it is safe to say that Kurmanbekov’s picture is not the product of self-congratulatory officialdom. Rather, the opposite is true: the director has succeeded in telling a realistic story of people who overcome deep historical traumas, a story thoroughly humanizes its official theme—repatriation and the longing for one’s native land.

The film’s basic plotline could not be simpler: An old Kazakh whose family fled to Afghanistan when he was a child, yearns to go back to what is commonly referred to as “the historic homeland” before he dies. He convinces his son that Kazakhstan is now a different country, that the communists are no longer in power, and that returning to the native soil is the foundation of a meaningful life. The son, Saparkul, fought against the Soviets in the 1980s as a Mujahedin; he now lives with his wife and daughter in an Afghan settlement, working as a Muezzin, calling the faithful to daily prayer. Saparkul clearly represents the supreme authority in his family, and once he makes up his mind that moving to Kazakhstan is the right decision, there is no turning back. The trip itself is physically exhausting, but it is the path, fundamentally different one, that presents the more profound challenge. Dulyga Akmolda’s intense, minimalistic acting creates a sensitive portrayal of Saparkul and renders his transition from one world to another believable: pious, yet sufficiently open-minded, this devout Muslim adjusts to the customs of a secular society without compromising his own religious principles. He buries his father according to law and learns that the Russian border guard who first harasses him in the typical manner, in actuality is a man who sincerely respects other faiths—he even helps Saparkul to dig the grave in the stony soil. Moreover, Saparkul realizes that the powerful akim of his new home settlement in the not so distant past was a communist and a Soviet commander in Afghanistan who fought against people like him, yet this official is also the one who helps the returnee restore a dilapidated mosque.

oralmanThis is the most noteworthy part of Kurmanbekov’s picture: It leaves no doubt that the reintegration of returnees in their native land places a burden on the resources and patience of Kazakhstani society, but the returnees also bring something with them that enriches the host side in unexpected ways. When at the end of the film, Saparkul calls out to the faithful to attend prayer, the story comes full circle. The pathos of the finale is justified by the preceding story and does not feel artificial. Kurmanbekov’s film shows the healing power of a new sense of togetherness that is complex and time-consuming, but worthwhile. Remarkably, this optimistic message is not preached and not even explicitly verbalized. As a matter of fact, the implicitness of the message, the subtlety with which it is conveyed, unburdens the film from its assigned political task. Various references to the nation’s traumatic past convey that the people of Kazakhstan, divided for decades by communism’s brutal construction and messy decline, have a real chance to come together within the framework of independence, if they are willing to make an effort and take this framework seriously. For that to work, they need both honesty about the past, a sense of forgiveness to master the present, as well as tolerance in regards to the maze of religious and secular values. As soon as the hosting and the returning side are unified in the spirit of continuity, they witness a resurrection of the country as a whole. The reacquisition of speech by Saparkul’s daughter Mariam, who went deaf when she experienced a landmine explosion in Afghanistan, is symbolic of that resurrection. Kurmanbekov’s tactful direction, together with an impressively restrained cinematography and sensitive score, tone the symbolism down so as to prevent any loud pathos.

oralmanAesthetically, the film is fascinating in a number of aspects: the dominance of white, grey, and brown tones underlines the harshness of the Afghan and Kazakh landscapes, conveying a sense of cold, impenetrable, unforgiving nature. The harsh color spectrum is complemented by regularly reoccurring extreme long shots in which the main character appears forlorn in his struggle with almost insurmountable obstacles. The landscape itself, torn and polluted from decades of rocket tests, is cleansed by Saparkul’s tenacity. Conspicuously, salvation for the returnees does not come from nature (i.e., the “native soil”) or any mystical force, which is often invoked in films featuring patriotic pathos, but from modern society and from individuals and their unassuming humanity. This conclusion is conveyed in a quiet, unspectacular manner, sometimes with a dose of humor, and it is authentic throughout. 

Peter Rollberg
The George Washington University

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The Returnee, Kazakhstan, 2016
Color, 95 minutes, DCP
Script: Nurlan Sanzhar, with participation from Sabit Kurmanbekov
Director: Sabit Kurmanbekov
DoP: Mars Umarov
Editor: Aslan Suleimenov
Composer: Aydos Sagat
Cast: Dulyga Akmolda, Yesim Segizbaev, Bayan Kazhnabieva, Dinara Dairova, Erzhan Tusupov, Shynar Askarova.
Producer: Erzhan Akhmetov, Tanirbergen Kazhiev
Production: Kazakhfilm Studio, Kadam Film Studio

Sabit Kurmanbekov: The Returnee (Oralman, Kazakhstan, 2016)

reviewed by Peter Rollberg© 2018

Updated: 2018