Demythologizing and Reconstructing National Space in the Kazakh "New Wave"
By Bauyrzhan Nogerbek
Translated by Vladimir Padunov
Film journals have published many articles over the past several years about post-Soviet space in cinema. Philosophers and scholars of culture have been trying to make sense of the contemporary filmmaking process in the Newly Independent States and the Baltic republics, most frequently as an expression of anti-Soviet and anti-colonialist tendencies. The Kazakh "New Wave" easily finds its place within the context of the post-history of Soviet cinema. For this reason the films directed by Serik Aprymov and Darezhan Omirbaev have become the object of investigation for Russian and Western critics and film theorists.
According to Vida Johnson, an American Slavist and specialist in Russian literature: "not the least of the reasons for a consideration of national space, is its real life reconfiguration and restructuring after 1991 as the former Soviet Republics became independent states…" ("Contested Ground: Reconstructing National Space" in The Territory of Cinema, ed. Elena Stishova, Moscow: Pomatur, 2001: 21). Invoking John E. Davidson’s study, Deterritorializing the New German Cinema, Johnson identifies "in the last 20 years a process of remapping and unmapping, deterritorializing and reterritorializing of national space—the deconstructing and demythifying of the unified Soviet space and reconstructing and remythifying as individual Russian, Kazakh, Uzbek, Latvian, and so forth national space." She continues by examining "how the self-identification and self-representation at the level of the physical national space, such as landscape, is affected by the actual redrawing of the national borders." Most importantly, in her article Johnson "would like to discuss how the process of reconstructing and remapping national space has recently been achieved through a style I will call ‘Stagnation retro,’ by recycling elements of the Grand style of Soviet filmmaking of the late 1960s and 1970s." Johnson believes that in the 1960s and 1970s "a unified Soviet space was codified visually through cinematic style (the Grand style), a panoramic style in which landscapes and space were often foregrounded." This is the style she calls "Stagnation retro."
The matter, of course, is not in the choice of terms. It is possible that "Stagnation retro" is far from being a precise formulation. The judgments of Western cultural scholars, however, about the transformation of national space in films made in post-Soviet space are not groundless. It is quite true that in films by Rashid Nugmanov, Aprymov, Omirbaev, and Amir Karakulov the viewer encounters an entirely different cinematic representation and a different interpretation on the screen of Soviet reality, which was still in the recent past.
Elena Stishova, a Russian critic, notes:
At the very start of the period of changes, Russian film was in a very awkward situation in its relationship to its own self. The "clean sweep," after all, was not limited to a joyful rejection of filmic illustrations of ideological invectives. New ways of thinking and new forms were needed. What these were precisely, no one knew. So directors started making films following the principle of "the law of opposites": the optimistic, varnished image of reality that had been imposed earlier, was squeezed out by its apocalyptically grim analog. This interpretation of reality was not a bit more "true to life" than it was under socialist realism. And the general public reacted instantly to this shift—it refused to watch chernukha [the blackening of reality] and switched to Mexican "soaps."
In this same period of time, our former "younger brothers" did the exact opposite. Instead of throwing stones, they collected them. Stone upon stone. First they successfully represented the reality into which they were born and in which they grew up: Nugmanov’s The Needle (1988), Aprymov’s Last Stop (1989), Ermek Shinarbaev’s Place on the Grey Triangle (1993), Karakulov’s The Last Vacation (1996), and Omirbaev’s Kairat (1991). They were playing, experimenting, and almost by accident they created a cinematic image of real socialism, of an achieved utopia: an image of a Place that looked like a deserted rest stop for mysterious, one-eyed beings, a place that was somehow adapted for the survival of homo sovieticus. ("Ekh, dorogi," Iskusstvo kino 10, 2001: 87-8)
This is an accurate observation. In creating the "cinematic image of real socialism," the Kazakh "New Wave" maintained its artistic taste; it did not stoop to making purely chernukha and pornukha [porn] films. This view is commonly accepted.
It is important to emphasize that the active process of demythologizing the Soviet image of life on the Kazakh screen started exactly during the period of glasnost and perestroika, when objective and subjective conditions were created for re-examining the ideological and aesthetic canons of Soviet cinema, which was a politically engaged cinema. Those directors who had entered filmmaking in the 1980s, that is, during the time of Stagnation, set the tone in this search for a new philosophy and stylistics. The destruction of Soviet models of cinema was carried out in two directions: on the level of content-thematics and on the level of the form-narrativity. Films were made about formerly forbidden themes: Stalinist repressions, alcoholism, drug addiction, environmental disasters due to atomic testing, the irrational management of agriculture (for example, the tragedy of the Aral Sea). At the same time, films were made that experimented with film language―films by young directors were avant-garde in form and in execution. This new style of “cinematic articulation” totally rejected the aesthetic experience of the previous generation of filmmakers.
If in Kalykbek Salykov’s The Balcony (1988), the reality of the post-war period is not so much "radiant" in the memory of one of the courtyard boys as it is filled with contradictions (universal fear in the face of Party dictatorship, denunciations, the persecution of independent thought), then already in Nugmanov’s The Needle, Aprymov’s Last Stop, or Karakulov’s The Last Vacation, mythologized Soviet space, with its beautiful landscapes, ethnographic costumes, national games, songs, and dances is completely absent.
For example, the landscape of Kazakhstan in The Needle more closely recalls the drawings of science fiction fans than a realistic landscape. A monotonous, uniformly blue-colored sky. A dried-out sea. Sand and isolated, abandoned, rusting ships in the midst of a boundless desert. All around is white, white salt, covering all of space as far as the eye can see, all the way to the horizon. And, then, the wind blowing from the steppe, racing across the field. This is a different, unfamiliar, stylized, picture-pretty world, but also one that is cold, where there is no place for living people, for full-blooded, national life. The world of human passions depicted on screen is disharmonious. The characters live in an indifferent space where they cannot find psychological comfort.
The heroes of The Needle flee from the City of Evil and travel to the sea, where they once had a good time, according to the heroine. They come to a sea where there is no sea. A strange guy with a backpack between his shoulders, wearing dark glasses, hides behind a fence that is used to pen camels. Moro does not recognize or appears not to recognize him. A Kazakh elder appears in two brief episodes in order to say a couple of sentences in Kazakh to the film’s hero. The hero, played by rock singer Viktor Tsoi, answers curtly in Russia: "Asleep." And in response to the elder’s advice not to take apart the fence for firewood but to use the pressed camel dung instead, Moro merely nods his head. He doesn’t understand what the elder is saying, he vaguely guesses. Words are not necessary here because they do not function since there is no communication. Moro and the old man are aliens to each other. After recovering from her drug withdrawal, the heroine says to Moro just before their departure: "I’m going to say goodbye to the old folks." And once again the viewer does not see the people who live near this dried-out sea. These invisible people are simply signs that mark the geographical point where the heroes find themselves: Kazakhstan, the Aral Sea, the 20th century. Fighter planes fly overhead.
It is possible to state unequivocally that traditional ways of imaging Kazakh national space are totally rejected in The Needle. But this rejection is not as vehement as it will become in subsequent films by directors of the Kazakh "New Wave." In essence, Nugmanov merely ignores traditional filmic images, those pictures of national life reinforced in Kazakh Soviet cinema. He tries to start from scratch, tries to give shape to a new, stylized cinematic space. Nugmanov’s film represents, for the first time in Kazakh cinema, an entirely new, unfamiliar Kazakhstan, with a dried-up sea, an incurably ill drug addict, a strange hero named Moro, who as in American blockbusters, battles alone for his drug addicted beloved, who both dies and does not die at the end of the film. Nugmanov tries to squeeze out inherited images of Kazakh national space in his film, tries to use the style of video-clips and the language of MTV. The characters and problematics in The Needle are cosmic ones; they are not attached to any concrete national space.
In Aprymov’s film Last Stop, Kazakh national space is not just ignored and squeezed out of the screen. It is also created anew on the basis of the surrounding reality to which viewers have become accustomed, recreating it in the style of "unrehearsed reality," of Vertov’s "life caught unawares." Aksuat, as a cinematic aul, is marked with geographical precision on maps of Kazakhstan. Aprymov was born in Aksuat. This cinematic aul is demythologized and, at the same time, assembled anew, but now there is no place in it for any moral-ethical norms of human conduct. The characters in Aksuat have totally lost their spiritual roots: they live as in delirium, in an absurd world, but they live and move on screen with surprising verisimilitude, as if in an on-site documentary film report. The totally unexpected foreshortening of cinematic life in a Soviet Kazakh aul shocked audiences. Many viewers and public opinion in general experienced the film as a factual, documentary exposé of their actual existence, not on the screen but in everyday life. The director’s meticulous artistry played a cruel joke: the film was confused with life, the cinematic Aksuat with the real one, the one marked concretely as Aksuat on maps of Kazakhstan.
In this way, the young director literally exploded not only our visual-filmic conception of a Kazakh aul, but also our empirically verifiable and subjectively experienced conceptions. He delivered a crushing blow to inherited images of national space in film. This was not only a revolution in the stylistics of film language on the Kazakh screen; it was also a revolutionary moment in the philosophy of national cinema. After Last Stop the cinematic point of view on Soviet and post-Soviet reality in the Republic of Kazakhstan changed radically. Demythologizing classical film images of national space and reconstructing new ones―ones that were totally aggressive in relation to human beings―became a characteristic feature of the stylistics and the philosophy of feature and documentary films made by young filmmakers.
Most of all, this demythologizing affected the central hero in films. He became faceless. The hero became simply another of the many characters in a film. Even if the events on the screen revolved around him, the hero was just another silent witness. Viewers could no longer expect the hero to take decisive action to resolve a situation. The hero was powerless to alter an already established sequence, an inevitable order of events. He made peace with the flow of the conflicts in the narrative; he could not alter their flow. The hero lost his "heroic" stature.
All of the pivotal images-symbols of Soviet Kazakh cinema were also demythologized and constructed anew—the Uncle; the Elder, as the carrier of wisdom, of the philosophy of national experience; the Grandmother; the Mother, as keeper of the family hearth, of national ethnic traditions. All of them lost their semantic meaning, becoming signs that mark places the hero has been, his ethnicity. This loss of status is confirmed by the fact that their on-screen speech was neither subtitled nor dubbed. There are absolutely no developed filmic images of the older generation in The Needle. There is only the one short and episodic role of the Elder, who appears on screen in order to concretize the geographical space in which the heroes find themselves. He speaks in Kazakh. The viewer comes to understand that the landscape on screen is neither a dream nor the hero’s delusion; it is physical reality, the dried-out Aral Sea. This is a new image of space for socialist Kazakhstan.
In Karakulov’s The Last Vacation the school years of Soviet adolescents are shown in an openly negative way: the hypocrisy of parents, teachers. The documentary footage of Soviet citizens at holiday demonstrations at the beginning of the film somehow pushes to the side, emphasizes the incompatibility of the party slogans that are pronounced with the reality of a Soviet school, ruled by lies, drug addiction, and crime. In Last Stop, the old filmic symbol of the Grandfather-Elder is transformed into a helpless old man, who holds his sick nephew on his lap and is unable in any way to influence his drunk, debauched son. A mother of many children, always a person held in great respect by villagers, murders her own newborn child. A militiaman, an example of public order, in practice pushes a young man to suicide. In a word, all of the traditional, positive filmic images inherited from Soviet Kazakh cinema, all of the poetic symbols that had become familiar to viewers lose their original meaning.
In Aksuat (1998), Aprymov’s next film after Last Stop, the geographical place name for the site of filmic action is deliberately mapped onto the title of the film. It is even more merciless than the earlier film. If, at the end of Last Stop, the hero leaves Aksuat, Aprymov’s native aul, in search of a better destiny, of a more normal way for human beings to exist, then the hero of Aksuat has nowhere to go and remains in the aul despite the threats of the local mafia. He is, however, unable to defend his honor, the honor of his family, and his domestic hearth to the end: he is forced to send his wife’s brother, with her newborn child, back to the city. Aprymov’s hero understands reality as it exists. Yesterday’s discharged soldier in Last Stop, understands in Aksuat the pointlessness of fighting for his rights with his fists, but he refuses to leave his native aul despite threats from the local mafia boss. He remains because this is his grandmother’s home, his destiny, his native land. At first glance, it would seem that Aprymov has worked out to the end and has brought the theme of the Kazakh aul to filmic closure. However, Three Brothers (1999), his latest film proves the opposite: the demythologizing of Soviet reality has not yet been completed.
In Three Brothers Aprymov returns to the barefoot childhood of his heroes, to a peaceful world filled with hopes and fairytales. But reality in the film is just as cruelly demythologized and reconstructed. The classic image of the train in Soviet cinema—a train racing full steam ahead towards a radiant future—in this film turns out simply to be a military training target for Soviet missiles. The lives and dreams of Aprymov’s adolescent fairytale heroes end together with the bombed-out trains. The cinematic life of Aksuat, a traditional Kazakh aul, has finally come to its logical end: not only do young men lack any chance of a future, but so do adolescents and boys. Aprymov’s Aksuat not only lacks a present, it also has been deprived of its past. As they say: "The verdict is final and not subject to appeal." It is still too early to draw any conclusions, however, for who knows what surprise Aprymov is preparing with his next film. After all, Aprymov is a leading master in contemporary Kazakh cinema.
Aprymov’s films, Last Stop and Aksuat trace with precision the destiny of residents of a Kazakh aul, but the on-screen fate of the villagers and their lives are constructed anew and mythologized within the framework of the aesthetics of the Kazakh "New Wave," with its new vision of Soviet and post-Soviet reality. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Aprymov’s cinematic Aksuat became a symbol for the condition of society and of the life of contemporary people during the time of the collapse of Soviet ideology, the rupture of the old and the formation of new social relations and spiritual values.
Darezhen Omirbayev Serik Aprymov
National space is also reconstructed in the films of Omirbaev, another of the leading directors of the Kazakh "New Wave." Unlike Aprymov, Omirbaev is not tied to a concrete geographical space: the action of his films take place in the village and the city. No specific village or city is named. Despite this, Omirbaev’s filmic hero has the same "blood type" as Aprymov’s hero. He, too, lacks initiative, swimming on the tides of circumstance. He cannot be considered a "positive hero" in the Soviet sense of the term. Omirbaev scrupulously traces the hero’s biography on the screen, from his childhood in the aul to his life in the city during the social upheavals caused by society’s transition to the new market economy.
Omirbaev’s films—Shilde (1988), Kairat (1991), Cardiogram (1995), Killer (1998), The Road (2001)—are also linked internally: they examine the daily milieu, hopes, and dreams of an adolescent in an aul (the short film Shilde, Cardiogram), youth (Kairat), young man (Killer, The Road). Thematically, these films form a continuous work, a biographical narrative of an ordinary boy from an aul, whose life ends tragically: a young man, who has come to the city and is unable to feed his family, turns to crime and agrees to commit a murder. Unlike the model of the killer that exists in contemporary Western films, Omirbaev’s hero loses: he is shot by contract killers right next to the dirty garbage cans outside his apartment. The end of Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds immediately comes to mind: there, too, the hero ends his pointless existence and experiences the agonies of death in a garbage heap. But in Wajda’s film there is sympathy towards a generation of Polish patriots that has been deceived. By contrast, Omirbaev in Killer examines cold-bloodedly the collapse of the hopes of young, socially displaced heroes who have stepped across moral boundaries against their will. The spiritual-moral and philosophical issues raised by Omirbaev in Kairat, Cardiogram, and Killer are painfully pressing, socially truthful, artistically convincing.
On the whole, Omirbaev and Aprymov have vividly brought to the screen the antagonism between the culture of the village and the city, the incompatibility of the ethnic mentalities between residents of the aul and the contemporary city, the disillusionment of unemployment, poverty. In their films, national space has not only lost its ethnic mentality; it has become anti-humanitarian, aggressive towards people. These directors pursue the same goal: to show the cankers of contemporary society, to demythologize the values of individual freedom this society has embraced. But they pursue the goal in different ways.
Aprymov shot contemporary reality in his films (Last Stop, Dream in a Dream , Aksuat). At the same time, in his latest film, Three Brothers, the director "journeys" to the past; he returns to yesterday’s socialist society. The plot justifies this step. In The Road, by contrast, Omirbaev, who had become famous for films about the socialist past, turns directly to contemporary post-Soviet reality and, in a sense, even abandons the practice of making "social issue" films. Unlike Kairat, Cardiogram, or Killer, the problems of social life in The Road move to the distant background, almost as if they don’t exist at all. Omirbaev is interested in the space of an individual profession—its fantasies, dreams, the on-screen experiences of the director.
The Road is about the road to the mother, a return to one’s roots. The film’s hero, a director engrossed in thoughts concerning his new project, receives a telegram informing him that his mother is gravely ill. En route to his childhood home, he recalls episodes from his life, composes scenes for his upcoming film. In addition to its self-standing plot, the film also consists of citations from Omirbaev’s earlier films, consisting not only of his frequent use of out-takes from his preceding film (Killer), but also of the precise editing and stylistic repetitions in the scenes where the hero is beaten up. In The Road, Omirbaev casts a spell on the plots of his earlier films. The director who is shooting Killer in this film becomes the main character. Omirbaev deliberately emphasizes the interconnections and autobiographical coincidences with his screen hero. Any viewer familiar with Omirbaev’s films will easily see the connections there, not only thematically, but also concretely in the text. As he travels in response to the telegram-summons—more precisely, as he travels to attend his mother’s funeral,—the hero of The Road repeatedly encounters details that characterize the hero of Omirbaev’s first, short feature film, Shilde: the boy who uses a rock to trace a line on the wall of a house in Shilde becomes the boy who uses a pen-knife to scratch the same line on the hood of the hero’s car in The Road. The Road makes sense of the life history of the adolescent from Shilde on two planes: in the on-screen biography of the hero (from Shilde to Killer) and in the creative agonies and fantasies, dreams and complexes of the film director (the central hero of The Road), as he thinks through the project for his film Killer. In the consciousness of a viewer familiar with the director’s earlier work, the filmic director (the hero of The Road) becomes identified with Darezhan Omirbaev, the actual director of The Road. The filmmaker tries to erase the line between a screen character and the author of the work. This type of personification of the hero recalls the aesthetics of the post-avant-garde.
On the threshold of the millennium, Aprymov and Omirbaev made their "fundamental" films, their main films, the ones that marked the end of the working out of artistic ideas about the totalitarian past and the present day for the Republic of Kazakhstan. Like Aprymov’s Three Brothers, Omirbaev’s The Road also indisputably closes a specific cycle in the biography of Omirbaev’s on-screen hero. The road to the mother is an allegory. The Road is about the attempt and the impossibility of finding one’s self, one’s past, of returning to one’s spiritual roots. The telegram informing Omirbaev’s hero of his mother’s illness flows into a cruel reality: he arrives at the home of his birth, where there is no longer a mother, visits her grave, and journeys back to the city, where his loving wife waits for him. This plot has also reached its end: the native aul no longer exists; the final biological tie has been broken. National space, as the fairytale world of childhood with a living mother and native panoramas, can live on only in the memory of the filmic director. This is a film about closure; it is virtually Omirbaev’s 8½. National space in the film is reconstructed poetically on the basis of the hero-author’s own experiences. In this way, the transformation of national space in The Road occurs less as a social drama and more as a profoundly personal one: the loss of a beloved person, a mother, a native aul. At the same time, however, the hero of the film, who within the film’s plot is the director of Killer, experiences the transformation as an irreparable tragedy. It becomes the personal drama of Omirbaev, the real-life filmmaker. In his latest film Omirbaev has intertwined the demythologization and reconstruction of filmic images from his own auteur cinema.
It naturally followed that the aesthetics of the young Kazakh "New Wave" dominated feature films in Kazakhstan during the 1990s. This aesthetics, in one degree or another, openly proclaimed its active rejection of the artistic traditions of Soviet cinema, of the myths and ideals of socialist society. The philosophy of the Kazakh "New Wave" received its clearest and most convincing representation in Aprymov’s and Omirbaev’s films, as well as in certain films by Karakulov (The Last Vacation). Films made by other representatives of the Kazakh "New Wave"—for example, Ardak Amirkulov’s The Fall of Otrar (1991) or Abai (1995); Talgat Temenov’s A Wolf Cub Among People (1989), Love Station (1993), or Moving Target (1991); Abai Karpykov’s A Fish in Love (1989) or Fara (1999)—are not in essence compatible with the aesthetic system and the ideology of auteur cinema that is so characteristic of Aprymov’s and Omirbaev’s films.
Amir Karakulov’s Zhylama (2002) follows a different principle of reconstructing national space. National space as a physical entity is not transformed in this film. The social environment is just as accurately represented as in Aprymov’s and Omirbaev’s films; the director scrupulously recreates the milieu. More precisely, the director inserts the actors-characters into the real life landscape of a Kazakh aul without disrupting the natural harmony. At the beginning of the film, as the viewer watches the images shot with a hand-held camera and listens to the actual voice of the heroine in the voice-over, the viewer imagines that he is looking at a documentary chronicle on the life of popular singer Maira Mukhametkyzy, who returned from China to her historical homeland and regrettably has lost her voice. Only at the end of the film, when she sings Chio-Chio-San’s aria from Madame Butterfly to the musical accompaniment of a recording, does it finally become clear to the viewer that he has been watching an artfully organized feature film.
Zhylama marks the beginning of a new cinematic genre, at the center of which lies not only faithfulness to the details of a recognizable background, a genuinely realistic landscape, but also a hero who is adequate to that reality. By contrast to the heroes of the early films of the directors of the Kazakh "New Wave," who were silent witnesses or victims of surrounding reality (poverty, social alienation, and degradation), the heroine in Zhylama is an opera singer who does everything in her power to save a child’s life from a fatal disease. She stands in a bazaar trying to sell her expensive theatrical costumes, sells her blood, and, finally, to ease the final moments of the girl’s life, she arranges a concert for her. She sings the girl an aria even though she has lost her voice and has been forbidden to sing for a year. And so the heroine struggles to the very end, ready to sacrifice everything—personal health, life, and career.
The idea underlying Zhylama has a symbolic significance: creativity and talent are sacrificed for the sake of human life. The film marks Karakulov’s, another young director of the Kazakh "New Wave," recognition of his artistic mission, of his responsibilities to the viewer. Zhylama, like his preceding film The Last Vacation, is oriented towards general audiences. On the aesthetic plane, Zhylama rejects the kind of cinema that captures reality as it is. Instead, the film is a breakthrough, a step in the direction of a different kind of cinema, a genre cinema that gives viewers hope, even if just a tiny bit, and faith in the future of the screen heroes. In Zhylama (which means "Don’t Cry"), the real, unattractive landscape of a provincial village is illuminated by the emotional openness of the heroes, by their faith in the power of good and in the high mission of art.
In conclusion, it is important to emphasize that the changes in the procedures of self-identification and self-representation in films of the Kazakh "New Wave" have their own logical development, one that is easy to discern. In brief, this development can be characterized as a movement from consciously ignoring Soviet cinematic myths, which were based on idealizing the national environment (The Needle) to a total destruction of filmic clichés, to the demythologization and reconstruction of national space both in auteur films and in the genre films that are made for general audiences (Last Stop, The Last Vacation, Aksuat, Killer, The Road, Three Brothers, Zhylama, and others).
The model of artistic searching examined in the above films is evidence that the process of the artist’s coming to self-knowledge, both of himself and of ethnic history in the context of Soviet and post-Soviet space, is taking place on the wide backdrop of the ethno-cultural and socio-political contradictions precipitated by the collapse of unified Soviet space, of its ideology and mythology, and by the emergence of formative values in the newly independent states. The aesthetic originality and unique artistic significance of self-representation in the Kazakh "New Wave" lies in the fact that it did not follow the traditional, easy paths—economically and politically—of becoming either a cinema of political activism or an openly commercial cinema aimed at the mass market. Instead, while the Republic of Kazakhstan was seeking its sovereignty and independence, the directors of this "other" cinema chose a more difficult and thorny path: an independent auteur cinema.