Issue 61 (2018)

Zhanna Issabaeva: Sveta (Kazakhstan, 2017)

reviewed by Andrew Chapman© 2018

Zhanna Issabaeva’s Sveta is a dark, unyielding picture that presents what becomes of life when money and self-sustenance are placed at the forefront of all decision making. Issabaeva’s film explores life on the margins of contemporary Kazakh society, where both families and state-run family surrogates fail to adequately nurture those who need care the most: the disabled and the orphaned. The film depicts a hearing-impaired mother, Sveta, who works at a textile workshop that employs those in the deaf community. At the onset of the film, we learn that Sveta and her family are behind on mortgage payments and are in danger of losing their flat to the bank. We also find out that half of Sveta’s workshop will be let go, including its most senior and educated foreman: the title character. Sveta quickly resolves to fix her problems by killing the remaining foreman, Valia; later she schemes to poison her husband’s grandmother, so that she can rent the vacated apartment and get out of debt.  

sveta Like almost all scenes in the film, the initial exposition of the plot plays out very matter-of-factly. The layoffs are announced by the boss. The firing of workers will be determined by seniority, whereas the firing of the foreman is admittedly driven by the pity of the boss. He relates to everyone that it was easier to fire Sveta, as she has a working husband and owns an apartment, while her colleague Valia is a single mother. Although there is conflict between Sveta and her boss about the decision not being fair, the film does not harp on injustice in society. Life at the workshop will not be interrupted and the film pays little attention to those fired.

From these opening scenes, the viewer learns to adapt to the film’s unconventional means of generating drama. In the workplace scenes, the characters are hardly developed, so it is difficult to draw out any conflict between personalities. Likewise, the film does not utilize standard melodramatic cues such as the inclusion of a musical score, nor does it rely on any non-diegetic sound effects. In the opening scenes, the firing of workers plays out in relative silence, as the viewer hears the quiet drawl of the textile machines in the background.  

Many of the film’s reviews and festival marketing synopses focus solely on the characters’ acting and their use of Russian sign language, prioritizing their performance and making the use of signing the dominanta of film analysis. For example, a review in Screen Daily opens by stating that “Actions speak louder than words in Sveta, by necessity” (Ward 2017). Indeed, the characters in the film (many of whom are skillfully played by amateur deaf actors) entirely communicate in Russian sign language (subtitled), apart from a few select moments in which the audience hears spoken Russian. Evaluating the film solely from the acting performances and use of sign language, however, does a disservice to Issabaeva’s direction and production, which creates new visual reference points to guide the viewer through the silent drama—and not from the necessity to make up for a lack of spoken dialogue.

Festival reviews also are similar in comparing the film to classic plays or novels, with the aforementioned Ward linking the film’s themes to Lady Macbeth. Another synopsis for the Thessaloniki International Film Festival likens Sveta to a “modern Crime and Punishment,” undoubtedly comparing Sveta’s resolute actions with Raskol'nikov’s rationalization and execution of the murder plot. Both of these observations are apt, as they take us beyond a perceived dichotomy of thought vs. action or the common notion of “talk” being a form of inaction. Sveta shows us from the outset how easily murder can be committed, with little rumination, whereas its aftermath takes a psychological toll on the perpetrator.

svetaIf in Crime and Punishment Dostoevsky affords the reader total access to the inner thoughts and monologues of Raskol’nikov, Sveta uses the visual world, almost devoid of language, spoken or signed, to convey the state of the character. We see this in the handheld camera tracking shots that follow Sveta’s movement, which at the outset of the film is resolute, fast-paced, and determined. We follow Sveta from behind as she assails the foreman Valia, striking her in the head with a rock. The murder is unexpected by the viewer and occurs without a direct confrontation. Sveta leaves the scene, only taking an extra moment to grab the victim’s groceries.

While it would be easy to characterize the title character as malevolent upon first viewing, this reading fails to look at visual clues that operate beyond the signification of language. Sveta does not verbalize or convey any sense of guilt until the very end of the film, yet it is the film language that effectively shows the breakdown of her character.

Tracking shots that follow Sveta as she commits the initial and subsequent murder are filmed differently. Sveta’s movement slows, eventually reduced to a drunken stupor toward the close of the film. Her less deliberate movement mirrors her wavering resolve, which is only verbally manifested ironically at the film’s very close. 

svetaIssabaeva also creatively constructs her narrative through noticeable disconnects between the spoken word and its corresponding on-screen image. Important plot events are rarely visualized, but instead inferred. When Sveta convinces Ruslan to carry out the murder plot of his grandmother, the act is not depicted on-screen. As Ruslan begins to feed poison to his grandmother, the camera cuts away to an out-of-focus television, which plays the evening news on full volume. The omission allows the viewer to partially exonerate the character. Sveta is the real murderer in the film. The roving gaze not only conceals the act, but it also underscores the world of spoken language at a central moment in the film. Murder is thus signified by the presence of language. The viewer is reminded of the plight of the two characters who do not have full access or privilege to the symbolic order of society that drives them to commit these desperate measures.

svetaWhile all film reviews touch on Sveta as being deaf, few mention that she is also an orphan. The viewer learns that Sveta was orphaned at an early age, despite the fact that her parents are still alive. Ruslan even makes a point of this fact to rebuke Sveta and her scheme to murder his grandmother. He explains that he cannot kill his grandmother, who stepped in to care for him when his parents died, whereas Sveta’s parents simply “did not love her enough” to care for her. Sveta views the orphanage as a worse option than death, and at times considers poisoning her own children rather than losing them to the state. Ironically, Sveta’s murder of her coworker Valia leaves behind an orphaned daughter, whom Sveta is asked to temporarily care for until she is transferred to the orphanage. Sveta resolutely refuses to help, in front of the child nonetheless.

In the closing scenes of the film, Sveta leaves the girl, only to reverse course and return to her side. The viewer immediately recognizes a moment of possible redemption. Instead, Sveta tells the girl that she must do whatever it takes to survive the orphanage and that she must be strong. “Life is difficult,” and that she must “fight, bite, and never give up.” Only then can she be “calm and happy.” By setting up this so-called “teachable moment,” Sveta ends in its darkest turn, by grooming the next generation of the abused to become the abuser.

Andrew Chapman
St Mary’s University, San Antonio

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Works Cited

Ward, Sarah. 2017. “Sveta: Tokyo Review.” (2 November).

Sveta, Kazakhstan, 2017
Color, 95 min.
Director: Zhanna Issabaeva
Script: Zhanna Issabaeva
Producers: Zhanna Issabaeva, Il'ia Biserov
DoP: Mikhail Blintsov
Editor: Azamat Altybasov
Sound: Andrei Rezinkin
Production Design: Dzhalalatdin Ibragimov
Cast: Laura Koroleva, Roman Lystsov, Natal'ia Kolesnikova, Alim Mendybaev, Marat Abishev, Alena Ugriumova, Dmitrii Riazanov, Varvara Masiagina, Zhanara Bekturganova, Polina Lungu
Production: Sun Production

Zhanna Issabaeva: Sveta (Kazakhstan, 2017)

reviewed by Andrew Chapman© 2018

Updated: 2018