Issue 61 (2018)

Ernest Abdyjaparov: Sayakbay. Homer of the 20th Century (Saiakbai. Gomer XX veka, Kyrgyzstan, 2018)

reviewed by Gulbara Tolomushova © 2018


“Sayakbay Karalaev is the Homer of the 20th century, an invaluable relic of mankind.” (Mukhtar Auezov)

“The Manas is an epic ocean. It is an invaluable contribution of the Kyrgyz people to world creativity.” (Chingiz Aitmatov)


The plot of the film focuses on the first meeting of Sayakbay Karalaev (1894–1971), the great reciter (manaschi) of the epic of Manas, with the young writer Chingiz Aitmatov (1928–2008).

karalaev and aitmatovThe Sixth International Youth Festival opened in Moscow on 28 July 1957. Thus Aitmatov answers Karalaev to the question about news in the country, and director Ernest Abdyjaparov gives us to understand when precisely the meeting of the well-known Sayakbay and the young writer takes place. Sayakbay Karalaev was a great reciter of the epic of Manas, who in 1939 received the honorary title “National Actor of the Kyrgyz SSR”.

Chingiz Aitmatov was an outstanding writer. From 1956 to 1958 he studied on the Higher Literature Courses in Moscow. The short story “Face to Face” was first published in Kyrgyz in June 1957. The world-famous tale “Djamilia” was first published in the same year in French in Louis Aragon’s translation. Then, soon after, the stories and “Djamilia” were published in Moscow in Russian. At the end of the film, Sayakbay asks Aitmatov: “How is it going at the literary front?” With a sigh, Aitmatov answered: “This year I published the story “Face to Face”. But my story “Djamilia” has a lot of opponents.” Therefore the historical meeting of the well-known Manaschi and the young writer occurs before the publication of “Djamilia” and Aragon’s well-known dictum that “Djamilia” is the best story in the world about love.

karalaev and aitmatovKaralaev and Aitmatov lived in the same house for writers on Moskovskaya Street in Frunze (now Bishkek), the capital of Kyrgyzstan. As Aitmatov’s younger sister Roza writes in the book White Pages of History (Belye stranitsy istorii): “In 1958 a three-storey apartment house was built on Moskovskaya Street at number 141. It is located opposite Togolok Moldo Square and known to the people as “the writers’ house.” Thus, the meeting described in Abdyjaparov’s film was their first meeting, as it took place before they settled at Moskovskaya St 141.

The first shot of the film is quite symbolical: a golden eagle soars into the dark red sky. The sky seems bloody—a harsh, but a bright shade. It reflects the color of Sayakbay’s life, who has endured a lot: the revolt of 1916, the hard times abroad, and the period when the Soviet authorities considered the epic of Manas alien to the consciousness of the Soviet people. On the other hand, Sayakbay has obviously been blessed: his poetic gift had been revealed in his childhood, when the grandmother told him fragments from the epic of Manas. He was loved by his people, and his talent was held in esteem by the state. The image of the golden eagle in the symbolic prolog of the film is at the same time the hero’s beloved golden eagle Karacholok, who was given to the storyteller a long time ago. Indeed, Sayakbay himself metaphorically widely spread his wings, parting the bloody sky and soaring up to unreachable heights.

The first scene on Issyk Kul

The scene is filmed in a wide-angle shot from a single point, with the lake in the background. It is a classical mise-en-scene, where the smallest details are arranged as well as the actors’ entrance into the frame and their movement on this natural platform. In the first dialogue, the characters of Sayakbay and his wife Beyshekan are outlined with an emphasis on their peculiar relationship. Sayakbay is capricious, emotional, uneasy; Beyshekan is balanced, smiling, hardworking. We can sense the powerful energy of Lake Issyk Kul, which brings calm and peace to the restless soul of Sayakbay as he gets excited: Sayakbay was born and raised on the shore of Issyk Kul.

sayakbayBefore us is the panorama of a farmstead—in the distance, in the center of the composition is Sayakbay’s house with a veranda attached to the left side of the house and a household construction a bit further up; in the background lies the lake. Beyshekan appears in the frame in the top left corner, carrying a bowl with washed linen, and goes along the side of the house to the right top corner of the frame, where between two tree trunks the washing lines are suspended. She starts hanging out the linen. The camera remains immobile as we look at the scene from a distant observer’s point.

Sayakbay comes out of the house and calls his wife. She responds, but continues to hang up the washing. Then he goes towards her fast, on the way telling her the news that an important guest from the capital is coming and they should put on the samovar and prepare some food. Beyshekan continues to hang up the washing. Sayakbay is agitated and repeats the news in a sharper tone. Beyshekan finishes hanging up the washing, and only then does she set to work on her husband’s order. The camera remains in its distant observer position. Seeing that Beyshekan has put on the samovar, Sayakbay moves from the top central part of the frame straight towards the camera and comes to the front of the frame. The scene ends with a medium-shot of Sayakbay, who stares into the distance.

An old truck brings a tall and slender youth in European clothes—a wide-brimmed light raincoat, loosely cut trousers and a dark hat. “I thought an important guest, and it’s only a capital fop!”—grumbles Sayakbay. He is wearing traditional men’s clothes for an elderly rural Kyrgyz of the twentieth century: a brown tubeteika hat on the head, a blue coat (chapan) over the shoulders, so we can see the white shirt, a warm gray sleeveless jacket, black trousers and boots. Though the 63-year-old storyteller is rather strong and vigorous, he walks with a stick.

sayakbayThe following scene is set on the left side of Sayakbay’s house. The storyteller and the writer settle down on the veranda around a low table. Sayakbay has his own “throne,” an elevated chair; the others take a seat on the quilted floor-mats, thus sitting lower than the landlord. The stocky, dense Sayakbay haughtily looks at the stylish Chingiz who suddenly seems small and fragile.

Aitmatov introduces himself and explains the purpose of his visit: being on vacation, he decided to visit the storyteller to listen to a performance of the epos of Manas. Now the viewer can make out all the objects on Sayakbay’s farmstead: the furnace, a samovar at arm’s length. The camera softly glides around the veranda, giving the viewer a chance to hear the conversation of the landlord and the guest.

Sayakbay remembers the first years after his marriage to the bay’s daughter, Beyshekan. This marriage happened thanks to his reciting skill: on his return from China, where Sayakbay had fled after the suppression of the mutiny of 1916, the elder Kenenbay—admiring the mastery of the young storyteller—married him to an aristocrat. Of course, the young people needed time to get used to each other, because each of them had their own background. In the first years Beyshekan showed quite a bit of character, while Sayakbay tried to be silent, trying to understand the inner motives of his wife’s offense.

sayakbayAbdyjaparov skillfully interweaves emotional episodes of Sayakbay’s recollections into his rigidly checked texture that we have seen from the first representative scenes. These are events from the late 19th and early 20th centuries: 1894, the birth of Sayakbay; 1904, the period of his early childhood on the shore of Issyk Kul, and the touching relation with the Russian girl Lena.

In this way, the episode of the children planting two poplar trees on the shore of Issyk Kul is indicative. Lena’s elder brother, Sergei, did not believe that the poplars would grow on sand and repeats many times: “Your trees won’t grow! They need fertile soil.” But Sayakbay and Lena believed in the clemency of their idea and did everything for the trees to be comfortable in an uncomfortable environment: they watered them amply, looked after them—and the trees took root and grew.

The story with the poplars has a motivational value: the children believed in a dream, without forgetting it, and contrary to the forecasts of the skeptic Sergei, their cherished dream became true. The trees grew and stand as a symbol of eternal friendship of the steadfast pair on the shore of the lake and give hope.

sayakbay crewSome years pass by. It seems that nothing can damage the bond between the neighboring families, of Sayakbay and of the Russians, the Bazhenovs. Sayakbay and Lena are in love with each other and have touching conversations on the possibility of a Kyrgyz-Russian family. Suddenly Sayakbay says that he has to join the army, and Lena is perplexed: “But the Kyrgyz don’t get a draft? And they have no weapons!” Sayakbay answers that new legislation on the draft has been passed, but the Kyrgyz don’t want to accept it, so there will be a revolt. That is in 1916. Sayakbay helps Lena’s family escape. Fate will dispose that Lena and Sayakbay will never see each other again. But all his life Karalaev preserved an image of Lena in his memory.

The major episode from the storyteller’s memories is the impressive meeting of the boy Sayakbay with the betrothed of the batyr Manas Kanykey. Thanks to her involvement, there is a sacral entrance of Sayakbay to the inner sanctum, the pantheon of the epic hero of Manas Velikodushny and his associates, the sworn brother Almanbet and the wise Bakay.

After that sacral meeting and the blessing received on the performance of the epos, the boy begins the recital on an open mountain space. He is so immersed in the story that he doesn’t pay attention to the heavy rain, and doesn’t hear the father’s voice searching the son for some hours in the mountains. Having found Sayakbay, the father tries to shelter him from the rain with the corner of his chapan, because he understands that he won’t manage to stop him in his recital.

The episode of Manas, Almanbet and Bakay comes back to Sayakbay’s memory after the conversation with Aitmatov, when the young writer speaks about doubts and skepticism which he has due to the lack of historical sources about the origin of the epic of Manas. “Was there actually a Manas, or did the Kyrgyz people invent him as a desired hero?”—Aitmatov asks Karalaev. The storyteller is surprised by the question and answers with certainty: “Manas exists! If the epic didn’t exist, how would the Kyrgyz people have kept together, and how could I sing about his deeds?” 

sayakbay producerAitmatov was lucky: Sayakbay had been invited that day to one of the nearby regions to perform for the people. “I went with him. There was no hall, but they had put chairs in an open field; when he started telling the fragment of the Manas, suddenly the sky covered with black clouds and the rain began to pour. I started looking for a place where I could hide from the rain, but the people sitting in the open field didn’t even stir, and I got ashamed,” Aitmatov described this event later. The scene of Karalaev’s performance in the pouring rain is captured in the well-known documentary by Bolot Shamshiev, Manaschy (1965). Each time, looking at the people sitting and listening to the storyteller in the pouring rain, you think about the force of the performer which stops anybody from even thinking of running from the rain. On the other hand, obviously there is the passionate desire of people to listen to ancient legends. The magic power of the art of the manaschi had such a strong impact on the listeners that they forgot about everything else, plunging themselves into the events of bygone days.

Chingiz Aitmatov says goodbye to Sayakbay Karalaev. Sayakbay asks his guest: “Are you content?”—“Of course,” answers Chingiz, “Now I have plunged into Manas’s world!” Then Sayakbay, having heard about the problems with the story “Djamilia,” advises Aitmatov to ask Mukhtar Auezov for support, the well-known Kazakh writer who saved the epic of Manas from destruction in the Stalin era. Auezov, together with the academic Bolot Yunusaliev, then organized a conference devoted to the epic of Manas and thus kept it alive. They weren’t frightened by the threat of prosecution. “I opened the road for you. And for the rest, this Kazakh man will help you!” said Sayakbay when he parted with Aitmatov—and blessed him for a long life in literature.

Gulbara Tolomushova

Comment on this article on Facebook

Sayakbai. Homer of the 20th century, Kyrgyzstan, 2017,
Production: Sayakbay Manaschy, Telegey Company, Ernest Abdyzhaparov Studio, with technical support from Kyrgyzfilm
Idea: Bolotbek Berikbaev
Scriptwriter and Director: Ernest Abdyjaparov
DoP: Khassan Kydyraliev
Production Design: Tolgobek Koichumanov
Composer: Muratbek Begaliev
Sound: Bakyt Niyazaliev
Cast: Marat Zhantaliev, Baktybek Nurmat Uulu, Umot Doolot Uulu, Eldar Aitmatov, Tynara Abdrazaeva
General producer: Samatbek Ibraev
Awards: Golden Zenith at Montreal IFF (2017) for best visual innovation in the transfer of oral traditions

Ernest Abdyjaparov: Sayakbay. Homer of the 20th Century (Saiakbai. Gomer XX veka, Kyrgyzstan, 2018)

reviewed by Gulbara Tolomushova © 2018

Updated: 2018