Issue 70 (2020)

Emil Atageldiev: The Lake (Kyl, Kyrgyzstan, 2020)

reviewed by Gulbara Tolomushova © 2020

The Right to Choose, or Solvable Contradictions

ozeroThe world premiere of the first feature film of the well-known Kyrgyz pianist Emil Atageldiev took place on 29 July 2020 at the International Film Festival in Shanghai (China), included in the list of A-class festivals. The film would have attracted the attention of the selection commission for its original story; professional direction; magnificent camerawork; the work of fine actors; the unostentatious music that renders the noise of the lake’s waves and the ever-present feeling of the sacrament of the water of Lake Issyk-Kul; a brilliantly developed structure of nonlinear editing that allowed for rounded conflict. The film consists of two parts, which reminds us of the form of a two-part musical piece where each part has its own tonality and rhythm and where culmination points connect both parts to a whole.

The first part, “Jyldyz,” concerns three days in the life of the 11-year-old girl Jyldyz. The second part, “Temirkul,” is devoted to the last four months of the life of the 73-year-old Village Elder (aksakal), who until his retirement worked as history teacher at the local school. The villagers respect him, although among themselves they speak of a certain strangeness in his behavior. Despite his old age, Temirkul is tense and strong, light and clemency emanate from his face with its straight lines, and he is well-disposed to the villagers.

Temirkul treats Jyldyz with great tenderness, because his neighbor’s girl reminds him of his own daughter, who was drowned at a young age in the Lake. The daughter’s body has never been found, and this has strongly affected Temirkul. It is also important to note that Temirkul and his wife Burul are not native locals: after completing higher education in the city, they were allocated to this settlement, and they came to like the place: the majestic Issyk Kul, whose waves carried away their young daughter to eternity. After that tragic accident the Lake became a sanctuary for the spouses, a place of worship; they would come to the Lake to remember their daughter. Therefore, I write ‘the Lake’ with a capital letter. 

ozeroAs a historian, Temirkul knows many legends of the olden days. One of them helped him overcome the grief connected with the loss of his daughter. Temirkul spends much time with Jyldyz, telling her legends from past centuries. Jyldyz listens especially to the legend of the Lake with great interest: it has a strong impact on her spiritual development. According to this legend, the Kyrgyz people did not eat fish in ancient times, because they believed that the souls of their ancestors, awaiting rebirth in a different shape, would turn into fish in the sacred Lake. (The locals tell this legend about Issyk Kul to visitors.)

When Temirkul’s wife dies, he goes to Jyldyz’s father Askhat to ask for help. Temirkul doesn’t want to disclose the death of his wife, because he doesn’t want to bury her body in the ground but wishes to send her corpse after their daughter, who was drowned in the Lake. Askhat, however, organizes a traditional Kyrgyz funeral and gets into debt. (We note here a remark of the director: “A funeral sometimes takes away the last resources from people. Therefore, once there is no person, there is no funeral.”) Temirkul thanks Askhat four months after the wife’s funeral, warmly noting also the help of Askhat’s son and Jyldyz’s elder brother, Chingiz. On the grave, they have together set up a Burul Gumbez (a gravestone, or a tomb).

Temirkul personifies the nation’s past: he was born after the Great Patriotic War, and he spent his youth during the Thaw. His rich inner world, his pristine honesty, and his intelligence attract the villagers, and for many the aksakal is a moral guide.

Jyldyz’s father Askhat was born during the Stagnation era and his adolescence falls into the perestroika era, while he spent his youth during the wild 1990s. Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, he experiences unsurmountable—as it seems to him—difficulties in everyday life, although he sometimes calms himself, saying that everything will be alright and he’ll have a breakthrough, but again and again he breaks the law when he engages in poaching. Askhat is in his 40s and personifies the nation’s present. He stands firmly on his feet, is always ready to help people, but at the same time he sometimes loses hold, rushes things and makes terrible mistakes.

ozeroJyldyz, a girl of 11 years, personifies the nation’s future. Let her be laconic, but she always listens carefully to what the parents say, she sees how they communicate and hears how they often swear, how the mother often reproaches and urges the father, maliciously reminding him of the painful things in their life. It is clear that the mother constantly shakes up the hold that the father tries to grip.

Jyldyz is aware of all the problems of the family. On the other hand, she spends a lot of time with Temirkul, whose world views strikingly differ from the majority of the villagers. Jyldyz stands between two ways of life: one unsettled, aggressive, consumerist; and the other reasonable, judicious, balanced. Jyldyz silently rebels, protesting against the father’s illegal trade and trying to protect the fish in the Lake; in other words, she tries to protect that world order which has developed over centuries and which nobody has the right to destroy. Jyldyz has a dream, in which she learns the secret of the death of Temirkul’s daughter: she got caught in the nets of poachers. When she suddenly wakes up, she decides to cut the father’s new nets with his own knife, so that he can’t catch fish illegally; then she throws the knife into the Lake.

It seems that life constantly confronts Askhat with insolvable contradictions. He believes that he is constantly caught up in a vicious circle of everyday problems, which come from good intentions. So, he is poaching for the sake of the family’s well-being and prosperity, and he borrows money from the rich relative Nurdin to organize a worthy funeral for Temirkul’s wife Burul. As a guarantee for the borrowed sum he surrenders the deed on his land. He reckons that after the 40-day commemoration he will be able to pay back the debt, since each person will have to make an obligatory contribution. But Askhat cannot collect the necessary sum, and he remains indebted to Nurdin.

After Burul’s death, Temirkul’s heart fails and he needs an operation. Askhat decides to help Temirkul with money for the operation. He sells the land to Nurdin, minus the sum of money he took out for Burul’s funeral. But Nurdin buys Askhat’s land very cheaply, because of the unpaid earlier debt and the high interest rates. And so it always goes: Askhat is ready to help everybody, but as it seems to him, he gets nothing back. Moreover, his wife constantly nags at him: “You’re good to people, and there’s nothing you get back!”

Here a difference in mentality is shown: Altynai wants everything at once, Askhat tries to constrain the aggressive pressure of his wife. Temirkul understands apparently the insolvable problem, and resolves it quietly, without disclosing anything and without involving the neighbors. The time will come, and they’ll all know and understand the motives of the old man’s acts.

After his heart troubles, Temirkul decides that the time has come for him to die, like his daughter has parted, plunging into the Lake. Before leaving for the Other world (that is, before his suicide) he writes a will that he leaves all his property to Jyldyz. These documents he brings Askhat, allegedly for storage, while he himself goes to the city for the funeral of a friend, a good man. Temirkul is too clever to tell Askhat directly that he understands the complexity of the situation with the debt; instead, he simply gives Askhat the deed for the property, hoping that he reads the documents within several days.

ozeroAs a counterpoint to Askhat’s malicious and spiteful wife Altynai, the film presents Temirkul’s soft and wise wife Burul. In the first part, we learn that she has died, and we see how Askhat prepares her funeral. We see her portrait hung over the entrance to the funeral yurt. In the second part, Burul appears in Temirkul’s visions when he reflects on the idea of giving his wife to the Lake so she can meet her daughter, an idea which Askhat categorically rejects. Burul says to her husband: “What’s to be done, not everything in our life turns out as we want it.” Another time, a smiling Burul appears on Temirkul’s drifting boat that gradually fills up with water: Burul seemingly approves Temirkul’s decision.

Although their daughter has drowned, she never left their lives: she constantly appears in visions and dreams not only to Temirkul. The story about the disappearance of the aksakal’s daughter makes an indelible impression on Jyldyz; to her and her parents, she seems to call for them when she appears. Therefore, Temirkul wants to send his wife off to their daughter and therefore, he also decides to go into the Lake, to the Other world of his daughter, understanding that in the case of his death, Askhat would otherwise commit his body to the ground, too.

Temirkul thus defends the right for the choice of his own way. He understands that people don’t understand, and therefore don’t accept his choice, but consider him an odd fellow, a person who is not in his right mind. But Temirkul wants to go his way, follow his desire: to meet his daughter in the underwater world. Through ancient legends the filmmakers speak about the difficult course of people’s life when their outlook differs from the majority. Askhat’s remark is indicative here: “What will the people say?”, he asks in response to Temirkul’s request to see off his wife in a different way. Askhat says to his wife: “He couldn’t bury his daughter, now there wants to send the wife there.”

So, in the first part of the film entitled “Jyldyz,” we learn that Temirkul and Jyldyz don’t eat fish because they believe in the ancient legend that when people die, their souls are reincarnated in fish. Following a dream in which Jyldyz learns about the secret of the death of Temirkul’s daughter, she steals the father’s knife to cut the new fishing nets and throws the knife into the Lake. There she sees a boat with a person floating into the distance. The boat soon becomes a dot on the horizon and completely disappears. The girl guesses who is in the boat, and with a stick she draws something in the sand. In the finale of the second part we see what Jyldyz has drawn: the diamond-shaped sign of a fish which is washed away by the waves. The girl thus follows the teacher, her spiritual mentor, to his grave.


The film’s director Emil Atageldiev is an Honored Artist of Kyrgyzstan and a graduate of the Higher Courses for Directors and Scriptwriters in Moscow. The Lake is currently the first and—so far—only film in Kyrgyzstan shot on an ARRI ALEXA; the camera and gear were specially brought from Moscow, where the color correction was carried out by experts, who worked on large Russian projects such as Fedor Bondarchuk’s Stalingrad. The Russian DoP Ivan Chengich has worked on a number of large commercial projects, including Kitchen in Paris (Kukhnia v Parizhe), About Love 2 (Pro liubov’ 2), and Interns, and with such directors as Valeria Gai Germanika.

Gulbara Tolomushova

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The Lake, Kyrgyzstan, 2020
Drama, color, 100 min.
Director: Emil Atageldiyev
Scriptwriters: Erke Dzhumakmatova and Emil Atageldiyev
Director of Photography: Ivan Chengich
Production Design: Bayysh Ismanov
Composer: Taalay Beysheev
Sound: Kalybek Sherniyazov
Editing: Marat Ergeshov
Producers: Erke Dzhumakmatov and Sadyk Sher-Niyaz
Co-producers: Talent Tolobekov and Aizhan Chynybayeva
Technical support: Light and Shade, Kirillin
Cast: Artykpay Suyundukov, Bolot Tentimyshov, Malika Aidabosunova, Ainura Kachkynbek Kyzy, Sanzhar Omurbayev
The film has been made by OYMO Studio jointly with Aitysh Film Studio, and with financial support from the Department of Cinematography of the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Information of the Kyrgyz Republic

Emil Atageldiev: The Lake (Kyl, Kyrgyzstan, 2020)

reviewed by Gulbara Tolomushova © 2020

Updated: 2020