Issue 67 (2020)

Farkhat Sharipov: The Secret of a Leader (Trening lichnostnogo rosta, Kazakhstan, 2018)

reviewed by Olia Kim © 2020

trening“A whole generation, totally disoriented. As a child you’ve been raised with a set of values. Then the system changed. Some went along and changed their values. But some others felt lost and perplexed.” These opening lines—uttered at the training sessions for personal development in the very beginning of the film—introduce one of the main themes: the predicament of the post-Soviet generation caught between the fading values of the recent past and the newly constructed ones shaping their future. The film shares this theme with Daniyar Surgalinov’s popular internet novel Bricks 2.0 (Kirpichi 2.0), on which the script of the film is loosely based. However, if in the novel the hero of this disoriented generation undergoes a successful transformation, in the film the hero’s transformation entails a chain of moral choices, which makes the story of his success if not outright criminal, then morally ambivalent at best.

The story revolves around middle-aged bank clerk Kanat, who lives with his mother in a Soviet-style apartment block in Almaty. Later we learn that his ex-wife and teenage daughter live in the same city. Kanat’s life is uneventful and flows by inertia: he timidly swerves from the sidewalk to avoid potential conflict with teenage street gangs; he keeps lending money to his alcoholic neighbor, knowing that he will not pay it back; after the workday, he halfheartedly attends self-development training sessions where he is taught how to become a leader. Towards the end of the film, Kanat becomes a “leader,” a top manager at his bank—but at what price?

treningAfter a chance encounter with former college friend and now successful banker Daniyar, Kanat’s monotonous life gradually changes. His renewed friendship with Daniyar triggers a chain of circumstances, which opens a door to success and tests his moral integrity. The compromises Kanat makes are negligible in the beginning, but they gradually accumulate. First, he does not keep a promise to have a drink with his friend from work. Instead, he prefers the company of his more successful friend Daniyar, who entertains himself at a karaoke bar singing Soviet-era pop songs surrounded by young women half his age. Then, Kanat betrays his colleagues by choosing to keep silent about the impending layoffs in their company, of which Daniyar informed him. And finally, he accepts a promotion in exchange for his silence about the suspicious disappearance of a young woman who entertained Daniyar and Kanat at a karaoke bar. Perhaps she was murdered, but we will never find out. The only thing we learn is that Kanat knows that the last person who saw that woman was Daniyar, but he is asked not to reveal this fact. Judging by Kanat’s sudden career growth to top manager at the end of the film, we surmise that it takes a “secret” to become a leader.

treningThe elliptical structure and understated tone of the film turn this standard moralistic story of a dubious success at the cost of moral degradation into a capacious vessel that holds together broader social themes. The predicament of the post-Soviet generation and the morality of a newly forming society are loosely stitched together by this simple story. The predominance of distanced long takes, the slow pace, and repetitive visual and narrative structure contribute to the sparse composition, which allows room to investigate these social themes along the moralistic plot.

Among many repetitions that occur in the film, the repetition of the motif of disappearance is perhaps central to the drama. Throughout the film we witness the disappearance of three women: first, Kanat’s teenage daughter does not return home until very late at night. His ex-wife is about to call the police when the daughter shows up. Due to his intoxication, Kanat is unable to properly realize what happened. The next morning, Kanat wakes up with a hangover to realize that his mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, is missing. He searches for her on the streets but unsuccessfully. This situation builds a more ominous atmosphere, but later the mother returns home on her own. While these two disappearances could be read as a family story of neglectful detachment, by the time of the last disappearance, the film’s story turns into a social drama of a criminal nature. This repetition also confirms the general pattern of the film, which gradually progresses from negligible compromise to grave complicity.

Another repetition, more obvious, is Kanat’s attendance of the training sessions. These training sessions punctuate the plot and lend the film its title. The slight difference between the original Russian title, Training of Personal Development, and its international release title, The Secret of a Leader, captures the dual critique offered in the film. On the one hand, the original title, an awkward calque of an English expression, reads as a parody of the uncritical embrace of new capitalist vocabulary and its values; on the other hand, the international release title plays with the ambiguity of the word “secret” and alludes to the criminality and immorality kept secret by the alleged leaders of the new society.[1] Kanat’s path to success contains both sides, suggesting that one depends on the other. A secret criminality and immorality become the basis of personal development and leadership in this rapidly changing society.

These training sessions also serve as a meta-commentary on the film itself. As a self-reflexive device, they tell the viewer what the film is about and how to watch it. In the beginning, the lecturer states to his audience: “Today, we won’t be looking for the truth. We will just try to analyze certain facts happening in your everyday life.” And in his last session, the lecturer concludes: “It is impossible to share every secret in such a short time. But I shared with you the most important information, now you have to sort it out yourself: fill in the gaps and reconsider certain things.” Diegetically, these introductory and concluding remarks pertain to the leadership training, but they also could be read as didactic advice for the viewer.

treningThis barely concealed didacticism is offset by the enigmatic opening and closing of the film. The film opens with a full shot of a vegetable garden in the middle of a blooming orchard. A woman absorbed in her gardening is sitting in the center, surrounded by the lush green vegetation. This idyllic scene, textured with the sounds of chirping birds, barking dogs, and cackling hens, is interrupted by a ringing cell phone. The woman unhurriedly answers the phone, then bursts into tears. Something terrible must have happened, but we never learn what, or indeed who the woman is. Perhaps it is Kanat’s mother when she was younger. The static camera observes the scene from a distance and then the shot fades out. After a prolonged fade-out, the film begins with a speech on the disoriented post-Soviet generation.

What sense can we make of this opening? I’m tempted to suggest that this opening garden scene recalls both the biblical Eden right before “the Fall” and the Chekhovian “cherry orchard,” which dramatizes the motif of social change. The name of the café—Chekhov—where Kanat and Daniyar meet for the last time confirms this Chekhovian motif.

The same ringtone we heard in the opening scene interrupts the silence in the final scene of the film. Through a window frame we see a blooming cherry tree. The phone rings when Kanat, now a successful banker and family man, and his mother are leaving the hospital room where she is being treated for Alzheimer’s. At this point, the mother has completely lost her memory and with that memory, the film allegorically erases the memory of the Soviet past. The film ends as the mother is about to pick up the phone and we are left to guess what news this ominous call will bring along. 


1] It is noteworthy that the lecturer of this leadership training is played by the same actor (Anuar Nurpeisov), who in Sharipov’s earlier film Tale of Pink Hare (Skaz o rozovom zaitse, 2010) plays a provincial student who becomes successful while undergoing moral degradation.

Olia Kim
University of Pittsburgh

Comment on this article on Facebook

The Secret of a Leader, Kazakhstan, 2018
Color, 97 minutes
Director: Farkhat Sharipov
Script: Farkhat Sharipov; based on Daniyar Surgalinov’s novel Bricks 2.0 (Kirpichi 2.0)
Cinematography: Aleksander Plotnikov
Production design: Aleksei Shindin
Music: Iliya Odegov, Emil Dosov
Sound: Aleksandr Dzhegaylo
Cast: Dulyga Akmolda, Yerzhan Tusupov, Gulzhamal Kazakbayeva, Filipp Voloshin, Anuar Nurpeisov
Producers: Serik Zhubandykov, Yerzhan Akhmetov, Yuliya Kim
Production: Kazakhfilm Studios, Kadam Production

Farkhat Sharipov: The Secret of a Leader (Trening lichnostnogo rosta, Kazakhstan, 2018)

reviewed by Olia Kim © 2020

Updated: 2020