New Films 






Rustem Abdrashev: Renaissance Island (Ostrov vozrozhdeniia) (2004)

reviewed by Seth Graham©2004

Rustem Abdrashev was trained as an art director at the State Filmmaking Institute (VGIK) in Moscow, and has worked on several Kazakh feature films, including Rashid Nugmanov’s Wild East (1993) and Satybaldy Narymbetov’s Chronicle of a Young Accordion Player (1994). Renaissance Island is his directorial debut, and it establishes him as a compelling new artist in Kazakh cinema, which continues to explore the nation’s past and present with a distinctive, quiet lyricism.

Perhaps fittingly for a work by an art director, Island is a period film; its plot concerns the first love and artistic awakening of an adolescent poet named Zharas in an Aral Sea fishing village (aul) in the early 1960s. The director has said that his debut is part of his own "continuing spiritual dialogue" with his late father, the well-known Kazakh poet Zharaskan Abdrashev. The film is based on an autobiographical elegy by the elder Abdrashev, and recordings of the poet reading his own work are used as voiceover.

Abdrashev’s challenge, then, was to craft a narrative film based on a work of poetry, and here again his knowledge of art direction proved an advantage; the lyrical effect of the film is achieved not only by the use of the voiceover poetry, but visually as well. Like the celebrated Kyrgyz coming-of-age film Beshkempir (Aktan Abdykalykov, 1998), Island is shot mostly in black-and-white (though Abdrashev uses a sepia tone), with brief forays into color at key moments in the narrative. Many of these splashes of color, which are the visual equivalent of rhymes, underscore the protagonists’ sexual awakening: an apple given to Zharas by his love, Zhibek; a schoolteacher’s legs; the red dress of Zharas’ father’s mistress; the body of a photographer’s model; a cutaway to a nude painting as Zhibek puts on makeup for the first time. Abdrashev also uses color to signal changes in the boy’s consciousness: daydreams, nightmares, drunkenness. Switching between different film stocks is a device that can easily seem contrived or simplistic in the hands of less professional filmmakers, but Abdrashev uses it sparingly and effectively to punctuate his narrative visually. The longest color sequence is a visualization of Zharas’ nightmare of the Aral Sea drying out, a metaphor for the encroaching isolation of childhood’s end, but also a flash-forward to the actual shrinking of the sea due to Soviet agricultural policies. Such parallels between the boy’s developing worldview and his geographical and historical environment might have been expanded, but Abdrashev is careful not to allow the period film to overshadow the Bildungsfilm and Kunstlerfilm elements in his movie.

Whereas the Russian title Ostrov vozrozhdeniia refers to an actual island in the Aral Sea, and also figures as a metaphor in the film’s dialogue, the original Kazakh title of the film is Kaladan kelgen kyz ("a girl from the city"), and refers to Zharas’ love interest, Zhibek, the daughter of a Party bigwig who moves his family to the aul from Alma Ata. Scenes of the nascent romance and its effects on Zharas’ emerging artistic perspective make up the central narrative and visual thread, but Abdrashev’s script seemingly blends lyricism and historicism throughout, addressing questions of politics, censorship, ethnicity, and environmentalism. The voiceover narration lists some of the ethnic groups present in the small aul as a result of pre-war exile: Koreans, Volga Germans, Jews, Kalmyks. An itinerant Jewish photographer passes through on his way to Odessa. The local schoolteacher, also Jewish, has come to the aul from Leningrad in search of her exiled father. A fisherman complains to the Party boss about the damage being done to the Aral Sea by Soviet policies. Zharas becomes friends with a traveling shoemaker, who gives the boy a volume of poetry by a banned poet (a point of resonance with the biography of Zharaskan Abdrashev, who was also censored).

The narrative is at its most compelling when these various topical planes serve the central arc: the emerging artistic consciousness of the poet. Populating the village with a mix of nationalities and classes, for instance, creates a fertile setting for Zharas’ lyrical development; he is exposed to the community’s concentrated heterogeneity, yet also benefits from the rural setting’s rhythms and landscapes, conducive to quiet contemplation (not to mention isolated trysts with Zhibek). The narrative strands are woven together in a climactic scene in which the young couple is publicly denounced by the school headmaster for their morally questionable behavior, and for reciting the works of the banned poet in class. The traumatic event knocks Zharas permanently out of his quotidian, sedentary childhood and onto the path (literal and figurative) of a poet. The dénouement occurs outside of the narrative plane; the final, impressionistic shots are in color, and the last word is given to the poet’s voiceover conclusion to his elegy.

Seth Graham, Stanford University

Renaissance Island (Kazakhstan 2004)

B/W, sepia, and color, 70 min. In Kazakh and Russian.

Director: Rustem Abdrashev

Script: Galiia Eltai, Gaziz Nasyrov, and Rustem Abdrashev, based on the poetry of Zharaskan Abdrashev

Cinematography: Khasan Kydyrdaliev, Renat Kosai

Music: Kuat Shildebaev

Art Direction: Nurlan Abishev

With: Temirzhan Daniiarov (Zharas), Zhanel' Makazhanova (Zhibek), Ekaterina Sharapova (Renata Isaakovna), Nurzhuman Ykhtymbaev (Uncle Omar the shoemaker), Saiat Merekeula (Zharas’ father), Mintai Utepbergenov (Zhibek’s father)

Production: Kazakhfilm, Khan Tegri Studio

Rustem Abdrashev: Renaissance Island (Ostrov vozrozhdeniia) (2004)

reviewed by Seth Graham©2004