Issue 59 (2018)

Nariman Turebaev: City Filth (Griaz’ bol’shogo goroda, Kazakhstan, 2017)

reviewed by Connor Doak© 2018

city filthCity Filth, Nariman Turebaev’s fourth feature-length film, is first and foremost a psychological portrait of how an ordinary young man transforms into a ruthless vigilante. Marat (Askar Mendybaev) takes the law into his own hands when his girlfriend Sveta (Estella Molokova) is killed by a drunk driver who, as the son of a government minister, escapes prosecution. However, Marat’s quest for justice does not stop at avenging her death. Instead, the introverted, lanky alcoholic becomes an unlikely Kazakh Batman, hunting down a series of villains in Almaty who operate beyond the reach of the law. As the corpses pile up with a grim inevitability, City Filth poses a moral question to the audience: what is our duty as individuals when the police and the courts fail to dispense justice? The film’s answer is strikingly ambivalent: the audience empathizes with Marat’s crusade for justice, but Turebaev refuses to glamorize his protagonist or his violent actions. By the end of the film, Marat has turned into the kind of cold-blooded killer whom he set out to destroy.

city filthWhile Turebaev’s films have always featured an element of social commentary, City Filth is the first to confront contemporary issues with quasi-documentary realism. Of course, the problem of privileged young men getting away with irresponsible and illegal behavior exists everywhere. However, the phenomenon has a particular topicality in Kazakhstan, where it has even acquired a name, Usenovshchina or Usenov Syndrome. The term derives from an incident involving Maksat Usenov—the son of a high-ranking civil servant—who gained notoriety in 2013 after receiving an unexpectedly lenient punishment for causing a car accident in which one person died and five were injured (Anon. 2017). The premise of City Filth is a thinly-veiled fictionalization of the Usenov affair. Moreover, a subplot in which Marat avenges a famous actress whose husband violently assaulted her closely resembles a real-life story widely reported in Kazakhstan’s news media in 2016: the stabbing of producer and actor Baian Esentaeva by her then-husband Bakhytbek (Duisenova 2016). City Filth thus has a sense of local relevance and urgency that was not present in Turebaev’s previous films.

city filthThe director’s turn towards socially-engaged filmmaking is reflected in his decision to brand City Filth a “Partisan” film. The Partisan Group (Partizany) is a group of Kazakhstani filmmakers, led by Adil’khan Erzhanov, who have championed a non-commercial kind of cinema that is realist, socially engaged and formally experimental. Their 2014 manifesto explains how they draw inspiration from the Angry Young Men in British cinema and theatre in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Ken Loach and Tony Richardson. “It’s time for us to get angry, too,” (Erzhanov et al, 2014) proclaimed the Partisans, declaring war on the wave of glamorized, state-sponsored blockbusters in Russia and Kazakhstan that seek only to entertain and are removed from everyday reality in those countries. Instead, the Partisans call for a “simple, honest, and daring cinema, one not afraid to engage in protest, to appear inappropriate or unfashionable” (Erzhanov et al, 2014). They propose three “pillars” of Partisan cinema: (1) the need for no-budget films; (2) a demand that cinema use realism to tackle contemporary social issues; (3) a call for a rebellion in form to express this social protest. City Filth is the fifth film to be made under the Partisan label, following such critically acclaimed films as Toll Bar (Shlagbaum, 2015), directed by Josulan Poshanov with a screenplay by Erzhanov; and Erzhanov’s own The Plague at Karatas Village (Chuma v aule Karatas, 2016). However, City Filth is the first Partisan film to be made without any involvement from Erzhanov.

city filthAlthough Turebaev was not a signatory to the original Partisan manifesto, his aesthetics have always been close to the group’s. His work lacks their anger, but exhibits the simplicity and minimalism that they call for, especially in his characteristically sparse use of dialogue. City Filth continues this trend: both Mendybaev, who plays Marat, and Kamilla Nugmanova in the role of a down-and-out woman who develops an affection for him, perform with the necessary emotional restraint to convey the difficulties of communication. Mendybaev, who is best known in Kazakhstan as a newsreader, has commented on the challenge of mastering Marat’s laconicism: “My character remains silent all the time and all his emotions have to be conveyed through the eyes” (Tabaeva 2016). On the one hand, Marat is the latest in a long line of well-meaning but hapless and tongue-tied “little men” who appear in every Turebaev film, from the failed salesman Bek in Little Men (Malen’kie liudi, 2003) to the unnamed, unlucky protagonist of Sunny Days (Solnechnye dni,2011) and the naïve, romantic hero of Adventure (Prikluchenie, 2015). On the other hand, City Filth marks the first time one of these little men takes a decisive stand against the forces that oppress him.

city filthMarat’s crusade for justice inevitably leads Turebaev into new territory in terms of genre. The director’s typical brand of art-house realism must accommodate elements from the thriller and film noir. It proves difficult to combine these contrasting styles in City Filth. At times, the film makes use of the complex plotting, action scenes and dramatic suspense normally found in thrillers; elsewhere, the pace slows and the film becomes a moody study of urban alienation. Marat’s transformation resembles a Turebaev-style protagonist inadvertently wandering on to the set of—say—an Aleksei Balabanov movie and, against all expectations, turning violent himself and surviving rather than rolling over and accepting defeat. Some viewers will find this generic hybridity jarring, although a more generous interpretation might see it as Turebaev’s attempt to confront the problematic ethics of the thriller genre. It is intentional that Mendybaev’s inscrutable Marat has neither the glamour of a Hollywood vigilante like Batman, nor even the home-grown charisma of anti-heroes closer to home, such as Moro (Viktor Tsoi) in Rashid Nugmanov’s The Needle (Igla,1988) or Danila Bagrov (Sergei Bodrov Jr.) in Balabanov’s Brother (Brat,1997). Turebaev’s City Filth not only critiques the unfair society that gives rise to vigilantism, but also becomes an inquiry into why audiences are attracted by the all-too-often simplistic morality of conventional vigilante films; the film exposes the limitations of the genre.

city filthTurebaev adhered strictly to the Partisans’ rule of using a minimal budget for City Filth. The actors and crew were unpaid; no special effects were employed; Turebaev performed the editing himself. Overall, the film is a remarkable success considering these limitations. At his best, Turebaev is able to capitalize on the low-budget techniques to the film’s benefit. For example, the subdued use of lighting in both interior and exterior shots helps to produce the noir mood. However, there are moments when the lack of resources visibly affects the production values, particularly in the action sequences that are a new element in Turebaev’s oeuvre. The two car accidents that bookend the film appear contrived, and the blood dripping from the villain’s face after the second accident is all too visibly fake. However, if one considers the film as a spoof of the thriller genre—at least in part—then one can view these shortcomings as an illustration of the artificiality of the genre and its common tropes.

city filthCity Filth not only evinces a meta-cinematic self-awareness, but also critically investigates the relationship between journalism and cinema. Television and printed media form a constant backdrop in City Filth—another feature that links it to The Needle—and these sensational reports often inspire Marat to acts of vigilante justice. Moreover, the film is punctuated with clips of recorded interviews with ordinary Kazakhstani citizens about social and ethical questions. In the story, Marat’s girlfriend Sveta, killed at the beginning of the film, worked as a journalist and left these recordings on her phone for posterity. Yet in reality, these clips are not scripted, but taken from real-life interviews that Turebaev’s team conducted. “If you could ask God just one question, what would it be?” Sveta asks in one segment, eliciting a variety of answers: some express anger, others gratitude, and still others guilt. Towards the end of the film, another interpolated clip sees her asking the same interviewees how they would feel about a vigilante taking justice into his own hands. Although some respondents raise moral qualms about such behavior, the majority express their support for such a figure, creating an odd sense of unease among the audience, who have just seen the bloody consequences of Marat’s activity. Ultimately, the film places an ethical burden not just on journalists and filmmakers as producers of media, but also demands that audiences and consumers examine their own viewing behaviors.

City Filth is a very dark, cruel, topical film, fundamentally different from all my earlier work,” claims Turebaev (Tabaeva 2016). Here, the director overstates the break with his previous work: the little man topos, the importance of silence, and urban alienation are all found in his earlier films. However, he is right that City Filth is his darkest film to date. While Little Men was redeemed by the use of comedy, and both Sunny Days and Adventure include hopeful moments that promise to break the spell of solitude, City Filth is relentlessly gloomy, spiraling towards its ultimately macabre conclusion. If Turebaev’s latest film does not receive the same level of international success on the festival circuit as his previous offerings, it will not be because of its minimal budget, which it wears rather well, but because it is a demanding film to watch that asks tough questions of its audience.

Connor Doak
University of Bristol

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Works Cited

Anon. 2017. “Izvestnyi na ves’ Kazakhstan anti-geroi Maksat Usenov rasshiril diapazon svoikh pravonarushenii.” Moskovskii Komsomolets Kazakhstan 15 September.

Duisenova, Sandugash. 2016. “Razglasheniiu ne podlezhit.” Vremia 2 September.

Erzhanov, Adil’khan, and Askar Uzabaev, Zhasulan Poshanov, Aleksandr Sukharev, Talgat Bektursynov, Denis Borisov, Viacheslav Kornev. 2014. “Partizanskoe kino. Manifest.” Likbez: Literaturnyi al'manakh 25.

Tabaeva, Zukhra. 2016. “Nariman Turebaev: nikomu ne dano pravo tvorit’ samosud.” Antenna 12 October.

City Filth, Kazakhstan, 2017
DCP, color, 92 minutes
Director: Nariman Turebaev
Screenplay: Nariman Turebaev and Talgat Shagambaev
Director of Photography: Chingiz Abirov
Production Design: Ermek Utegenov
Sound Design: Il’ia Gariev
Cast: Askar Mendybaev, Estella Molokova, Kamilla Nugmanova, Chingiz Kapin
Producers: Serik Abishev, Ol’ga Khlasheva, Aibek Kudabaev
Production: Short Brothers

Nariman Turebaev: City Filth (Griaz’ bol’shogo goroda, Kazakhstan, 2017)

reviewed by Connor Doak© 2018

Updated: 2018