Issue 68 (2020)

Artyk Suyundukov: Shambala (Kyrgyzstan, 2020)

reviewed by Gulbara Tolomushova © 2020

After the fairy tale


“He had two fairy tales. One—his own, which nobody knew about. The other—which the grandfather told him. Then none of the two remained. That’s what it’s about.” (Aitmatov 1974, 1)

“In a man, children’s conscience is like a germ in the grain: without the germ the grain does not sprout.” (Aitmatov 1974, 116)

shambalaThe novella The White Ship (Belyi parokhod; second title: After the Fairy Tale [Posle skazki]) by the well-known Kyrgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov (1928–2008) was first published in 1970 in the first issue of the Moscow-based literary magazine Novyi Mir. The story made an indelible impression on Soviet readers, and many directors wanted to adapt it for the screen. The Soviet Goskino entrusted the well-known Kyrgyz director Bolat Shamshiev with the right to adapt the story, and his film The White Steamship (Belyi parokhod) was made in 1975 and won the Grand Prix at the All-Union Film Festival in Kyrgyzstan’s capital Frunze (now Bishkek) in 1976 and the State Prize of the USSR in 1977; it participated in many film festivals and garnered numerous awards, and has a successful release on Soviet screens. Aitmatov and Shamshiev were co-authors of the script.

Aitmatov’s story shows a pure, impetuous, spiritual boy who lives in a closed space on the remote forest border, in a society of adult people who are constantly busy with their own things. Among them, not a single person is truly concerned about him. In the end, the little man, who received in Shamshiev’s film the name Nurgazy, leaves the intolerable and isolated world. Such a situation was typical for the 1970s when any powerful appearance of uncommon personal qualities caused total animosity from the crowd, which held standard concepts.

Then, 45 years ago Shamshiev said that Aitmatov’s story attracted him because of the opportunity to speak, about perhaps the most important theme in art: man and the beauty surrounding him, and how easily a person turns into an animal, how simple it is to disrupt the balance and harmony in the world: “All our mistakes are mirrored in our children, and often the world’s disorder is convexly reflected in that fate of the children. The image of Nurgazy embodies the fragility of our world.” Shamshiev’s film is until today considered to be one of the best screen adaptations of Aitmatov’s works.

In 2018, when Kyrgyzstan celebrated Aitmatov’s 90th birthday, the government took the decision to begin production on a second film based on the motives of the novella The White Ship. As it turned out, the filmmaker Artyk Suyundukov had, for almost a quarter of a century, dreamed of making a screen version of The White Ship, and had on more than one occasion discussed his vision of the future film with Aitmatov himself when he was still alive. And Aitmatov had agreed on a screen version. The Kyrgyz authorities took this into consideration when deciding over the rights for a new screen version of the story.

shambalaIn Suyundukov’s version the boy received the name Shambala. The director chose the name of his little hero as the film’s title and explained: “In Kyrgyz, ‘Sham’ means candle, and ‘bala’ means boy or child.” So the literal translation is “boy-candle”, or “a boy emanating light.” On the other hand, the well-known orientalist, writer and artist Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) wrote: “Shambala is the most sacred word in Asia, which embodies all the best human expectations and hopes. According to ancient sources, the Shambala is the mythological and spiritually pure land which is located somewhere in the territory of the Tibet or the Altai. It is the land where people are reborn after death and live in harmony and peace.”

Currently Suyundukov is completing his film, and since I had the good fortune of seeing the film during post-production, I wanted to share some impressions and compare the new film to that of Shamshiev and to Aitmatov’s story.

Suyundukov narrows the already small living space of the borderland on to three farmsteads, where the boy lives. In Shamshiev’s film, Nurgazy is able to go down to the lower reaches, to the “big land,” somehow: the town’s cinema where his uncle Kulubek brings him; the school where he starts to study; the neighboring settlement where the mobile shop would call and where granddad Momun would buy his grandson a briefcase. In Suyundukov’s film, Shambala spends all his time in the borderland, never goes to the lower reaches, but has an opportunity to climb the gorges and slopes in the upper levels of the preservation around the mountain forest on a regular basis. In the new version, there is no uncle Kulubek, the events unfold before the 1 September, and the boy does not start school.

Nurgazy is a boy with large expressive eyes who, until the last day of his life, believes in the fairy tales that his grandfather Momun tells him. The destruction of the belief in the positive side of the universe results in Nurgazy’s decision “to become a fish and swim away along the river towards Lake Issyk-Kul.”

Shambala is a boy with a sign of grief in his eyes, since he is an orphan: in the first frames of the film we learn that his mother has died. Granddad Momun and Shambala visit the tomb of Momun’s daughter, the boy’s mother. According to a story told, the boy’s father has gone away to earn money: maybe he works on the white steamship, maybe he is a migrant worker.

Nurgazy lives in the bay area of Lake Issyk Kul and often admires the sacred white steamship, when he climbs on to his observation tower, the Guard Mount. Nurgazy believes that his father works on this effective white steamship.

Shambala sees the white steamship for the first time in a television program, once the TV that has arrived from the “big land” catches a signal thanks to the installation of an aerial (a huge dish) on the borderland. Suyundukov shot his film in the Kemin District, in the woody virginal mountains, where Kyrgyz cinematographers rarely go, preferring the Issyk-Kul area instead.

Nurgazy cannot come to terms with the treachery of granddad Momun, who has shot the patroness of their people, the horned mother-deer; therefore, in the end of the film, he “turns into a fish,” and goes far away from the borderland whose inhabitants, having eaten the meat of Sacred Mother-Deer, have instantly turned into beasts and lost their human shape.

shambalaSuyundukov’s film reflects today’s hopelessness of life in the remote regions of Kyrgyzstan, whose inhabitants are torn off from institutions of the “big land” and consequently do not have the opportunity to protect themselves from the arbitrariness of the local bosses. For some years now the Kyrgyz authorities have wanted to proclaim the following calendar year as the year of the “development of the regions,” but the situation remains unchanged.

The old men, women and children are the most vulnerable layers of the population. The heads of the status families vent their rage on them. In both film versions these are granddad Momun, his daughter Bekey and his grandson Shambala. Momun’s son-in-law, Bekey’s husband Orozkul, constantly scoffs at them, since he is the chief of forestry. The basic motif of his rage is childlessness: for many years he has lived with Bekey, but they have no children.

However, Suyundukov does not paint Orozkul in just one (black) color. First, he is a good guy, who lives in the hope that Bekey will bear him a son. He even brings visitors from the far-away Tuva. The Tuva people are perhaps the closest related to the Kyrgyz people, from Eastern Siberia, though they profess Tibetan Buddhism instead of Islam, like the modern Kyrgyz people. The Tuva shamans hold a ritual ceremony for Bekey so that she would eventually get pregnant and give birth to a child.

But Bekey does not get pregnant and Orozkul, whom the status official from the city promotes to chief forester, dispatching granddad Momun into retirement, becomes intolerable in his communication. He is irritated by any trifle, becomes aggressive in the conversation with close people, and most of all he gets at Shambala.

In Shamshiev’s film, Orozkul also disliked the boy, but next to Nurgazy there were people who sometimes cheered up his life. They would talk to him with pleasure, they understood and accepted the rules of the game in the boy’s imagined world: these are Guldjamal, the wife of the ancillary worker on the borderland, uncle Kulubek, and the driver of the big lorry.

In Suyundukov’s film, uncle Kulubek is not present, and the picturesque image of Guldjamal is reduced to an episodic role of a town girl who called in at the nature preserve simply to have a rest.

Granddad Momun, who has taken the responsibility for the upbringing of his grandson, reckoned that the orphaned boy was essentially the only joy in his life. He doted over his grandson, told him fairy tales, taught him his own wisdom, his own values and moral reference points. Being soft, obedient and shy, granddad Momun nevertheless had the reputation of “a quick-thinking man with able fingers”. Granddad Momun was worried that the grandson would find adult life quite hard, for already in his childhood he showed a rebellious character and found it difficult to reconcile, unable to bear interventions in his personal space. In this space among rocks, gorges and forest nature reserves, the boy created his own fantastic world where there lived his “friends, little brothers:” a resting camel (that is a red humpbacked granite), a wolf (a brown boulder with gray hair) and a tank (a huge boulder). The boy played with these “friends” like other children played with toys.  That was the secret fairy tale that the boy thought up by the magic force of his imagination.

The second favorite fairy tale among those that Granddad Momun told him more often than others is the legend about the Horned Mother-Deer, who rescued the people of the Yenisei Kyrgyz[1] from disappearance after the treacherous nocturnal attack of the neighbors and enemies. Mother-Deer rescued the only survivor, a baby boy, and fed him with her milk; she raised him and married him to her daughter. Then she brought the young couple to their new native land in Kyrgyzstan, where the lineage of the Mother-Deer (bugu, the Kyrgyz word for deer) began to grow. However, much later the bugu began to change, they ceased to honor their ancestors and practically exterminated all deer.  And what a pleasure it was for the boy to see in the distance the Sacred Horned Mother-Deer. He entreated her to bring to the house of Orozkul and Bekey a cradle with a bell.

shambalaBut Orozkul had for a long time already forgotten the ancient legend of the lineage of the bugu, and he lived from one day to the next, where the main task is to please yet another official visitor from the city, presenting him the best tree chopped down in the nature reserve for the construction of yet another house.

And Orozkul forces granddad Momun to shoot the deer. When Shambala learns about this, he runs away from the house, because the person closest to him betrayed him and destroyed that fragile component of his inner world, which he had so carefully fostered, protected and supported. Grandfather Momun believed that the grain of the spiritual and moral beginning would grow strong and form a basis for the grandson’s character as a strong and noble person.

Shambala, unlike Nurgazy, does not swim away, but rises to the highest sacred mountain in the reserve, which he earlier could not attain. Once Shambala had asked the grandfather: “Is it right that, if you climb up a sacred mountain, dreams come true?” Grandfather Momun answered: “People say so.” Now, standing on the sacred mountain, Shambala says just one word: “Father”. During the entire film Shambala has searched for his father to find support in life.

He needs the father now, in this critical moment: in the most complicated situation of his life, when the people who lived next to him on the borderland suddenly lost human shape. His beloved granddad Momun had broken his existential basis. Therefore the boy still has one hope: he believes that his father will come and rescue him—the father whom he has never seen, but who is out there somewhere. The father, at last, must hear his son’s entreaty and come for him, save him from the people who have turned into beasts. This vague, uncertain hope gives the boy the will to climb the Sacred Mountain. For hope dies last. Someone from the administration of the Kyrgyz Ministry of Culture thought during the preview that Shambala wanted to throw himself down the mountain. But that did not seem to be the case to me. The boy firmly stands on the mountain, stretches out his arms as if they were wings. Most likely he would turn into a bird and fly towards the Sun. He has no other way.

Translated by Birgit Beumers


1] In the 6th-10th centuries on the territory of Southern Siberia there existed a Kyrgyz khanate, the state of the Yenisei-Kyrgyz people. By 840 it had expanded to the Tien-Shan. In different periods of its existence it lost independence. From 840 until 916 the Kyrgyz khanate had reached the peak of its power.  

Gulbara Tolomushova

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Works Cited

Aitmatov, Chingiz. 1974. Posle skazki (Belyi parokhod). Frunze: Publishing House Kyrgyzstan

Shambala, Kyrgyzstan 2020
Based on the motives of Chingiz Aitmatov’s story The White Ship
Director and Scriptwriter: Artyk-pai Suyundukov
Directors of Photography: Akjol Bekbolotov, Murat Aliev
Production Design: Tolgobek Koichumanov
Composer: Murzali Zheenbaev
Sound: Bakyt Niyazaliev
Cast: Artur Amanaliev (Shambala), Nasret Dubashev (granddad Momun), Talant Apyev (Orozkul), Djamilia Sydykbayeva (Karyz), Taalaikan Abazova (Bekey)
Production: Kyrgyzfilm (named after T. Okeev)

Artyk Suyundukov: Shambala (Kyrgyzstan, 2020)

reviewed by Gulbara Tolomushova © 2020

Updated: 2020