Issue 36 (2012)

Rustem Abdrashev: The Sky of My Childhood (Nebo moego detstva, 2011)

reviewed by Joshua First © 2012

neboWhen The Sky of My Childhood premiered in Astana in April 2011, the president of Kazakhstan and hero of the film, Nursultan Nazarbaev, showed up to give his blessing a week after being elected for a fourth term. According to the head of Kazakhfilm, the president had already seen the film twice and was able to “experience many moments from his life anew” (Myzabaeva).

Commissioned by the Kazakh Ministry of Culture, Rustem Abdrashev’s The Sky of My Childhood begins and ends with a cameo of Nazarbaev himself on the presidential plane, musing on his past and writing his memoirs (upon which the film was based). Mountain vistas fade in and out to reveal Sultan as a little boy (Eljas Alpiev), already torn between modernity and the world of his ancestors. As his father instructs him to memorize his family’s genealogy, he runs off to pursue a low-flying airplane before it lands in the village of Chemolgan. The camera circles Sultan on top of a cliff, capturing the penetrating look of a boy who is, of course, wise beyond his years. The president speaks earnestly of flying from city to city and to countries all around the globe, but, at least implicitly, the wisdom that his father, mother and grandmother instilled in him from birth informed his role as leader of the republic.

neboThis reconciliation of tradition and modernity is at work even in the future president’s conception and birth. While his parents conceive Sultan only after performing a ritual at the grave of Raiymbek Batyr, an 18th-century Kazakh leader, his mother gives birth to him at a “Russian” hospital. Nazarbaev narrates his conception as a folkloric story of ethereal dreams, biblical prophesies, and supernatural weather conditions. And the image of his mother, Aljan (Natalia Arinbasarova), awaking alone next to the Raiymbek Shrine while touching her womb suggests Immaculate Conception. Moreover, the significance of Raiymbek as the conceiver of Nazarbaev functions as both a harbinger of Kazakh unity and an agent of Russian collaboration, as it was he who first struck a deal with the Russian Empire.

neboThe child grows up in the mountains where his family leads a nomadic life, his father (Abish, played by Erjan Zharylkasynuly) tending sheep and goats. During Sultan’s first winter, wolves attack their homestead and permanently disable Abish while he attempts to save his lambs. Later, an official from the local kolkhoz, himself the son of one of Abish’s father’s hired workers, orders Abish to sign away his herd and join the kolkhoz. After the end of the war, the Nazarbaev family settles in nearby Chemolgan.

Because of this forced move, an effect of collectivization, Sultan is exposed to a more multinational environment of Russians, Balkars and Chechens, the latter two having been deported to the Kazakh SSR during 1944; and as an adolescent, he learns German in school. During the Victory Day celebrations in the village, the film pans across a scene of Russian women playing the accordion, Chechens dancing the lezginka, Kazakh wrestlers, and a marching band playing victory songs under a Soviet banner. Immediately, we see the familiar scene of returning soldiers, as they pour off of camouflage trucks to meet their loved ones with flowers in hand. The mythology of a “Friendship of Peoples” is alive and well in The Sky of My Childhood. Later, Sultan races a group of Kirghiz horsemen, and of course emerges as the winner. But in Chemolgan he also forges a closer bond with his Kazakh identity, taking dombra lessons (in voice-over, the president brags that he’s “still good”), and helping his father cultivate Aport apples in his garden plot.

neboThe film draws extensively on the style and thematic elements of Soviet poetic cinema from the 1960s-70s, with its slow pacing and quiet tone, and its ethnographic focus on folklore, everyday life, kinship, and the landscape. Thus, to dismiss Sky of My Childhood as “authoritarianism in action,” as one online commentator did, however, misses the point. While baby Sultan almost never cries and adolescent Sultan always makes the right decisions, wins the races, performs the best in school, and knows how to dance and recite poetry, the film’s nostalgic address overwhelms these attempts at hagiography. The film celebrates Soviet values like multiculturalism, the dignity of manual labor, the discourse of peace (in one scene, Abish and his brother perform the highly symbolic act of re-forging a bayonet into a sickle, which they give to Sultan), respect for authority, and community, while evincing the curious combination of celebrating tradition and lauding Soviet-style modernity that lie at the root of socialist realism. The persistent image of an airplane flying overhead remains for the protagonist a familiar symbol of modernity’s promise and transcendence of mundane existence. Yet, when offered the opportunity to study at the Institute of Civil Aviation in Kiev, Sultan decides of his own free will to stay in his native village and help his father with the agricultural labor.

neboHistory and politics rarely interfere with Sultan’s life, even though the film’s action coincides with the Second World War, Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, and when they do they reside firmly in the background. In one scene, a Balkar family from the North Caucasus is dropped off in their village, with Nazarbaev’s voice as narrator blaming “some war commissar” for the decision to deport the entire ethnic group. Sultan’s Balkar friend, Hussein, later complains that deportees are excluded from aviation school. And in 1956, a state official comes to inform Abish that he would have to pay taxes on his apple trees, which provokes Sultan’s father to chop them all down. In this way, Abrashev represents the Soviet state and its agents as mostly benign, at their worst mildly repressive (the presence of collectivized agriculture in the film never points toward the Kazakh genocide), but at best, a positive link between Kazakhstan and Western civilization, which granted the future president the opportunity to pursue his uniquely Soviet route toward higher education, culture, and finally, political power. And yet, The Sky of My Childhood continuously asserts Nazarbaev’s organic connection to the Kazakh land, and its people’s traditional way of life.

When the head of Kazakhfilm asked the president of the Republic if Sky of My Childhood accurately represented his childhood, he replied, “Yes, that’s how it was” (Myzabaeva). Currently, Abdrashev is filming the second part of what will become a trilogy on Nazarbaev’s life.

Joshua First
University of Mississippi

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Works Cited

Myrzabaeva, Indira. “Kazakhstanskie kinematografisty zastavili Nazarbaeva proslezit’sia.” Tengrinews 14 April 2011

The Sky of My Childhood, Kazakhstan, 2011
Color, 115 minutes
Director: Rustem Abdrashev
Script: Shakhimarden Khusainov and Rustem Abdrashev
Cinematographer: Aleksandr Rubanov
Cast: Bibigul Tulegenova, Natalia Arinbasarova, Nurzhuman Ikhtymbaev, Almagul Alisheva, Erjan Zharylkasynuly, Aldiyar Zharaskan, Eljas Alpiev, Nurlan Alimzhanov
Producer: Tasbolat Merekenov
Production Company: Kazakhfilm

Rustem Abdrashev: The Sky of My Childhood (Nebo moego detstva, 2011)

reviewed by Joshua First © 2012

Updated: 09 May 12