Issue 23 (2009)

Danyar Salamat: Together with Father (Akem ekeuimyz, 2008)

reviewed by Michael Rouland © 2009

Clothes tumble into a blue plastic tub. An unkempt, middle-aged man appears on the screen. This is an inauspicious beginning in contrast to the cinematic glamour of recent Kazakh films. Together with Father is a film about the bond between father and son, alone in a tough world. Absent is the glitz of oil-fueled Central Asian transformation. There are no Romantic visions of the steppe, no history-entrenched heroes, and no gritty tales of corruption and violence. Instead, we follow a story that revels in the everyday experience of urban Kazakh life. Life in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, surrounds the small world of the eight-year-old Baisal and his father, Karim.

The director, Danyar Salamat, is a 1998 graduate of the Zhurgenev Film Academy in Almaty and a specialist in scriptwriting from the workshop of Akim Taraza. This film's true strength is realized in a script rich with idle banter and caustic wit. His first feature film, Zhoshe (2005), was awarded a Grand Prix at “Shaken's Stars” International Film Festival in Almaty; it also received a prize for “Best Director” at the “Creative Flight” Festival in Tashkent.

This is Salamat's first 35 mm film. It is a beautiful film, offering vivid detail in the depiction of the interior spaces and private lives of Kazaks today. Perhaps the beauty should not surprise us, since Boris Troshev was the director of photography. He is certainly the most talented cameraman in Central Asia today. Life is rendered in painstaking detail at times, and while the story strives for poetry, the result seems incomplete. The finished work lacks something that is difficult to identify.

Together with Father opens with a man doing laundry. This is an unusual image for a Central Asian viewer used to more conservative gender roles. The film constantly explores the perseverance of two males, a boy and his father, as they struggle with the challenges of contemporary life in a single-room apartment. The son is also caught between dysfunctional parents; yet his clueless father, his doting but powerless mother, and his perpetually intoxicated stepfather are revealed as much less capable than he. In a sense, the dissolution of post-Soviet society mirrors the dissolution of this family, while people are reduced to meaningless tasks. But this film is not a commentary on post-socialism.

The film is slow paced and contains very little narrative development. One might even argue that the film celebrates the banal. In one instance, the protagonists travel after hours to the school where the father teaches students woodwork. There Karim discovers the infidelity of his ex-wife's new husband (and his boss, the director of the school). As they hide in a shadowy corridor, the son asks, “What do we do?” The father answers, “We sit.” He would rather avoid confrontation, sitting with his son in the dark. The other woman, a custodian at the school, briefly appears, walks away with her mop and bucket, and fails to see Karim and his son.

In contrast to their associations with outsiders, there is intimacy in their all-male world. They live together in a modest apartment which is punctuated with their washing, singing, and cooking. While the apartment is mostly bare and non-descript, one element of beauty that stands out is the presence of handmade traditional carpets on the wall and floor, rather than the manufactured Soviet-era rugs normally found in such apartments. For the historically minded, there is an interesting reference to Alpamys (or Alpamysh), one of the best known of the Turkic heroic epics, revered across Central Asia. Karim acts out a scene while Baisal lies in bed; they trade places and Baisal continues the story until his father falls asleep. There is a deep sense of symbiosis between these two, essentially peers.

When Baisal goes to his mother's house, we find a warm, bright apartment. He sits at a table full of food, a dastarkan, and the Kazak symbol of hospitality. Yet there is vagueness in her maternal role. She may appear caring, but she abandons him to a helpless, hopeless father. It quickly becomes apparent that her new marriage is also troubled and that she suffers from physical abuse.

When Baisal leaves, his father is waiting. They walk down an iconic tree-lines street in Almaty and arrive at the Central Bazaar to sell decorative cutting boards and wooden rods. But no one wants his trinkets anymore. The next day, Karim attempts a transformation. He shaves off his mustache and cooks a proper breakfast on a small stove. Jazz music underscores the change of mood in the background. The day, however, turns against him. After his son tries on a pair of boxing gloves, they begin to shadow box until Baisal hits his father, cutting him under the eye. Later, when Baisal is visiting his mother, her drunken husband becomes enraged by the appearance of a flower, which was given to her by her son. We hear her protests against his violence. Baisal immediately runs to his father, but Karim is not interested in conflict. Instead he gets drunk himself and harasses a flower girl who repeatedly caught his eye. His rejection ends when he arrives home with an unattractive Russian woman, and he evicts his son from the apartment.

In the penultimate scene, some resolution is achieved. Karim prepares traditional bread, bauyrsak, for their neighbors. In Kazakh culture, this is typically done on Friday (an important day in Muslim worship practice) to honor one's ancestors. Baisal delivers the bread on his bicycle, riding down the short hallway. And the next evening, they walk down the street and savor their glimpses into others' lives.

Together with Father is an honest and apolitical film, something rare in Kazakstan today. The acting is superb, with a poignant performance by Bakytzhan Alpeisov, who starred in two classic Kazakh films: Serik Aprymov's Last Stop (Konechnaia ostanovka, 1989) and Satybaldy Narymbetov'sStory of a Young Accordion Player (Kozimnin karasy / Zhizneopisanie iunogo akkordeoniosta, 1994). Nurmakhambet Aitenov, as his son, reveals a sympathetic disposition and, at such a young age, shows a great deal of promise. In recent years, there has been deficit of exemplary acting in Central Asia cinema. This film is a welcome change and a good sign of the filmic potential of the region.

Michael Rouland
Miami University, OH

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Together with Father, Kazakhstan, 2008
Color. 75 min.
Production: Aimanov Film Studio “Kazakhfilm”
Director: Danyar Salamat
Director of Photography: Boris Troshev
Screenplay: Danyar Salamat
Production Design: Nurbolat Zhapakov
Sound: Askar Ahmettegi
Music: Eskendir Khasangaliev
Editor (visual): Khadisha Urmurzina
Editor (text): Satybaldy Narymbetov
Executive Producer: Tanirbergen Khazhiev
Producer: Murat Omarov
Cast: Nurmakhambet Aitenov (Baisal) and Bakytzhan Alpeisov (Karim)

Awards at the 5th Eurasia International Film Festival: Best Director, Danyar Salamat; shared Award for Best Lead Actor, Bakhytzhan Alpeisov; and the FIPRESCI Award, Danyar Salamat.

Danyar Salamat: Together with Father (Akem ekeuimyz, 2008)

reviewed by Michael Rouland © 2009

Updated: 07 Jan 09