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Gul'shad (Guka) Omarova, Schizo [Shiza] (2004)

reviewed by Susan Larsen©2005

                  

  

Gul'shad Omarova’s debut feature, Schizo, takes its title from the nickname assigned its central character, Mustafa (Olzhas Nusuppaev), a not quite fifteen-year-old boy with an undefined developmental disability that renders him eager to please and slow to grasp the possibility of treachery or betrayal.  Mustafa’s problem is not, however, that he has a “split” personality, as schizophrenia is popularly (if incorrectly) understood, but that he does not.  A not-so-holy fool, Mustafa initially takes all words and gestures at face value, assuming a non-existent consistency between adult speech and intention that the film presents as the principal symptom of his “delayed” development.  The film’s narrative follows Mustafa as he learns to recognize deceit in others and to deceive them in turn.  The ensuing “split” in his loyalties is only one of many divisions that the film’s narrative and visual logic present as emblematic of Mustafa’s world.  

         The film begins with a long shot of a man and a boy in a field, the older teaching the younger to ride a motorcycle.  The camera is static, the line of the horizon a smooth and unbroken division of vast field from cloudless blue sky.  The only movement occurs as the motorcycle roars in and out of the frame, making a rough circle in the dusty yellow field and foreshadowing the movement of the film as a whole.  The film’s narrative and visual logic are circular: at the beginning of the film, Mustafa is living with his mother (Gul'nara Eralieva) and her boyfriend, the small-time thug Sakura (Eduard Tabyshev).  At the end of the film, this family group has collapsed, but Mustafa has moved in with another woman and her fatherless child,  in the same way that Sakura once moved in with the fatherless Mustafa and his mother.  Just as Sakura teaches Mustafa to ride a motorcycle, so, too, does he teach the boy, by his own example, to double-cross those whom he has asked for help and promised a fair or, in Mustafa’s accented English, “fifty-fifty” split of their earnings.  Unlike Sakura, however, Mustafa steps out of the circle of violence at the film’s end, tossing away the gun he used to kill his mentor and giving away the money he has won through deceit, theft, and murder.  When Mustafa divides the spoils of his final crime evenly between his mother and Zin'ka (Ol'ga Landina), the older woman who has become both his surrogate mother and sexual partner, he is attempting an equitable, or “fifty-fifty,” division that the rest of the film suggests can take place only in the realm of Hollywood fantasy. 

         The catalyst for the disintegration of the first family and the creation of the second is money and the betrayals, often violent, that the film presents as both the starting point and inevitable consequence of the struggle for economic survival in the vacant landscapes that it offers as a visual metaphor for contemporary Kazakh society.  The only communal groups portrayed in Schizo are gatherings of unemployed men playing cards while they wait for potential employers on an abandoned industrial site; a large open-air market at which men wait for buyers to purchase cattle, horses and used cars; and the illegal boxing arena where men and women gather to place bets on bloody fist fights between trained boxers and desperate amateurs willing to take a brutal, possibly fatal beating for the chance to win a small cash prize or used Mercedes.  In the course of the film, Mustafa becomes a participant in all three economic arenas.  In each, treachery and deceit are the rule.  All fights are rigged, all employers are cheats, all buyers aspiring swindlers, and no adult partnership ever divides its take “fifty-fifty.”           

  Mustafa is flattered when Sakura invites him to help recruit unemployed men to fight in illegal bare-knuckle fights.  Conducted without referees, rules, or helmets, the matches are bloody sport that end only when one fighter collapses.  Kicks to the head and groin are routine, as are fierce wagering and the crowd’s excited roar of “finish him off!” (dobei ego!).  The fights provide the film’s dramatic action, and Western observers will be quick to associate it with David Fincher’s Fight Club  (1999), but that would be a mistake.  The issue here is not self-realization or the recovery of a threatened masculinity through violence.  Schizo’s boxing ring is, if anything, a metaphor for the brutal economic crisis and cultural vacuum in which the film’s characters exist.  Presented in rapid sequences of medium-close-ups shot at night from multiple angles, the fights also, of course, provide a vivid rhythmic and visual contrast to the static daylight world of empty fields, unfinished apartment buildings, and unemployed men.  The differing rhythms of day and night, of law-abiding inactivity and criminal violence are yet another of the divisions that split the world shown in Schizo.  

         Unlike the “Kazakh New Wave” films, with which Omarova’s film has been repeatedly linked, Schizo does not dwell on the contrast between rural and urban life, nor does it document the communal rituals and conflicts of the village (aul) in quasi-ethnographic detail.  Shot on the distant outskirts of Almaty, the film is set on the margins of both rural and urban life:  the city is visible only as a distant skyline across the waters of Lake Kapchagai and the only visual references to rural life as such are in the weathered faces and fur-lined caps of the men gathered in search of work or at the open-air livestock market.  Scenes of family life unfold in solitary, ramshackle structures with no neighbors or larger community in sight. The only visible institutional authorities are Mustafa’s hypochondriac doctor (Viktor Sukhorukov) and the ineffective local police who hold Mustafa in a cell overnight with an unidentified teenage boy.  The two boys never speak, and their pointless confinement seems yet another indicator that Mustafa’s world is one populated by orphans condemned to suffer for the crimes of invisible adults and nameless economic forces.  

            Mustafa’s own marginal status as outsider and orphan is underscored by his frequent long silences and laconic speech, his lines always preceded by a pause that marks the distance between him and the people he addresses.  Although he eventually becomes the financial support for Zin'ka and her son, the odd family that results is less a father-mother-son triangle than a trio of orphans who take turns attempting to parent one another.  Sanzhik (Nurtai Kanagat) is almost always home alone when Mustafa comes over, and Zin'ka herself seems more orphan than adult: her limp and her poverty mark her vulnerability.  Mustafa plays with the young Sanzhik as an equal, and―although the film suggests that Sanzhik’s mother, Zin'ka, initiates a sexual encounter with the barely post-pubescent Mustafa―their interactions seem more filial than romantic.  Even tiny Sanzhik must assume a parental role at the film’s conclusion, when Mustafa entrusts him with the cash from his last robbery, instructing Sanzhik to give Zin'ka the money only after the first snowfall.

The gangster elements in Schizo (and in Omarova’s previous work with CTB Film Company and Sergei Bodrov, Jr., as co-author of his Sisters [Sestry, 2001]), have led Russian critics to label the film a “Kazakh Brother,” inspired in part by the STW-produced blockbusters, Brother (Brat, 1997) and Brother-2 (2000) directed by Aleksei Balabanov and starring Bodrov, Jr. as baby-faced killer Danila Bagrov.  [See articles by Konstantin Shavlovskii, by Larisa Iusipova (Vedomosti) and  Evgeniia Leonova (Nezavisimaia gazeta)] Although both Danila and Mustafa are naifs who become entangled in a criminal underworld as a result of misplaced loyalties to unreliable father surrogates, Schizo’s psuedo-documentary visual aesthetic and minimalist narrative have little in common with Balabanov’s highly stylized urban gangster films.  And unlike Mustafa, Danila is already an adult at the beginning of Brother, a veteran of the war in Chechnya, skilled in both hand-to-hand and armed combat; Danila’s innocence is cultural and based on the opposition between country and city, between a mythologized “pure” Russianness and an equally mythologized and Westernized world of crime and commerce. Mustafa, in contrast, is both innocent and unskilled, and―unlike Danila―he never stops to put into words the reasons for his actions, nor does he associate them with any notions of national or ethnic identity.  The most marked difference between the two films, however, is that Danila’s motivations remain constant throughout the Brother films, but Mustafa’s change dramatically. In Schizo, the boy Mustafa is initially pleased and proud to be taken under Sakura’s wing: he imitates Sakura’s cruelty to a losing fighter, borrows Sakura’s dark glasses, and smokes Sakura’s cigarettes, admiring his own reflection in the mirror.  But when one of the men Mustafa recruits for the fights dies of his injuries, Mustafa changes course and begins the moral transformation that leads him to double-cross Sakura and the fight bosses in order to win money to support Zin'ka, the dead fighter’s girlfriend, and her young son.  

Schizo, in fact, has more in common with the early work of its script’s co-author, Sergei Bodrov, Sr., whose Freedom is Paradise (SER, 1989) also portrayed a young boy in desperate search of a father with a criminal past, or with the many recent Russian films that focus on a troubled relationship between fathers and sons, among them Dmitrii Meskhiev’s Our Own (Svoi, 2004), Vladimir Mashkov’s Papa (2004) and Valerii Todorovskii’s My Stepbrother Frankenstein  (Moi svodnyi brat Frankenshtein, 2004), as well two earlier films that, like Schizo, have also fared well with foreign audiences―Pavel Chukhrai’s The Thief  (Vor, 1997) and Andrei Zviagintsev’s The Return (Vozvrashchenie, 2003), both of which also center on a troubled boy’s relationship with a father figure of dubious moral authority.  These Russian films embed their stories of troubled paternity in the fabric of Russian history, turning the father-son relationship into a metaphor for larger historical and cultural divisions.  Schizo, by contrast, embeds its story of a fatherless boy in the vacant landscape of contemporary ex-urban, not quite rural Kazakhstan.      

The most authoritative voice in Schizo, the one that gives it both narrative unity and aesthetic force, belongs to the camera.  In repeated long shots of empty fields and abandoned industrial sites, the film substitutes geography for chronology, space for time.  In Schizo, as in much of his earlier work for Kyrgyz director Aktan Abdykalykov, cinematographer Khasan Kydyraliev often frames his long shots as painterly surfaces without depth, split horizontally by a vast expanse of empty water or nearly cloudless sky, punctuated, if at all, by a single structure: a bus-stop at which no one is ever seen to wait, a solitary shack, or an abandoned oil rig.   Horizontal lines are further emphasized in the shots of buses that, presumably, carry Mustafa through an empty landscape to his doctor’s appointments or the trains that take him to meet his uncle.  The only strong vertical line in the film is the road along which Mustafa walks hand-in-hand with Zin'ka and Sanzhik in the film’s final scene.  This is the road that leads from prison to freedom, and, perhaps, to something like a future.

The texture of everyday life in the film is suggested primarily in close-ups of hands and objects: an outdoor shower-head, a kettle boiling on the stove, money changing hands, the mop that wipes away the stain of a dead fighter’s blood, the pointy toe of a dead man’s motorcycle boot.  These visual metonymies underscore the poverty and hardship of the characters’ lives in quasi-documentary style; the tight frame is its own commentary.  The contrast between the minutiae of everyday life filmed in close-up and the vacant landscape of the larger world filmed in long, often overhead shots accentuates the ways in which the lives of the film’s characters are swallowed up by the apparent cultural and economic vacuum in which they live.

The only Russian-language film selected for competition in the 2004 Cannes Film Festival (in the series “Un Certain Regard”), Schizo has been promoted successfully on the foreign film festival circuit as a distinctively Kazakh film.  At the same time, however, Schizo has been praised by Russian critics for its high production values and a technical “professionalism,” which they have attributed to the film’s European production partners and Omarova’s expatriate status (she has been living in Holland since 2001).  [See interview with Mariia Kuvshinova (Izvestia)]  In fact, the majority of the film’s financing came from Sergei Sel'ianov’s Russian film production company, CTB (STW), in association with Kazakhfilm studios; Sergei Bodrov, Sr.’s German production company Kinofabrika; and a French production company devoted to films for and about young people, Les Petites Lumičres.  Bodrov, Sr. also co-authored the script and was on the set throughout much of the filming.  The film’s score was composed by French musician SIG in a style one might call hybrid ethno-electronica; Omarova has said that SIG integrated traditional Kazakh melodies and instrumentation into the electronic compositions that underscore the film’s moodier moments, but one can also detect in them voices that bear a strong resemblance to Tuvan throat singing (Gul'shad Omarova about her film). The film’s distinctive visual style is the work of two established Kyrgyz filmmakers, director of photography Kydyraliev and production designer Talgat Asyrankulov, and its Russian editor Ivan Lebedev, best-known for his work on another CTB production, Petr Buslov’s crime drama Bimmer (Bumer, 2003), and for Mikhail Brashinskii’s notoriously fast-paced Black Ice (Gololed, 2003).  This aesthetic and cultural cross-pollination has produced a film that is a coherent aesthetic whole, albeit one that seems difficult to classify as uniquely “Kazakh,” a label more meaningful in this case as a marketing tool than as a statement of the film’s relationship to a single national cinema tradition.  

Quite apart from its genuine accomplishments, Schizo may also owe some of the success it has enjoyed on the international festival circuit to its invocation of familiar patterns for portraying “exotic” lives to Western audiences.  Schizo seems almost tailor made for foreign viewers, who will find in it the accessible ethnic exotica and illusion of ethnographic authenticity that festival and arthouse audiences have come to expect of Central Asian and Iranian cinema.  Like many other recent films by Central Asian filmmakers, Omarova cast non-professional actors in all the major roles, with the exception of the doctor and the two female leads.  The young actors who play Mustafa and Sanzhik were both “discovered” in orphanages, to which they returned when filming was complete.  The young actors’ personal stories are part of the film’s promotional campaign, further enhancing its quasi-documentary status.  The film’s U.S. distributor, Picture This! Entertainment, for example, is promoting the film both on its official website, www.schizo-the-movie.com and at www.comingofagemovies.com, where the headline reads: “We’re orphans and we’re pissed!”.  Told with a minimum of complicated historical or cultural detail, Schizo combines a coming-of-age story with a moral fable about a young boy who learns simultaneously to recognize and exploit the corruption inherent in the advent of a capitalist economy.  In this respect, the film is also a parable about its own status as a cultural commodity that markets the image of a childlike and developmentally disabled exotic “other” in order to win a victory in the rigged market of international cinema.  

Susan Larsen, Pomona College

 


Schizo [Shiza](Russia/Kazakhstan/Germany/France, 2004)

Color, 86 minutes

Director: Gul'shad (aka Guka) Omarova

Screenplay: Gul'shad (aka Guka) Omarova and Sergei Bodrov, Sr.

Cinematography: Khasanbek (aka Khasan) Kydyraliev

Music: SIG (Siegfried)

Production and Set Design: Talgat Asyrankulov

Cast: Olzhas Nusuppaev, Eduard Tabyshev, Ol'ga Landina, Viktor Sukhorukov, Gul'nara Eralieva, Nurtai Kanagat, Bakhytbek Baimukhanbetov.

Producers:  Sergei Sel'ianov, Sergei Bodrov, Sr., Sergei Azimov

Production: CTB (STW) Film Company (Russia) and Kazakhfilm (Kazakhstan), with the participation of Les Petites Lumičres (France) and Kinofabrika (Germany), and with support from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation and the Fond SUD of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (France).


Gul'shad (Guka) Omarova, Schizo [Shiza] (2004)

reviewed by Susan Larsen©2005

15/04/05