Issue 61 (2018)

Aibek Daiyrbekov: The Song of the Tree (Darak yry, Kyrgyzstan/Russia, 2018)

reviewed by Gulbara Tolomushova © 2018

song of treeFor the ancient Turkic peoples, the tree is a symbol of life, a totem-mother, progenitor of all people, tribes and nations. Not accidentally, therefore, in the film The Song of the Tree Dariyka, mother of two sons, often visits an old, large tree; like nobody else in the area she feels the sacral quality of this holy site, Mazara. The old tree, adorned with ribbons and strips of material that have been tied to its branches, keeps the secrets of many generations; its is the center of the Universe of people, who live happily and carefree in yurts, sing life-affirming songs, marry and give birth, and don’t think that everything could change very suddenly.

On 28 February 2018 the national premier of the historical musical Song of the Tree by Aibek Daiyrbekov took place in Bishkek. The distribution in Kyrgyzstan started the next day and lasted for three and a half months. The Russian premier took place on 21 April 2018 at the 40th Moscow IFF (19–26 April 2018) in the non-competition program “Specter.”

At the end of June 2017, when talking about his project with a representative of Toronto IFF at the Bishkek House of Cinema, the director emphasized: “The film won’t follow the canon of classical Hollywood musicals (for example, Westside Story or Cabaret). In its style it will be reminiscent of such musical films as Dancer in the Dark, [Valerii Todorovskii’s] Hipsters, or Les Miserables. But the tradition of oriental song folklore with elements of the eastern will be sustained.”

song of treeFor Kyrgyz cinema, the film musical is a new genre; therefore many compatriots (without having seen the film) couldn’t understand how nomadic thought can be revealed in a musical, even though the director has clearly formulated the genre of his creation: a musical about the nomads. Song of the Tree is bold and difficult at the same time.

The plan of Daiyrbekov’s ambitious project has arisen a long time ago. A native of Kochkor in the Naryn Region of northern Kyrgyzstan, he has from early childhood absorbed many legends of his native land, some of which had a direct link to his family. Song of the Tree is based on the moral and ethical beginning of the Kyrgyz world order. 

At the heart of the plot are real events from the eighteenth century that occurred in the Tien Shan, when people lived according to steadfast laws of life that had been established by their ancestors in age-old times. The libretto of the first Kyrgyz film musical develops according to the laws of a big vocal and dramatic work.

There are four main stages of development: “Time in paradise,” “Birth of chaos,” “Fight against chaos,” and “Renaissance.” In the first episode people enjoy life; everything is fine. The local lord (bai) Bazarbai gives his oldest daughter in marriage to a rich groom. Bazarbai also has a younger daughter, Begimai, who is on friendly terms with Esen, the younger son of the widow Dariyka, a respected woman in the settlement who, however, has no wealth.

The “chaos” arises in this paradise after the loss of an important dish of horse-meat, which has been cooked specially for the guests of honor coming to the wedding. “Kochkor is a harsh land,” says Daiyrbekov, “where trees don’t grow by themselves, and to find firewood is a big problem. Therefore the saying goes: ‘If you want to marry, stock up your firewood’.”

After the loss of the chunk of horse meat, another piece of horse meat has to be prepared. But they have run out of firewood. “And it puts shame on the organizer of a wedding if he doesn’t treat his guests to some meat. When Bazarbai is told that there is no firewood left, he gets so angry that he orders for the old sacred tree, Mazar, which is the only one all around, to be felled,” explains Daiyrbekov about the core of the conflict that will bring chaos to these peaceful people.

In the period of chaos, people hate each other: they kill Dariyka’s eldest son Asan, while her younger boy, Esen, is forced to leave his native land; and he is separated from his beloved girl. But the chance meeting with a lonely hunter turns his fate. With the hunter, the young Dzhigit learns the basics of combat, and the harsh-looking hermit turns into a guru for the young man.

During the apparently incessant chaos, many suffer defeat, but most of all suffer the newcomers who have always found it hard to install themselves in a new place. Despite of his status as a bai, the head of the newcomers, Bazarbai, is forced to leave the apparently acquired place with all his relatives. But when they reach a new place, they face further difficulties trying to win a place under the sun.

Daiyrbekov says: “At the heart of the film lies the story of my great-grandmother. Some families arrived in Kyrgyzstan from Kazakhstan, and it was very difficult for them to settle in a new place. At one of the weddings, they accidentally killed the son of the bai of the neighboring village. Then the inhabitants of the other village demanded that a tribute be paid, but not with cattle, as usual, but with the head of another person, because the murdered man was from a family with status. One aksakal from the Kazakh newcomers, who found it difficult to get accustomed to the Kyrgyz lands, decided to sacrifice himself, only so that his relatives could live peacefully among the Kyrgyz.” In the film this aksakal became the prototype of the tragic character of Bazarbai, who is excellently played by the well-known actor Temirlan Smanbekov. 

song of treeDaiyrbekov has developed the film’s plot since 2011, and for him it was important to understand how the punishment of the sacred tree affects the people. “I thought for a long time about how to express this through artistic images and means. And I suddenly understood that everything it is easier with music and songs rather than special effects,” says Daiyrbekov.

Song of the Tree has been made without state support. The film was begun by the private Kyrgyz company Central Asia Film, represented by the producer Tolkun Daiyrbekova; already in the course of production, the Russian company Cinetrain—represented by producers Tat’iana Petrik and Andrei Epifanov—decided to support the young Kyrgyz film crew.

It is possible to call the film Song of the Tree the first joint Kyrgyz-Russian venture, since the financial contribution of both parties was equal, i.e. made up 50 per cent of the total budget of $300,000. This sum considerably exceeds the average budget for films in Kyrgyzstan (unless they attract foreign partners). Kyrgyzfilm has tried in recent years to increase the sum for film production, but the budget is rarely above the $100,000 mark.

song of treeIn the state budget, separate funding is set aside for films commissioned by the state; for example, the budget of the film Kurmanjan Datka was $1.4 million. Now, on the eve of Chingiz Aimatov’s 90th anniversary, the Kyrgyz government has allocated 30 million som ($435,000) for the creation of new screen versions of Aitmatov’s works.

Tat’iana Petrik, a native of the Kyrgyz town of Kara-Balta, is a graduate of the economics department of the Film Institute VGIK in Moscow. While studying, Petrik already produced films at the Institute. In Petrik’s portfolio are about twenty short films, three features from the CineTrain (Kinopoezd) project, the full-length fiction film Wake Me Up (Razbudi menia, dir. Guillaume Protsenko, 2017), and six documentaries with German co-producers for the French-German TV channel arte. A special place takes the Kyrgyz-Russian project Song of the Tree.

During a personal meeting with Tat’iana Petrik I asked about her work and the start of her collaboration with Andrei Epifanov. Petrik answered that the first CineTrain had French co-producers, and there was additional finance from some European funds. The second CineTrain had no budget and was practically made on Petrik’s and Protsenko’s own money and resources. In that project, young directors from 30 countries participated. For the third CineTrain, the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation allocated funding, and Petrik and her associates had further support from Nikita Mikhalkov. But these funds were insufficient and, in search for further funding, Petrik met the businessman Andrei Epifanov who simply allocated a certain sum of money; he liked the result. Petrik and Epifanov became friends and eventually created together the film company Cinetrain, which has produced the feature film Wake Me Up. Epifanov currently concentrates entirely on film production.

song of treeFrom the very beginning Petrik liked the idea of Song of the Tree, and its makers Aibek Daiyrbekov and Tolkun Daiyrbekova, who passionately presented the project and convincingly argued for its support. They also proved to be decent people, which is hugely important for any collaborative project. The Moscow producers reflected for a while, because they had had one sad experience of cooperation previously with a Kyrgyz partner. But the Daiyrbekovs kept calling Petrik, told her how the work on the project was moving on, and consulted with her. Petrik at first only advised them: the Moscow producers first of all had to be convinced of their decency; and second, the young Kyrgyz cinematographers had to prove their professionalism. They were ready to invest their own money in the film’s production. Petrik arrived in Kyrgyzstan at the beginning of the shooting, and she saw that the director and the technical crew were very professional. But the Moscow producers continued to wait, realizing that the Daiyrbekovs had risked their money without any official support. Petrik believed in them. For Aibek Daiyrbekov this was his full-length debut, and for Tolkun her first experience as producer (she had previously worked as director of the cinema ‘Kyrgyz Kinosu’). The Daiyrbekovs are known in Kyrgyzstan as organizers of two republican film festivals for children and young people (Karek). “When the filming was almost completed, we only then signed the contract,” Petrik summarizes. The post-production period started.

The confidence that they had made the right decision came to Petrik when she saw the perfect footage that touched her on the level of perception. The great role in this a perception was played by the musical component, the beautiful songs of the heroes which shape the emotional background.

The director general of the First National TV Channel of Kyrgyzstan (KTRK), Ilym Karypbekov, published this post on the social networks devoted to the film Song of the Tree on 11 March 2018: “When the film was shot, we released trailers with the announcement of the musical Darak Yry. In a meeting with the producer Tolkun Daiyrbekova she told me the production story […] and how they persuaded the well-known singers Aya (Svetlana Nazarenko) and Zhyldyz Osmonalieva to sing for the soundtrack. […] The film turned out instructive, beautiful, and bright, and at the same time it made easy viewing. The film opens a view on our traditions, on the history of the nomadic Kyrgyz people, and on the concept of honor, the value of a man’s word, of love and tragedy, of cruel customs, the power of belief, with a happy ending. I believe that the film will serve as a turning point in the history of a new cinema of the country.”

Petrik asserted: “I have been genuinely impressed, because from the very start we were going to make an audience film about Kyrgyz national history. The film turned out exactly the way we wanted. But when I began to show it to Russian and European film critics and experts, they all claimed that this was an auteur film. There is an ethnic beginning that interests European audiences, while for the Kyrgyz viewer it is habitual; the music sounds very modern, although it is dominated by national color; moreover, the genre mix plays a role, and according to the artistic director of Kinotavr, Sitora Alieva, this is quite innovative.”

Kirill Razlogov, the program director of the Moscow IFF, presented the film at its first screening, and said that Song of the Tree is the most sensational film of the festival, because of its unexpected genre connection. According to Razlogov, it is not just a Kyrgyz film with Russian participation, but an experimental film which surprises with the way in which is weaves together different genres: blockbuster, drama, musical and auteur film.

Gulbara Tolomushova

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Song of the Sacred Tree (Darak yry), Kyrgyzstan, 2018,
Color, film musical, 93 min.
Scriptwriters Aibek Dayyrbekov, Sadyk Sher-Niyaz
Director Aibek Daiyrbekov
DoP: Akjol Bekbolotov
Production Design: Maksat Bolotbekov
Costumes: Aidai and Nurzhamal Asangulov, Doolot Rysbaev
Make-up: Cholpon Saitova
Composer: Zholdoshbek Apasov
Sound: Bakyt Niyazaliev
Lyrics: Baktygul Choturova
Editing: Eldiyara Madakima and Olga Grinshpun
Cast: Temirlan Smanbekov, Omurbek Izrailov, Saltanat Bakayeva.
Producers: Tolkun Daiyrbekova, Andrei Epifanov, Tat’iana Petrik
Production: Central Asia Film Company (Kyrgyzstan), Cinetrain (Russia).

Aibek Daiyrbekov: The Song of the Tree (Darak yry, Kyrgyzstan/Russia, 2018)

reviewed by Gulbara Tolomushova © 2018

Updated: 2018