Talgat Asyrankulov and Gaziz Nasyrov: Birds of Paradise (Žymak kystary [Raiskie ptitsy], 2006)

reviewed by Seth Graham© 2007

After a year (2005) in which no feature-length fiction films were produced by Kyrgyzfilm, 2006 saw a mini-boom, with five skillfully made and well-received titles either produced in the country or with significant Kyrgyz creative and/or financial participation, including Nurbek Egen's Wedding Chest (Sunduk predkov), Gennadii Bazarov's Metamorphosis (Metamorfoza), and Birds of Paradise, a Kyrgyz/Kazakh co-production. Birds is—in at least one way—a representative work of current filmmaking in both countries: it was shot on digital video and transferred to 35mm. Such a strategy, of course, allows for a much larger amount of raw footage (in this case, over 30 hours worth), and also shifts much of the all-important search for funding to the post-production stage.

The high ratio of raw footage to final running length is similar to that of documentary film, and the plot implicitly acknowledges this fact. A journalism student named Pati (short for Fatima) arrives with her trusty camcorder in a Kyrgyz city in the Fergana Valley, near the border with Uzbekistan. Her plan to make a documentary diploma film about the volatile border town is seemingly thwarted on the first day, when her camera is stolen by a passing teenager. She later makes the chance acquaintance of the trio of small-time local smugglers to whom the thief has sold the camera. Pati enthusiastically latches onto the gang, both as a chronicler of and participant in their elaborate schemes. One such operation, to transport a stolen car across the border, involves a convincing-looking wedding party in which Pati and a professional actor pose as the happy newlyweds, sitting in the be-ribboned car. The plan works perfectly until the previously drug-free trio discovers on the way back across the border that the recipient of the car on the Uzbek side has given them a wrapped box full of narcotics to smuggle back. The resulting ethical dilemma results in the disintegration of the gang, and brings to the fore each member's own personal priorities and individual view of the chronotope in which they live.

The literal border between the two Central Asian countries, which provides the defining thematic circumstance of the film, is echoed by more abstract liminal imagery: the fluid boundary between real and staged events, between documentary and fiction, and between comedy and tragedy. A similar hybridity is apparent on the meta level; Asyrankulov himself has said that he and his co-creator conceived of the film as straddling the border between commercial and art house cinema.

The film's title suggests a metaphorical link to the “free bird” motif implicit in the smugglers' lifestyle and worldview. Within the film's dialogue, however, the title is applied directly to some literal birds, namely, the residents of an ostrich farm owned by Babai, the gang's contact on the other side of the border. The drab and flightless animals are hardly birds of paradise, but they represent the exotic against the even more drab background of life in the town. As the gang's brotherhood begins to unravel, one of the trio comes to see the birds (whose eggs alone are worth $50 each on the open market) as potential golden geese. Another sheds his romantic avian identity in favor of a mobile, yet tethered existence as a streetcar driver. The third member of the original trio, the gang leader Shima, is allowed a more romantic fate than both his former colleagues, and his counterparts in recent Central Asian cinema.

As Gul'nara Abikeeva has pointed out, Birds of Paradise represents a return of the hero to the Kyrgyz/Kazakh screen, in the person of Shima. The character, played by Kyrgyz actor Aziz Beishenaliev, who worked almost exclusively in Russia for years before taking on this role, is certainly a leading man worthy of the label. Despite his tall, dark, and handsome credentials, however, and the arrival on the scene of a beautiful young woman, the film is almost completely devoid of romance. Pati is curiously sexless, even after her faux wedding. This omission of the sexual dimension on the part of the filmmakers emphasizes the ultimately single-minded focus of the film on the world of the honorable thief: Shima refuses to escalate his activities outside the realm of more-or-less victimless crime, with fateful results. His attempts to thread a moral needle in his chosen profession are prefigured from the beginning of the film, when he fills his gun with blanks and uses hired actors and stage blood to demonstrate his ruthlessness. The film's focus on a divided personality's artful pretense in the service of criminal goals sets the film apart from much of the cinematic output of former Soviet republics, and is also the source of its major weakness: much of the screen time, and the privileged position of first-person narrator, is given to Pati, at the expense of any meaningful exposition of the character of Shima, the New Kyrgyz Hero.

Birds of Paradise is the feature debut for the co-directors, both of whom graduated from the State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK) in Moscow in the late-1980s. Asyrankulov, from Kyrgyzstan, has worked as an art director on several films, including Gul'shad Omarova's Schizo (2004). Nasyrov, from Kazakhstan, has made several documentaries and has contributed to screenplays, including Rustem Abdrashev's Renaissance Island (Ostrov vozrozhdeniia, 2004).

Seth Graham
University College London

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Images courtesy Eurasia III Film Festival, personally Andrei Sakulinsky

Birds of Paradise, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, 2006
Color, 76 minutes
Directors: Talgat Asyrankulov and Gaziz Nasyrov
Scriptwriters: Talgat Asyrankulov and Gaziz Nasyrov
Cinematography: Sapar Koichumanov
Art Direction: Sharip Zhailobaev
Music: Zhandarbek Bakirov
Cast: Assol' Abdullina, Aziz Beishenaliev, Ulan Omiraliev, Assres Kassa, Ashyr Chokubaev
Producer: Melis Atamkulov
Production: Dana Film, Altay Cinema Group, Kyrgyzfilm

Talgat Asyrankulov and Gaziz Nasyrov: Birds of Paradise (Žymak kystary [Raiskie ptitsy], 2006)

reviewed by Seth Graham© 2007

Updated: 02 Oct 07