Issue 67 (2020)

Mirlan Abdykalykov: Running to the Sky (Joo kuluk, Kyrgyzstan, 2019)

reviewed by Gulbara Tolomushova © 2020

Follow the dream, against all odds of life!

It is the story of a boy who runs after a dream… The Kyrgyz people have a tradition: when a child is a year old, we “cut his path” so the child gets on his feet fast and learns to walk independently. The honor of cutting the path goes to the winner of a specially organized race among young boys. The winner receives a valuable prize. The first working title of the film was “Tushoo toy,” the holiday on the occasion of cutting the path. Through the action of the film my hero is constantly on the run, not only on the holiday of cutting the path, but also at school at the PE lessons and at children’s competitions. The boy does not just run, but he runs towards his dream: to reunite the separated parents. That is his most important dream. (Director’s statement)

At the Busan IFF in October 2019, the Kyrgyz film Running to the Sky by Mirlan Abdykalykov won the FIPRESCI award “For its delicate portrait of a struggling country through the eyes of a boy who runs to transcend his limitations.”

begun posterFour years ago, in 2015, Mirlan made his debut film Heavenly Nomadic (Sutak) and my review of his film was entitled “An Ideal World Order”. A family preferred to live high up in the mountains on a remote pasture to be closer to the sky, every day accomplishing a feat of labor by herding horses and cattle. The family consisted of an old man and an old woman, a daughter-in-law and a granddaughter. The father of the little girl had died. In the end, the old man also dies and the family remains without a man, although it is clear that the old woman with her daughter-in-law and granddaughter will manage the home. It seemed that these people intentionally moved upwards to the sky to be far away from the vanity and efforts of the lower territories. Indeed, recently some Turkic people have started to idolize the sky (tengri), arguing that Tengrism is the primordial religion of all Turkic people. Among the key postulations is the cult of nature, the belief in life’s force, the respect for the dead ancestors who invisibly help their heirs.

Thus, having shown the ideal world order of a family in the mountains, near the sky, Abdykalykov has decided to go down to the ground and present an absolutely different way of life. In Running to the Sky, a small family lives in a village on Lake Issyk Kul. The family is not complete: there is just father and son. Sometimes the grandparents visit. The boy’s mother has divorced from her alcoholic husband and started a new family with a man from the Middle-East.

begun The grandfather cannot bear the father’s alcoholism and does not even enter the house during his rare visits. The grandfather comes for the sake of the grandson, whom he meets in the street to find out how the boy is doing at school and to give him a banknote, well understanding that with a drunken father the boy very much needs money. The grandmother goes inside the house and tries to tidy up every time, because a house should be in an ideal order even if the lady of the house is not at home. The saying goes that a house without a woman as guardian is an empty house. The grandmother has obviously spent a long time trying to persuade the grandfather to visit son and grandson, and the grandfather has agreed only for the sake of the grandson.

I shall apply here my favorite formula of the world order of people on planet Earth, which I heard at a film studies conference in Moscow in 2002 from the lips of the American scholar Gerald McCausland: “Children are the future of a nation, old men are the past of a nation, and middle-aged people (plus/minus 40) are today’s nation.”

begun In the context of this formula, what do we see in Abdykalykov’s second film? The protagonist is called Zhekshen, which means “Risen” (as in Resurrection Sunday), and therefore children born on Sundays are usually given this name. All these children are supposed to be cheerful and happy, and they should not have any worries or problems.

But our hero is the neediest pupil in the class. Zhekshen cannot even contribute 200 Som for the repair of the school. He has no sports outfit to participate in P.E. classes, but he is the fastest runner among his classmates, preferring to run barefoot. The boy has no trainers, he has not even decent footwear for every day, but wears old boots that are falling apart. The boy studies well, is kind and respectful to the father.

The art director of the project, the well-known Kyrgyz director Aktan Arym Kubat, explains: “About such boys as Zhekshen they say: ‘he’ll cut his path himself’. I want to stress that the ceremony of cutting the path (tushoo toy or tusho’o kesu’u) is not simply a ritual. After the path is cut, the child makes the first steps with the support of two other children. Therefore the ceremony is a symbol of becoming a man.”

begun The boy’s father is a fallen and weak-willed man, and until the end it is not clear what exactly drove him into this situation of eternal despondency and depression. Sometimes he tries to change his useless life, but to no avail. Eventually, Zhekshen’s father is taken away by the police. It is obvious that the man is not guilty, but the status of an eternal drunkard makes it possible for the police to suspect him of any unseemly affair. The grandparents are lovely people, and they clearly spent their lives in an honorable and worthy manner, walking through life hand in hand. But they did not manage to raise their son as a strong-willed man: he has no backbone.

begun An empty house is a house without a wife and without a mother. Zhekshen’s mother has apparently managed to arrange a better life for herself: she is about to marry a devout Muslim man. Now she wears garments fit for Arab Muslim women, and it seems everything will be fine in the native land of her new husband Karim. She wants to take along her son, saying that Karim is willing to adopt him. But it is clear that the dreams of this woman, who has abandoned her home, her (drunkard) husband and her son for the sake of an illusory happiness will probably fall apart once she arrives in the foreign land. Some two years ago young men of Karim’s appearance (he wears a European suit and black glasses instead of the snow-white attire typical for devout Arabs) would arrive en masse to recruit our fellow citizens and send them to territories in the Near East.

The boy refuses the mother’s offer, giving as reason for his decision that he cannot abandon his father who needs his support. But apparently, the boy also needs help: he is sick, but probably nobody ever checked his health. The father has no job and nothing to do: he drinks all the time; the mother has left the home. The grandparents don’t know that the boy has a heart problem.

begunThe finale gives rise to a number of interpretations. Here is my reading: Zhekshen wins the long-distance race organized by the richest peasant on the occasion of the cutting of the path for his one-year-old little son. But, having come first, Zhekshen suddenly collapses and lies without consciousness. It seems that he has died. People surround the teenager. In amazement they all look downwards at the lifeless body. Only Zhekshen’s girlfriend entreatingly turns towards the sky and asks for his revival.

The miracle happens. The viewer observes Zhekshen’s final pass as he runs towards his treasured dream. Some viewers have expressed the opinion that Zhekshen could have opened his eyes, remaining on the ground. That would be enough to understand that he has regained consciousness. And that there was no need for the girl to look up in the sky.

However, according to Tengri belief, the sky is the direct representation of the heavenly spirits and the place where they reside. The girlfriend’s gaze at the sky and her entreating look give us hope that in future there will be a woman next to Zhekshen, who will always support him. Zhekshen has to be resurrected for the nation to have a future, as I argued above: “children are the future of the nation.”

In a conversation with Mirlan Abdykalykov and Aktan Arym Kubat I repeated the question whether it is right that Zhekshen is revived, because I categorically opposed the tragic ending, according to which the child dies. After all, our nation must have a future. We can’t give up just like that, without a struggle. They answered: “When the script was written, there was an unequivocal ending: the hero dies. Then his soul flies up (that would have been a subjective shot), home to his father, then to his mum. But then we rejected this line. We had a wish to resurrect the hero, but resurrection belongs to Christianity. Ideally, our hero should live a carefree life with his entire family. But the complex economic situation in the country, the difficult life of many fellow citizens necessitate adjustments to the destiny of our compatriots. We heard that many spectators have an ambiguous reaction to the film’s ending. But we reckon that it is always necessary to raise questions rather than speak unequivocally…”

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Gulbara Tolomushova

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Running to the Sky (Joo kuluk), Kyrgyzstan 2019
Color, 1:1,85; 5.1, 88 minutes
Original language: Kyrgyz, Russian
Director: Mirlan Abdykalykov
Scriptwriter: Ernest Abdyjaparov, Mirlan Abdykalykov
Director of photography: Talant Akynbekov
Editor: Evgenii Krokhmalenko
Sound: Mars Tugelov
Music: Murzali Jeenbaev
Cast: Temirlan Asankadyrov, Ruslan Orozakunov, Meerim Atantaeva, Ilimbek Kalmuratov
Producers: Altynai Koichumanova, with support from the Department of Cinema at the Ministry of Culture, Information and Tourism (Kyrgyzstan), Bilimkana Foundation (Kyrgyzstan)
Production: Oy Art
Print source: Pluto Film Germany

Mirlan Abdykalykov: Running to the Sky (Joo kuluk, Kyrgyzstan, 2019)

reviewed by Gulbara Tolomushova © 2020

Updated: 2020