Issue 62 (2018)

Elizaveta Stishova: Suleiman Mountain (Suleiman gora, 2017)

reviewed by Inna Smailova © 2018


suleiman goraThe 14th IFF Eurasia took place in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, from 1–7 July 2018. Without a doubt, the festival’s attraction lies primarily in the presentation of competition and non-competition films from Central Asia—that is, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. This year, Elizaveta Stishova’s debut feature Suleiman Mountain made a particularly strong impression. The film, co-produced between Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Poland, received the highest esteem of film critics in the form of prizes from the FIPRESCI and NETPAC juries, and a few days later won the East of the West Award—as well as the prize from the Federation of Film Critics from Europe and the Mediterranean (FEDEORA) at Karlovy Vary IFF.

Suleiman Mountain stands for fate. Slowly, in the same pace as the movement of the old truck driver in the film, Stishova almost transforms Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954) across time and space into a modern parable of human roads, tracks and potholes around the legendary peak of south Kyrgyzstan, Suleiman Mountain.

The film’s protagonist is the teenager Uluk. As a child his parents lost him, and he grew up in an orphanage until his mother found him and took him back to the family. But this family is strange: the husband Karabas has two wives, and suddenly the son from the first wife reappears, and they are all forced to live together. There is no house, no work, no money; only a decrepit Soviet SUV that shelters them from the rain and the cold.

elizaveta stishovaThe director scrupulously, at first with rough and harsh brushstrokes in a cold dark blue, then fleetingly retouching in a light shade, paints the archaism of the traditional patriarchal way of family life. Here the man is the strict and dominating power, while his women—out of love and in patient obedience—step over their own lives and that of the children.

The male and female elements are central to the conflict of the entire story. Almost demonically, they are emphatically underlined by nature and its pagan cult displays. The man’s beginning lies in the spirit of the high Suleiman Mountain and its iron force; the female beginning resides in the spirit of fire, love and protection.

Karabas is a long way from showing any feelings; his initial tears on the occasion of his son’s return almost instantly transform into a forceful beating of his wife. He is like the mountain: dark, and full of instincts and reflexes. Until Uluk actually meets the father, the mother paints him a picture of Karabas as a mythological batyr, a mountain spirit, a strong and courageous builder who masters space. But the true mythological power of the hero-father is targeted his close ones, whom he beats and hits. In real life the conquest turns into deceit, meanness, larceny and wasting one’s life in drunkenness.

However, it is much more interesting to trace not the path of the hero, but female nature in the face of the two heroines. They not just endure the husband’s madness (they earn money, feed him, make gifts), but they demonstrate an all-consuming love for him; they are jealous and compete against each other. In contrast to Karabas’ primitive reaction, the women are impulsive, flexible, and emotional. In both the older and the younger woman burns a painful, at times touching and at times imperious and ruthless fire of love and carnal passion for the slow-witted husband. Precisely the dynamics of their feelings and an almost dance-like plasticity of their performance links them to the spirit of fire, with which the older woman has a special relationship. The actress Perizat Ermanbetova simply hypnotizes the viewer with her magic play so unostentatiously, silently and hypnotically intense with all the nuances of emotions that it seems she herself tells the fortune of her heroine. At the top of the mountain she burns up in a ritual dance of her natural gift, protecting the others from ailment and pain. Her feeling, so powerful and entreating, introduces a sense of healing in this family. Knowingly she says to the son: “home is where you are loved.” But her life-giving energy is resisted by the man’s destruction, eventually dismissing her.

suleiman goraThe teenager Uluk adopts the perspective of history, watching together with the spectator over the adults. Together with them, he can make his way from a badgered teenager to a full-grown and recognized adult. His furious scream of disagreement and the desperate jump from a lorry at full speed symbolise not only his initiation as a man; he also finds the force to challenge the established ways, the violent and intolerant world of the father. However, Stishova does not follow this line all the way through to the boiling point, and the film’s end—despite the heat of its initial feelings and events—sags a little in its fast and somewhat clumsy reconciliation. Therefore it is difficult to believe that the helicopter which the father bought for the son will depart into the world—without a house, fire, woman and mother.

Suleiman Mountain stands above life. Perhaps the film’s powerful impact stems from the assonance of the natural spirit of the protagonists and the landscape. In the visual perception these elements are united through their figurativeness of antiquity and density. If Uluk’s weak voice tries to shout disobediently, it drowns in the rocky insensibility of nature. The visual space almost statically and monumentally towers over the cold blue of the sky and the mountains.

However, the landscape of indestructible rock and the path of the heroes are quite a far way from poetic. The landscape is simply a fact of the world and when representing it, Stishova almost pushes herself away from the heritage of neo-realism. But even in comparison with La Strada, the latter carries more hope, thanks to the sun and the boundless beam of love in Gelsomina’s smile. In Suleiman Mountain a worrying and heavy note runs from beginning to end; even daytime action bears no pleasure, except for a short scene when the protagonists happily go along the road, equipped with money and the toy-helicopter. But this scene ends quickly, and in the following episode Karabas destroys everything in the local bar.

suleiman goraIn her documentary style Stishova, together with cameraman Vladimir Panduru, tries to render the ordinary in real life, which occurs on the outside. They aim to prepare this world in an extremely realistic manner. People, the market, the station, houses, shops, petrol stations—everything is shown without condensing colours and emotions, from a distance illustrating a slice of modern life. Yet in this realistic breath of life, there is not enough joy: a lot of work, inexpensive old furniture from the skip, everyday life and faces that worry about everyday chores, people living in small “temporary hovels.” Life is full of chores and worries, and even in that scene is a holiday of the working man and not a sybarite. From this way of seeing the world as a whole stems the impression that our heroes are units casually captured and snatched from this world by the camera.

Therefore the achievement of Suleiman Mountain is undoubtedly in the form of the demonstration of life as it is. A bow to the young director, who by means of a conflict of a documentary reality and the internal spirit of the characters tried to get to the depth, to the nature of human passions broken by an intense patriarchal character and humility. In the face of Uluk, growing-up and maturing into adulthood, we see maybe not open resistance, but something of a reproach against the violence and the dogmatic way of life by a society built on this landscape.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Inna Smailova
National Arts University, Astana

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Suleiman Mountain, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Poland, 2017
Color, 101 mins
Director: Elizaveta Stishova
Screenplay: Alisa Khmelnitskaia
DoP: Tudor Vladimir Panduru
Editor: Karolina Maciejewska
Production Design: Svetlana Dubina
Producer: Elena Yatsura, Andrei Deviatkin, Viktor Kuznetsov
Production: Virtual Kick Studio
Cast: Daniel Daiyerbekov, Perizat Ermanbetova, Asset Imangaliev, Turgunay Erkinbekova
Sales: ANTIPODE Sales & Distribution.

Elizaveta Stishova: Suleiman Mountain (Suleiman gora, 2017)

reviewed by Inna Smailova © 2018

Updated: 2018