Issue 63 (2019)

Bekzat Pirmatov: Aurora (Avrora, Kyrgyzstan, 2018)

reviewed by Gulbara Tolomushova © 2019

auroraKim Young-woo is well-known as the selector and programmer for the most prestigious Asian film festival in the South Korean city of Busan. He was the first to appreciate Bekzat Pirmatov’s debut film entitled Aurora. Having watched the still unfinished film, Kim Young-woo wrote on the festival’s website: “A unique and dazzling black comedy from Kyrgyzstan. [...] The space full of unique individuals somewhat reflects present day Kyrgyzstan that is in pursuit of re-establishing the nation’s identity. A noteworthy film of the year that tactfully intertwines the influx of Chinese capital, ignorance of woman’s rights, corruption, poverty and other sub-texts.”

Pirmatov instantly received an official invitation into the main competition program of Busan IFF for the section New Currents. On 6 October 2018 the world premiere of Aurora took place in the largest cinema of Busan’s Cinema Center with a seating capacity of over 1,000. After the screening Pirmatov participated in a Q&A with spectators, and later gave an interview to a Korean correspondent, outlining the peculiarities of his film and its nonlinear structure.

The film’s title has several conceptual components. First, the events of the film begin in the evening and end in the early morning, at dawn, when in the imagination of the ancient Romans the goddess of dawn, Aurora, brings daylight to the gods and the people. The Russian proverb “Morning is wiser than evening” comes to mind when it comes to difficult situations.

auroraSecond, the action of the film unfolds in the building of the sanatorium “Aurora,” with its architecture reminiscent of a ship hulk, that should have been called “The White Steamship.” The plan for the creation of a sanatorium on the shore of Lake Issyk Kul came from Leonid Brezhnev after reading Chingiz Aitmatov’s novel The White Steamship (Belyi parokhod, 1970). The sanatorium “Aurora” was constructed in 1979 and remains to date one of the best health resorts in Kyrgyzstan. Even today, the sanatorium impresses people who see it for the first time from a bird’s eye view: a white building in the form of a ship, surrounded by a magnificent park with gold, crimson and green foliage and the smooth turquoise surface of Lake Issyk Kul. It appears like a divine place, where the divine music of great composers of the past sounds: Bach, Rachmaninoff, Mahler, Saint-Saens and Brahms. Indeed, their works carry the emotional context for each character in the film, for each emotion of the various plot-lines.

Third, after the collapse of the USSR the sanatorium “Aurora” was basically frequented by businessmen or affluent people, often at weekends for relaxation and for medical procedures, or just to have a good time.

auroraPerhaps for the first time in Kyrgyz cinema a film shows people not in the most favourable light: with flaws and weaknesses, with unexpectedly negative character traits. And it is clear why: during the working week they labour hard and intensely, and on the days off they take the liberty to relax.

The director says about the film: “The tragic and at the same time funny situations in which heroes find themselves reflect the key problems of our country, such as the Chinese expansion (the small Kyrgyzstan shares a border with the huge country China, as is well known), the infringement of women’s rights, poverty, corruption, lost youth…”

Many experts and political scientists from Kyrgyzstan have repeatedly declared that all the contemporary problems of the country (about which Pirmatov speaks) result from the absence of a national idea: people have no dream, people do not know where to direct their aspirations, and there is no spiritual component in the state’s national development.

auroraIn this connection it is important for Pirmatov to show that, when people live without a precisely structured and articulated national ideology, there remain in society some individual iconic personalities who keep their finger on the pulse. In Aurora there are two such cameo images. who rigidly put on their place the heroes who have overstepped the mark: the famous announcer of Kyrgyz TV, Baktybek Mamytov, whom the simple Kyrgyz people idolize; and the well-known expert in drug rehabilitation Jenishbek Nazaraliev, who is popular beyond Kyrgyzstan. In the Soviet era Nazaraliev used his method of “Super-stress-shock” for treating alcoholism and drug addiction.

Moreover, the outstanding writer Chingiz Aitmatov continues to enjoy great authority among the Kyrgyz people; his 90th anniversary was solemnly marked on 12 December 2018. For Pirmatov, The White Steamship is one of the most important and favourite works, which is reflected in the graphic design for the film, but more significantly in the aspirations of the heroes, all born in the Soviet era and after the perestroika, and who with the collapse of the Soviet Union loose their dreams. The director comments: “I have always been touched by the story described in The White Steamship, and today it is even more topical for Kyrgyzstan. But the idea for the film Aurora arose not because of the novel. Later, when I had decided to shoot in the sanatorium “Aurora,” I studied different documents and learned that the place should have been called “The White Steamship”, and then added the scene of the dream of the sanatorium’s director.”

auroraLet us explore this important scene from the film. A shot of Lake Issyk Kul. Someone in the distance shouts: “White Steamship, hello!” The sanatorium’s director nervously goes on the deck of the small ship and searches for someone; he is obviously out of his mind and repeats all the time: “Forgive me, sonny, forgive me!” At some moment the man regains his senses back in his study, and in horror realises that this was a nightmare. Then he starts talking to someone on the phone.

A rhetorical question: “The sanatorium’s director in a dream asks the boy from The White Steamship for forgiveness that there is no place left in the world for big dreams?” Or was the dream transformed into an obsession to impress something strange and amaze a certain target audience? In fact, two girlfriends of the sanatorium director say that they need to film something, but they yet haven’t formulated what exactly. One thing they know for sure: it should be a sensation! For a start they decide to capture the dawn, in other words the process of the sunrise. These girls are pathologically lazy and not in the least curious; they are all the time seen in a horizontal position: they lie down or are asleep. They have no idea of a future educational film and that they just need to walk around the corridors of the sanatorium, go into the cafe or the bar and listen to the conversations of the lodgers. They could learn a lot of interesting things!

The girls spend their time bored, but next to them extraordinary things happen, about which the sanatorium’s director never tells them.

auroraAll the secret stories of the terrible night at the sanatorium “Aurora” are hidden by a simple Kyrgyz woman: a parlour-maid who is very curious (unlike the two girlfriends from Bishkek). The parlour-maid instantly decides to destroy the source of information: the new iPhone which has recorded all the terrible events of one night. As Bolot Shamshiev told me in an interview for Channel KTR Bishkek in 1998, simple people who combine shyness with humility, and wisdom with ignorance, basically do not want conflicts; they always prefer to close their eyes to the unattractive sides of life. 

Let us remember that in The White Steamship the world of tales and legends is perceived by an impressionable child inclined to a fantastic perception of reality; it stands in contradiction with the harsh world of the adult people who are busy with their own problems. As Aitmatov wrote: “the tragic ending of The White Steamship was inevitable as the kindness in the face of the boy is basically incompatible with the evil in the face of Orozkul.” (Aitmatov 1978, 131)

In 1975 the director Bolot Shamshiev made the eponymous film The White Steamship. In an interview for Channel KTR Bishkek in 1998 Shamshiev said that the script idea attracted him because of the opportunity to speak on the most important theme in art: about man and the environment, about beauty and about that how simple it is to destroy this beauty, and how simple it is to turn man into an animal and break the balance and harmony in the world.

In Aurora there are no children, because there is no beauty in the relationships between people. Even the figure of the virgin serves for the intellectuals-addicts merely to obtain drugs of a better quality.

auroraWith Busan, the film has been shown at the largest Asian film festival, screening three times to a full hall; some people even came to see it twice and three times, among them students of a French film school who tried to understand the complex episodic structure of the film. In this context, the excellent assessment of the Berlin-based Taiwanese free-lance film critic Zhuo-Ning Su is much valued. A law graduate, he is well-versed in Soviet and post-Soviet cinema and understands the political, social and public context in the CIS countries. He is quick to grasp the most complex structures and concepts in films after the first viewing. He called Aurora a “profound postmodern parable”, marking thus the film’s originality. International film criticism tends to prioritize the originality of the idea, the director’s vision and its potential to create a unique work with no analogs in film history, nationally and internationally. Zhuo-Ning Su remarks: “Pirmatov shows remarkable talent in non-linear, expressionistic storytelling. No matter how nonsensical a scene appears, there’s a constant, seductive pull throughout the film that betrays a precision of instincts and control. This man not only knows how to make things genuinely weird, but how to keep you just confused enough to succumb yourself to his whims. He is mightily supported by the film’s three DPs and the original music provided by Aleksandr Yurtayev.”(Zhuo-Ning Su. 2018). Zhuo-Ning Su also reveals a general tendency in the development of cinema in a new era in those countries which almost thirty years ago were a part of the Soviet Union.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Gulbara Tolomushova

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Works Cited

Aitmatov, Chingiz. 1978. V soavtorstve s zemleiu i vodoi. Frunze

Zhuo-Ning Su. 2018. “Aurora. Busan 2018 Review.” The Film Stage 7 October.

Aurora, Kyrgyzstan, 2018,
Color, 100 minutes,
Director and scriptwriter: Bekzat Pirmatov
Producer: Iskhak Pirmatov
DoP: Mirlan Satkymbaev, Erkin Kyshtobaev, Rysbek Bokeev
Composer: Aleksandr Iurtaev
Editing: Erkin Kyshtobaev, Rysbek Bokeev
Sound: Bakyt Niyazaliev
Cast: Al’bina Imasheva, Marat Amiraev, Bolot Tentimishev, Bakytbek Mamytov, Zhenishbek Nazaraliev, Dina Jacob, Zhyldysbek Kaseinov, Kumar Zhalilov
Production: Studio Toptash, with support from the Department of Cinema of the Kyrgyz Republic

Bekzat Pirmatov: Aurora (Avrora, Kyrgyzstan, 2018)

reviewed by Gulbara Tolomushova © 2019

Updated: 2019