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# 3, January 2004

Stars Above Almaty: Kazakh Cinema Between 1998 and 2003

By Vladimir Padunov

"Shaken’s Stars," the first national festival of Kazakh films (1-5 October 2003), was sponsored by (among others) the director of Kazakhfilm Studios and the mayor of Almaty, the former and traditional capital of Kazakhstan. Named in honor of Shaken Aimanov (as is Kazakhfilm Studios), the festival paid tribute to the director widely recognized in Kazakhstan since the collapse of the Soviet Union as the founder of the country’s national film industry. Not surprisingly, therefore, one of the festival’s satellite programs was devoted to a retrospective of Aimanov’s films: Our Dear Doctor (1957), The Beardless Deceiver (1964), Land of the Fathers (1966), Angel in a Tiubiteika (1968), and End of the Ataman (1970), the lead actor of which, Asanali Ashimov, also served as the festival’s honorary chairman.

The festival consisted of five competition programs, with three juries charged with distributing prizes and awards: feature films and animation; documentary films; and short feature films and documentaries by young filmmakers. The jury for the feature film competition awarded a range of prizes: Grand Prix for best feature film (Serik Aprymov, Three Brothers, 1998), best director (Aprymov, Aksuat, 1998), best male lead (Asanali Ashimov in Damir Manabaev’s A Purely Kazakh Story, 2002) and female lead (Aian Esmagambetova in Satybaldy Narymbetov’s Leila’s Prayer, 2002), as well as best film script (Amir Karakulov, Elena Gordeeva, and Raushan Baiguzhaeva for Karakulov’s Zhylama, 2002), best camerawork (Boris Troshev for Darezhan Omirbaev’s Killer, 1998), and best artistic direction (Sabit Kurmanbekov for Aprymov’s Three Brothers). The jury also made three special awards: to Omirbaev for his contribution in bringing international recognition to Kazakh cinema, to Ardak Amirkulov for his work in training a new generation of Kazakh filmmakers, and to Bolat Sharip for his courage and persistence in completing his feature film Zaman-ai (1998) in the face of massive institutional opposition.

Aksuat  Killer

A total of eighteen full-length feature films were screened in the main competition. Fourteen of the films were shot on celluloid, and of the remaining four, one was shot in BETACAM (Karakulov’s Zhylama) and three in VHS: Ferdavsi Izizi’s and Makhmud Tuichiev’s Heartbreak (2000), Tuichiev’s Unrepentant (2003), and Gennadii Zemel'’s The Revolt of the Executioners (1998).

Regrettably, but also predictably considering the festival organizers’ objective of screening every film produced in Kazakhstan between 1998 and 2003, parts of the program were extremely uneven in quality. Five of the films in competition lacked both a professional level of filmmaking and an ability to appeal either to an international (festival) audience or to a domestic (mass) one. All three of the films shot in VHS fall into this category. Although each of them made highly impassioned use of provocative subject matter (present-day teenage drug addiction in Heartbreak, the collectivization of livestock in Kazakhstan in the early 1930s in Unrepentant, and the Stalin-ordered executions of disabled soldiers by their comrades in the months after the end of the Second World War in The Revolt of the Executioners), not one of the films found an effective way to visualize the verbal histrionics of its puppet-like characters. In all three films, the verbal text was unrelenting and dominant; the visual text existed merely as a motor and delivery system. At best, in these films "the visual" was reduced in the most primitive way simply to recording events on tape: inconsistent lighting, sloppy camerawork, and elementary film-editing techniques characterized all three.

Both of the so-called "children’s films" suffered from exactly the same shortcomings: Viktor Chugunov’s Gift of the Gods (1998)—a dispute among the gods of Fortune, Strength, and Wisdom about what is most needed by mortal men—and Asia Suleeva’s and Serik Raibaev’s The Magical Sponsor (2000)—about the impact on daily life in an orphanage by a magician capable of transforming misbehaving children into stuffed-toys. In addition to a rather consistent disregard for the rudiments of filmmaking, these films were also burdened with oppressive adult moralizing. These are "children’s films" only in the sense that children are the intended victims (not audience); bound and gagged they would probably sit through them. The true audience consists of those parents who view cinema as a suitable means to indoctrinate their children with proper notions of behavior and respect. Once again, filmmaking is just a handmaiden charged with delivering a message.

It is difficult to speculate about the potential audience for these five films. At most they are condemned to (lower than) grade-B and home movie theater screenings or to late night television broadcast to fill dead air time. This may provide an (admittedly partial) explanation to a paradox that was often emphasized during the days of the festival: despite the international recognition accorded to the very talented films of the Kazakh "New Wave" since the release of Rashid Nugmanov’s The Needle (1988), recent Kazakh cinema is virtually unknown in Kazakhstan itself. More importantly, from an economic point of view, even though all of the movie theaters in Almaty have been fully refurbished (new screens, new seats, modernized sound systems, etc.), no Kazakh films are ever screened in these theaters, a situation that is reminiscent of the one in Moscow for much of the 1990s, when the flood of low budget (and lower artistic quality) American films into movie theaters totally squeezed out Russian-made films from all of the screening venues. If the immediate consequence of this loss of venues is the disruption of the relationship between filmmakers and film viewers within the national space, the cumulative result is to deprive the national film industry of its only source of independent funding. The alternatives (government investments, business sponsorship, international co-production) inevitably come with many strings attached, and—perhaps most catastrophically—make no contributions towards overhauling the outdated technological infrastructure of the film industry itself.

Rashid Nugmanov  Viktor Tsoi in TheNeedle

At the other extreme, the festival included five films that have already attracted widespread attention for the high quality of their film art; each has been screened at several major international film festivals and most have received important prizes. These films include Aprymov’s Aksuat and Three Brothers, Karakulov’s Zhylama, and Omirbaev’s Killer and The Road (2002).

Aprymov’s two films complete a de facto trilogy that was started with his diploma film, Last Stop (1989). While all three are set in a traditional Kazakh aul, the village itself is more firmly grounded in contemporary life than in some romanticized view of an inherited (and now erased) past. This loss lies at the center of each film: the hero of Last Stop, who returns to the aul after his military service, cannot reconcile his nostalgic memories of life there with the actual conditions (unemployment, boredom, and alcoholism) and departs; the older brother in Aksuat, who has remained in the aul, finds himself isolated and powerless to resist the local mafia after he falls in love with the pregnant wife of his city-slicker brother who returns temporarily to escape his creditors; the narrator-pilot of Three Brothers recalls the events that led to the deaths of his two brothers and surrogate uncle when Soviet planes bombed their respective trains during a military exercise, mistaking them for moving targets. In effect, the aul in these films exists as a shadow, a sign of loss—both national and personal, both historical and social.

Each of the films is beautifully shot and edited; each episode is tightly composed and very spare in its use of dialog. Simultaneously lavish in their use of color and narrative realia, on the one hand, the films are also strikingly economical in their use of non-visual elements to provide either depth or continuity to the filmic narrative, on the other. From this point of view, the films, as a trilogy, have a fascinating trajectory: a consistent movement away from cinematic hermeticism. If at times it almost seems that Last Stop, as masterfully made as it is, is essentially a solipsistic film, addressed by Aprymov to himself alone, then Aksuat and Three Brothers mark stages in Aprymov’s search for viewership: an international audience of film specialists with Aksuat, a domestic mass audience with Three Brothers. Put differently: each of the films is progressively more open, more accessible to viewers, more engaged with communicating (rather than formulating) a vision.

This difference in intended audiences (and, by extension, differences in the degrees of "openness") also accounts for the artistic differences between the two films. Aksuat is flawless from an aesthetic point of view: it is almost Spartan in its avoidance of the inessential (settings, conversations, episodes) and laconic in its transmission of the essential. The film uses an aesthetics of minimalism both in the ways it represents life in the aul and in the life it represents. As a consequence, every bit of daily realia acquires a visual force that is far greater than the object itself. By contrast, Three Brothers is marked by visual abundance: of clothing, of childhood games, of decaying trains, of airplanes. Almost inevitably, this richness of texture—narrative and visual—makes the director’s task much more difficult, and the film’s overly long preparation for closure noticeably breaks the film’s rhythm and mars an otherwise wonderful film.

Karakulov’s Zhylama, too, is a feast for the eyes, even though the film is about the loss of voice and life: an opera star experiences medical problems with her voice and, when her doctor tells her not to sing for a year, she returns to her aul and to her grandmother’s house. The film traces the singer’s futile attempts to raise money (selling her concert dresses, selling her blood) to save the life of a fatally ill seven year-old girl. Karakulov and cameraman Murat Nugmanov deliberately shot the film as an ethnographic pseudo-documentary: the lead actress, Bibinur Aldabergenova, is indeed a famous opera singer; the episodes evolve slowly, with the camera lingering over each location (the house, the clinic, the market, the pharmacy, etc.) and each interaction; the film as much focuses on the minutiae of everyday life in an isolated village as it represents the dramatic repercussions of a family tragedy. Narrative flow is consistently subordinated to a detailed recording of domestic objects, daily rituals, social spaces, and internal states. Indeed, the film’s final sequence, carefully recording the lengthy and painstaking procedures of applying make-up in preparation for a concert performance, provides a summa for the artistic paradoxes of the entire film: ethnographic verisimilitude on screen is the direct result of aesthetic manipulation.

    Zhylama     

Over the last few years, Omirbaev has emerged on the international film circuit as the most celebrated director of the Kazakh "New Wave." In no small part, this recognition is linked to his masterful work with film genres, simultaneously abiding by all of the established conventions and imprinting them with a visual texture that is uniquely Central Asian. Two things immediately follow from this: the genre is both immediately recognizable and defamiliarized, on the one hand, and the geographical specificity of Kazakhstan (both urban and rural) is departicularized, on the other. Killer is a classic example of the film noir: the hero’s destiny is never within his reach or control despite all of his attempts to extricate himself from a hopeless situation that begins as a (seemingly) minor disruption of his everyday life. In the same way, The Road is a pure road movie: the hero’s journey from the city (the present) to the village of his birth (the past) to attend his dying mother becomes a journey through time (real and fantastic) and consciousness, allowing him to re-examine his life and his art. Just as each film is beautifully shot and maintains both its tonality and rhythm with remarkable consistency, each of them is also firmly grounded in contemporary life in Kazakhstan. But what is most striking in each is the virtual absence of Kazakhstan itself except as a metaphorical space within which the human condition is allowed to work itself out as a cautionary allegory. It is not so much that the specificity of the urban landscape and the rural countryside are not absent in the very fabric of each film; it is, rather, that they are included but consistently abstracted, just as the films’ heroes are engaged in quests that are more allegorical than personal.

This second category of films can be supplemented by two additional ones made by directors who have drawn substantial international attention in preceding years for their earlier films: Amirkulov’s 1997. Rustem’s Notes (1998) and Narymbetov’s Leila’s Prayer. While neither of these films is ultimately of the same artistic caliber as those that earned the directors accolades at various festivals—specifically, Amirkulov’s Fall of Otrar (1991) and Narymbetov’s Biography of a Young Accordion Player (1994)—each is a serious attempt by a talented director to visualize provocative subject matter: adolescent alienation and the power of attraction in Rustem’s Notes, the devastating impact of radioactive fallout on a village near Kazakhstan’s nuclear testing grounds during Soviet times in Leila’s Prayer.

If Amirkulov’s film suffers from its unrelenting, almost claustrophobic narrowness of focus (cinematic and narrative), Narymbetov’s is weakened by the explosive breadth of its episodes and characters, as well as by its constant shifts in tonalities and rhythms. It is almost as if the two films were mirror reflections (that is, reversals) of each other’s weaknesses; as different as they are in their settings (city versus country), narrative time (present versus past), and focus (micro versus macro), they both suffer from cinematic fragmentation. Amirkulov’s microscopic focus on Rustem as he wanders the streets of Almaty engaging in barely comprehensible dialogs with his friends eclipses both the urban landscape and the hero’s psyche. Like the heroine, Miko, he exists exclusively on the surface of the present, and the absence of a past to provide context or continuity—or a single internal insight—condemns them (and the film) to be merely pretty, rather than tragic or even interesting. Similarly, Narymbetov’s macroscopic focus on the resident "characters" of the village fragments the narrative structure of Leila’s Prayer to the extent that his expansion of Leila into the image of the Madonna simply signals the imposition of (an artificial) closure to the film. Notwithstanding their respective shortcomings, however, these two films are clearly the work of talented and visionary directors.

Several of the films included in the festival dealt specifically with issues of Kazakhstan’s national heritage (Three Brothers, Leila’s Prayer) and the disrupted historical present of that heritage (Zhylama, Rustem’s Notes). Two films can be added to this group: Sharip’s Zaman-ai and Manabaev’s A Purely Kazakh Story. Both films are made by older directors (Sharip—formerly Bulat Shmanov—was born in 1941; Manabaev in 1946) and the films use a much more traditional and conservative film aesthetics than those discussed above. At the same time, each film provides a visually powerful examination of difficult moments in Kazakhstan’s recent past: most of Zaman-ai is set in the 1930s, when many Kazakhs abandoned their native land for China to avoid Stalinist collectivization; most of A Purely Kazakh Story takes place in the second half of the 1950s, when many of the "illegally repressed" during Stalin’s reign were freed and returned from the camps.

As in Aprymov’s films, the traditional aul in these two films stands out as a dominating absence. In Zaman-ai, the aul (and with it an entire way of life) is already little more than a memory: the heroine abandons it after her father is executed by representatives of the new Soviet state, lives out her life in China, and finally returns (in her "present") to bring back her grandson to a country so new that it cannot yet reconstitute its past. In a similar way, the aul in A Purely Kazakh Story exists only in the extended flashbacks of a now successful Kazakh city dweller: it is a site where his hated biological father "settles scores" with the elderly and repentant former commissar (idolized by the boy) who sent him to the camps. Just as the destinies of these two men are intertwined in ways that mystically recapitulate the history of Soviet Kazakhstan, so are their respective deaths at each others’ hands inseparable from the passing of a traditional way of life―of the aul as the consciousness-forming locus of Kazakh identity.

In effect, the search for identity―personal and national―is at the center of all of these films: the erasure of the aul from Kazakh consciousness formation was followed by the collapse of the vertically integrated Soviet consciousness both imposed from without and internalized within. In different ways, each of the directors is struggling with a crushing problem: what does it mean to be Kazakh? The beginning of an answer to this question, however, can only be found in answering even more troublesome questions: what is Kazakhstan? where is Kazakhstan― geographically, economically, and culturally? what is the relationship of “steppe Islam” to the current revival of fundamentalist Islam sweeping the globe? In a very real way, Kazakh identity―personal, national, and regional (Central Asian)―is only now in the process of being shaped as a distinct identity within global capitalism. At this moment in history, all three forms of identity are in flux and each is being contested both in politics and in art. The immediate consequence of this struggle is the dissolution of images of Kazakhstan itself on the screen, as if the directors are trying to project the absent aul as the defining moment of a contemporary, urbanized Kazakhstan now that the Soviet model and locus have been discredited. And so the shadows of a strongly marked past occlude the contours of a weakly conceived present.

From this point of view, what is most interesting about the final category of films shown at "Shaken’s Stars" is the way each is firmly grounded in contemporary Kazakhstan. This group of films―Leila Aranysheva’s Landing Force (2000), Abai Karpykov’s Fara (1999), Narymbetov’s Ompa (1998), and Talgat Temenov’s Execution After Death (1998)―is both professionally made and targeted primarily at a mass (domestic) audience. Landing Force is a typical buddy movie, about the bond that develops in boot camp among three recruits (one from an isolated provincial aul), their NCO, and commanding officer. Ompa, too, is a buddy film, this time teaming a Kazakh and a Russian, as co-owners of a private plane service, in a series of comic episodes that cuts across the horizontal and vertical axes of life in the new Kazakhstan. Fara is a classy crime story, whose central hero is a naïve and passive chef, the overweight but sympathetic son of a former Party leader turned entrepreneur. Finally, Execution After Death is a standard, overly intellectualized thriller about a writer who, in order to be able to describe realistically in his next novel the state of mind of a man about to die, takes the place of a convict condemned to be executed for serial rapes and murders.

On the one hand, it would be easy to dismiss these four films as "fluff”―the expected examples of competently handled genre films modeled on Hollywood studio productions but aimed at a local audience. Each is obedient to the conventions of the genres; none plays with the conventions and none attempts to transform the genre, to mark it as a (potential) Kazakh genre (that is, as something formal, not reducible to the specificity of content). On the other hand, however, these films stand out precisely because of their specificity of content―of a living, breathing Kazakhstan in the present. Whether foregrounded (Ompa, Fara) or backgrounded (Landing Force, Execution After Death), present-day Kazakhstan is the dominant element in the organization of filmic material: it motivates and structures the narratives, punctuates both external reality and internal states, and underlies collective and individual experience.

In saying this, I do not intend to suggest that these films offer any resolution, even a formulaic one, to the question "What does it mean to be Kazakh?" Nor do I make the claim that any of these films wrestles with the more complex questions about contemporary Kazakhstan. Yet each of the films―intentionally or not―represents the upheaval in inherited notions of identity, personal and national, an upheaval that is visually signaled by the multi-layered, contradictory, and incompatible realia that make up the present day on screen. These realia simply do not emanate from a unitary reality, from a common experience of social existence, and the directors do not attempt to provide an integrated space that offers resolution. Despite the predictability of each film’s narrative, including their respective formulaic closures, what is most striking in these films is the failure of artistic form to provide a mechanism of explanation for the unpredictability and instability of the contemporary.

Kazakhstan has been inventing itself as an independent state in Central Asia only since December 1991. And, just as inevitably, Kazakh cinema―both the Kazakh “New Wave” and the films of more traditional directors―was immediately implicated in the struggles to invent “Kazakhstan” and “Kazakh.” In the absence, however, of a concrete conception of either nation or ethnicity, both disappeared from the screen. As Andrei Plakhov pointed out early in the emergence of the directors of the Kazakh “New Wave,” images of social environment and daily life―that is, of national and ethnic specificity―were already absent in their earliest films, made before the collapse of the Soviet Union ("Uroki frantsuzskogo," Iskusstvo kino 3 [1992]: 154-8). Now, approximately a decade later, contemporary Kazakhstan is beginning to return to the screen as a space constituted and imagined in a new way. Like the past, however, the present in Kazakhstan continues to be as many-sided and unreliably fragile as its past.

When Plakhov wrote his article on the Kazakh "New Wave," it was still the dominant view in the Russian Federation and in even in Kazakhstan that the history of the Kazakh national film industry began with Moisei Levin’s Amangel'dy (1938), even though the film was entirely the work of Lenfilm studio except for the on-location shooting; even the names of the Kazakh scriptwriters were removed from the final prints of the film. Only after independence did film historians begin to re-examine those definitions of "history" and "national," and slowly come to the conclusion that the national Kazakh film industry began in 1953 with Shaken Aimanov’s directorial debut, Poem of Love (see, for example, Bauyrzhan Nogerbek, Kino Kazakhstana, Almaty, 1998: 30-2). The full implications of these shifts from "imperial history" to "national history" and from "Soviet" to "Kazakh" identity remain unresolved even now. But how appropriate, therefore, that at least contemporary Kazakhstan has returned to the screen at "Shaken’s Stars," the first national Kazakh film festival.