Issue 23 (2009)

Adel'khan Erzhanov: Bakhytzhamal (Kazakhstan, 2008)

reviewed by Anton Sidorenko© 2009

The twenty minute short Bakhytzhamal by Adel'khan Erzhanov, a student in his fifth year at the Zhurgenov National Academy of Arts, deservedly received an award for best director at the Fifth Eurasia International Film Festival. This work, essentially a student film, stood out in the contest's short film program. The term “student film” does not lower the merits of Bakhytzhamal in any way. The large majority of the films presented in Astana were either made by students, or carried the obvious mark of student work. Thus, the main prize was given to the short film 113th by Talgat Bektursunov, a classmate of Erzhanov.

At the Astana Film Festival, Bakhytzhamal was probably the film most loaded with events. It is a very dynamic “road movie” during which two former school friends abandon their childhood illusions for good. The first hero, Serik (Serik Abishev), works at a kiosk selling cell phones. This is where we find Serik at the beginning of the film. The young man evidently suffers from boredom in the absence of customers. Facing the camera in the specific manner of television commercials, he praises a cell phone of a well-known company, and then starts to close the kiosk. In this moment the second hero appears: Kubych (Arslan Akubaev). He is obviously agitated and asks Serik for the address of some “girl from eleventh grade.” Gradually it becomes clear that Serik and the somewhat strange Kubych are classmates, and Bakhytzhamal is the girl's name. As it turns out, Kubych was in love with Bakhytzhamal and had promised her to come to her yard every year on the first of August. It also becomes clear that the young man apparently escaped from a psychiatric hospital: he swallows the key to Serik's kiosk, and leaves Serik no choice than to set out with him across the city at night in search of their former classmate.

From the first scenes, Bakhytzhamal is marked by careless cinematography, which occasionally looks like home-made video, and by jerky editing that gives the action a peculiar disjointedness. But after a few minutes it becomes clear that these are features of Erzhanov's directorial style. His other two student works, the short film Self Portrait (Avtoportret) and the medium-length film The Brothers Short (Brat'ia Shorty) are made in a similar manner. Many accuse the twenty-five year old director of filming as if cinema had not existed before him. And it is indeed not difficult to consider Erzhanov's style barbaric, especially when one takes into account the image quality of the inexpensive camera used to shoot Bakhytzhamal and the live-captured sound. One gets the impression that many elements of film are not essential for the director. But despite this, the film creates a favorable impression by its liveliness and aftertaste.

On closer scrutiny, it becomes evident that Bakhytzhamal is much better thought through than appears at first glance. The dramaturgy of the movie is built around Serik's and Kubych's dialogs that sound very natural. The heroes speak Russian with a characteristic Kazakh accent, and quite naturally insert non-standard vocabulary. The action develops quite dynamically; the film contains none of the empty spaces typical of debut works. Likewise, there are no moments that would remain unclear to the viewer. A certain abstractness forces us to see in this story not a specific case but a generalization (for example, we never find out how Kubych escapes from the mental institution and whether or not his romance with Bakhytzhamal was real). Serik and Kubych look like the typical representatives of their “lost” generation. The open ending of the film leaves the heroes standing in front of Bakhytzhamal's house who, as it turns out, has long since married “a Negro” and left for the United States; it lays bare the two heroes' lack of ultimate plans and prospects. Going insane from the pointless work in business, Serik finds himself on the level of the obviously insane Kubych. The latter, as it becomes clear at the end of the movie, is possibly not truly insane, but just pretending.

In any case, the director treats his characters with great warmth and humor. It is easy to call Bakhytzhamal a comedic drama, especially considering that Erzhanov gives his viewers many opportunities to laugh during the 20 minutes of the film, not so much at the main characters, but at the increasingly absurd situation and, more broadly, at the absurdity of the surrounding world. Serik is funny in his fruitless attempts to extract the stolen key from Kubych. The scene with the hooligans is funny, who try to rob the two heroes on their way to Bakhytzhamal's house. And finally, Akubaev with his irrepressible charisma of a comedian is very funny in his role as Kubych. In Bakhytzhamal, as in the other films by Erzhanov, a certain note of surrealism affects the whole film and gives it a a recognizable sense of life's absurdity.

Bakhytzhamal can also be compared to the films of the Danish Dogme and the Dardennes Brothers because of the very fast-moving camera operated by Erzhanov himself. The camera in the film evidently fulfills a subjective function, sometimes directly, as for instance in the mugging scene, where we follow the situation as if through the eyes of one of the hoodlums. But more often the camera is indirect; one always feels the presence of a third hero. It is not Bakhytzhamal who is gradually becoming a mythical character, but the director himself, who steps in to fill the role of the cameraman. Here again one can feel the “home video” effect: the heroes often directly address the camera and thereby the author of the film himself.

The stylistically unrefined appearance of the Kazakh film Bakhytzhamal contrasts with the neat student work of the majority of students of European film schools. Any possible shortcomings of the Central Asian cinema, its obvious low-budget qualities, are compensated by the energetic charge and natural freshness of Erzhanov's film. The young director does not try to foreground the potential exoticism of his country. He frees himself from the cinematic stereotypes of “steppe—yurt—camel.” His heroes are modern and live in a large city, representative of Kazakhstan, with characteristic values and phobias. The fact that all three of Erzhanov's films bear the mark of the young director's desire to distance himself from the standard and to do away with “dad's cinema,” should lead us to expect him to emerge as a new auteur-nonconformist in Central Asia. Who knows if the new Kazakh “New Wave” will start with him?

Translated by Alexander Rindisbacher (Claremont, California)

Anton Sidorenko

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Bakhytzhamal, Kazakhstan, 2007
Video, 19 min.,
Cast: Arslan Akubaev, Serik Abishev
Director, Director of Photography, Screenplay: Adel'khan Erzhanov
Production: Zhurgenov Kazakh National Academy of Arts

Adel'khan Erzhanov: Bakhytzhamal (Kazakhstan, 2008)

reviewed by Anton Sidorenko© 2009

Updated: 07 Jan 09