Gul'shad (Guka) Omarova, Schizo [Shiza] (2004)
reviewed by Susan Larsen©2005
||Gul'shad Omarova’s debut feature, Schizo,
takes its title from the nickname assigned its central character, Mustafa (Olzhas
Nusuppaev), a not quite fifteen-year-old boy with an undefined developmental
disability that renders him eager to please and slow to grasp the possibility of
treachery or betrayal. Mustafa’s
problem is not, however, that he has a “split” personality, as schizophrenia
is popularly (if incorrectly) understood, but that he does not.
A not-so-holy fool, Mustafa initially takes all words and gestures at
face value, assuming a non-existent consistency between adult speech and
intention that the film presents as the principal symptom of his “delayed”
development. The film’s narrative
follows Mustafa as he learns to recognize deceit in others and to deceive them
in turn. The ensuing “split” in
his loyalties is only one of many divisions that the film’s narrative and
visual logic present as emblematic of Mustafa’s world.
The film begins with a long shot of a man and a boy in a field, the older
teaching the younger to ride a motorcycle.
The camera is static, the line of the horizon a smooth and unbroken
division of vast field from cloudless blue sky.
The only movement occurs as the motorcycle roars in and out of the frame,
making a rough circle in the dusty yellow field and foreshadowing the movement
of the film as a whole. The
film’s narrative and visual logic are circular: at the beginning of the film,
Mustafa is living with his mother (Gul'nara Eralieva) and her boyfriend, the
small-time thug Sakura (Eduard Tabyshev). At
the end of the film, this family group has collapsed, but Mustafa has moved in
with another woman and her fatherless child,
in the same way that Sakura once moved in with the fatherless Mustafa and
his mother. Just as Sakura teaches
Mustafa to ride a motorcycle, so, too, does he teach the boy, by his own
example, to double-cross those whom he has asked for help and promised a fair
or, in Mustafa’s accented English, “fifty-fifty” split of their earnings.
Unlike Sakura, however, Mustafa steps out of the circle of violence at
the film’s end, tossing away the gun he used to kill his mentor and giving
away the money he has won through deceit, theft, and murder.
When Mustafa divides the spoils of his final crime evenly between his
mother and Zin'ka (Ol'ga Landina), the older woman who has become both his
surrogate mother and sexual partner, he is attempting an equitable, or
“fifty-fifty,” division that the rest of the film suggests can take place
only in the realm of Hollywood fantasy.
The catalyst for the disintegration of the first family and the creation
of the second is money and the betrayals, often violent, that the film presents
as both the starting point and inevitable consequence of the struggle for
economic survival in the vacant landscapes that it offers as a visual metaphor
for contemporary Kazakh society. The
only communal groups portrayed in Schizo
are gatherings of unemployed men playing cards while they wait for potential
employers on an abandoned industrial site; a large open-air market at which men
wait for buyers to purchase cattle, horses and used cars; and the illegal boxing
arena where men and women gather to place bets on bloody fist fights between
trained boxers and desperate amateurs willing to take a brutal, possibly fatal
beating for the chance to win a small cash prize or used Mercedes.
In the course of the film, Mustafa becomes a participant in all three
economic arenas. In each, treachery
and deceit are the rule. All fights
are rigged, all employers are cheats, all buyers aspiring swindlers, and no
adult partnership ever divides its take “fifty-fifty.”
Mustafa is flattered when Sakura invites him to help recruit unemployed
men to fight in illegal bare-knuckle fights.
Conducted without referees, rules, or helmets, the matches are bloody
sport that end only when one fighter collapses.
Kicks to the head and groin are routine, as are fierce wagering and the
crowd’s excited roar of “finish him off!” (dobei
ego!). The fights provide the
film’s dramatic action, and Western observers will be quick to associate it
with David Fincher’s Fight Club
(1999), but that would be a mistake.
The issue here is not self-realization or the recovery of a threatened
masculinity through violence. Schizo’s
boxing ring is, if anything, a metaphor for the brutal economic crisis and
cultural vacuum in which the film’s characters exist. Presented in rapid sequences of medium-close-ups shot at
night from multiple angles, the fights also, of course, provide a vivid rhythmic
and visual contrast to the static daylight world of empty fields, unfinished
apartment buildings, and unemployed men. The
differing rhythms of day and night, of law-abiding inactivity and criminal
violence are yet another of the divisions that split the world shown in Schizo.
Unlike the “Kazakh New Wave” films, with which Omarova’s film has
been repeatedly linked, Schizo does not dwell on the contrast between rural and urban life,
nor does it document the communal rituals and conflicts of the village (aul)
in quasi-ethnographic detail. Shot
on the distant outskirts of Almaty, the film is set on the margins of both rural
and urban life: the city is visible
only as a distant skyline across the waters of Lake Kapchagai and the only
visual references to rural life as such are in the weathered faces and fur-lined
caps of the men gathered in search of work or at the open-air livestock market.
Scenes of family life unfold in solitary, ramshackle structures with no
neighbors or larger community in sight. The only visible institutional
authorities are Mustafa’s hypochondriac doctor (Viktor Sukhorukov) and the
ineffective local police who hold Mustafa in a cell overnight with an
unidentified teenage boy. The two
boys never speak, and their pointless confinement seems yet another indicator
that Mustafa’s world is one populated by orphans condemned to suffer for the
crimes of invisible adults and nameless economic forces.
Mustafa’s own marginal status as outsider and orphan is underscored by
his frequent long silences and laconic speech, his lines always preceded by a
pause that marks the distance between him and the people he addresses. Although he eventually becomes the financial support for
Zin'ka and her son, the odd family that results is less a father-mother-son
triangle than a trio of orphans who take turns attempting to parent one another.
Sanzhik (Nurtai Kanagat) is almost always home alone when Mustafa comes
over, and Zin'ka herself seems more orphan than adult: her limp and her poverty
mark her vulnerability. Mustafa
plays with the young Sanzhik as an equal, and―although the film suggests
that Sanzhik’s mother, Zin'ka, initiates a sexual encounter with the barely
post-pubescent Mustafa―their interactions seem more filial than romantic.
Even tiny Sanzhik must assume a parental role at the film’s conclusion,
when Mustafa entrusts him with the cash from his last robbery, instructing
Sanzhik to give Zin'ka the money only after the first snowfall.
gangster elements in Schizo (and in
Omarova’s previous work with CTB Film Company and Sergei Bodrov, Jr., as
co-author of his Sisters [Sestry, 2001]), have led Russian critics to label the film a
“Kazakh Brother,” inspired in part
by the STW-produced blockbusters, Brother
(Brat, 1997) and Brother-2 (2000) directed by Aleksei Balabanov and starring Bodrov,
Jr. as baby-faced killer Danila Bagrov. [See
articles by Konstantin
Shavlovskii, by Larisa Iusipova
(Vedomosti) and Evgeniia
Leonova (Nezavisimaia gazeta)] Although both Danila and Mustafa are naifs
who become entangled in a criminal underworld as a result of misplaced loyalties
to unreliable father surrogates, Schizo’s
psuedo-documentary visual aesthetic and minimalist narrative have little in
common with Balabanov’s highly stylized urban gangster films.
And unlike Mustafa, Danila is already an adult at the beginning of Brother,
a veteran of the war in Chechnya, skilled in both hand-to-hand and armed combat;
Danila’s innocence is cultural and based on the opposition between country and
city, between a mythologized “pure” Russianness and an equally mythologized
and Westernized world of crime and commerce. Mustafa,
in contrast, is both innocent and unskilled, and―unlike Danila―he
never stops to put into words the reasons for his actions, nor does he associate
them with any notions of national or ethnic identity.
The most marked difference between the two films, however, is that
Danila’s motivations remain constant throughout the Brother
films, but Mustafa’s change dramatically. In Schizo,
the boy Mustafa is initially pleased and proud to be taken under Sakura’s
wing: he imitates Sakura’s cruelty to a losing fighter, borrows Sakura’s
dark glasses, and smokes Sakura’s cigarettes, admiring his own reflection in
the mirror. But when one of the men
Mustafa recruits for the fights dies of his injuries, Mustafa changes course and
begins the moral transformation that leads him to double-cross Sakura and the
fight bosses in order to win money to support Zin'ka, the dead fighter’s
girlfriend, and her young son.
Schizo, in fact, has more in common with the early work of its script’s co-author, Sergei Bodrov, Sr., whose Freedom is Paradise (SER, 1989) also portrayed a young boy in desperate search of a father with a criminal past, or with the many recent Russian films that focus on a troubled relationship between fathers and sons, among them Dmitrii Meskhiev’s Our Own (Svoi, 2004), Vladimir Mashkov’s Papa (2004) and Valerii Todorovskii’s My Stepbrother Frankenstein (Moi svodnyi brat Frankenshtein, 2004), as well two earlier films that, like Schizo, have also fared well with foreign audiences―Pavel Chukhrai’s The Thief (Vor, 1997) and Andrei Zviagintsev’s The Return (Vozvrashchenie, 2003), both of which also center on a troubled boy’s relationship with a father figure of dubious moral authority. These Russian films embed their stories of troubled paternity in the fabric of Russian history, turning the father-son relationship into a metaphor for larger historical and cultural divisions. Schizo, by contrast, embeds its story of a fatherless boy in the vacant landscape of contemporary ex-urban, not quite rural Kazakhstan.
most authoritative voice in Schizo,
the one that gives it both narrative unity and aesthetic force, belongs to the
camera. In repeated long shots of
empty fields and abandoned industrial sites, the film substitutes geography for
chronology, space for time. In Schizo, as in much of his earlier work for Kyrgyz director Aktan
Abdykalykov, cinematographer Khasan Kydyraliev often frames his long shots as
painterly surfaces without depth, split horizontally by a vast expanse of empty
water or nearly cloudless sky, punctuated, if at all, by a single structure: a
bus-stop at which no one is ever seen to wait, a solitary shack, or an abandoned
oil rig. Horizontal lines are
further emphasized in the shots of buses that, presumably, carry Mustafa through
an empty landscape to his doctor’s appointments or the trains that take him to
meet his uncle. The only strong
vertical line in the film is the road along which Mustafa walks hand-in-hand
with Zin'ka and Sanzhik in the film’s final scene. This is the road that leads from prison to freedom, and,
perhaps, to something like a future.
texture of everyday life in the film is suggested primarily in close-ups of
hands and objects: an outdoor shower-head, a kettle boiling on the stove, money
changing hands, the mop that wipes away the stain of a dead fighter’s blood,
the pointy toe of a dead man’s motorcycle boot.
These visual metonymies underscore the poverty and hardship of the
characters’ lives in quasi-documentary style; the tight frame is its own
commentary. The contrast between
the minutiae of everyday life filmed in close-up and the vacant landscape of the
larger world filmed in long, often overhead shots accentuates the ways in which
the lives of the film’s characters are swallowed up by the apparent cultural
and economic vacuum in which they live.
only Russian-language film selected for competition in the 2004 Cannes Film
Festival (in the series “Un Certain Regard”), Schizo
has been promoted successfully on the foreign film festival circuit as a
distinctively Kazakh film. At the
same time, however, Schizo has been
praised by Russian critics for its high production values and a technical
“professionalism,” which they have attributed to the film’s European
production partners and Omarova’s expatriate status (she has been living in
Holland since 2001). [See interview
with Mariia Kuvshinova
(Izvestia)] In fact, the
majority of the film’s financing came from Sergei Sel'ianov’s Russian film
production company, CTB (STW), in association with Kazakhfilm studios; Sergei
Bodrov, Sr.’s German production company Kinofabrika; and a French production
company devoted to films for and about young people, Les Petites Lumičres.
Bodrov, Sr. also co-authored the script and was on the set throughout
much of the filming. The film’s
score was composed by French musician SIG in a style one might call hybrid
ethno-electronica; Omarova has said that SIG integrated traditional Kazakh
melodies and instrumentation into the electronic compositions that underscore
the film’s moodier moments, but one can also detect in them voices that bear a
strong resemblance to Tuvan throat singing (Gul'shad Omarova about
her film). The film’s distinctive
visual style is the work of two established Kyrgyz filmmakers, director of
photography Kydyraliev and production designer Talgat Asyrankulov, and its
Russian editor Ivan Lebedev, best-known for his work on another CTB production,
Petr Buslov’s crime drama Bimmer (Bumer, 2003), and for Mikhail Brashinskii’s notoriously fast-paced
Black Ice (Gololed,
This aesthetic and cultural cross-pollination has produced a film that is
a coherent aesthetic whole, albeit one that seems difficult to classify as
uniquely “Kazakh,” a label more meaningful in this case as a marketing tool
than as a statement of the film’s relationship to a single national cinema
Quite apart from its genuine accomplishments, Schizo may also owe some of the success it has enjoyed on the international festival circuit to its invocation of familiar patterns for portraying “exotic” lives to Western audiences. Schizo seems almost tailor made for foreign viewers, who will find in it the accessible ethnic exotica and illusion of ethnographic authenticity that festival and arthouse audiences have come to expect of Central Asian and Iranian cinema. Like many other recent films by Central Asian filmmakers, Omarova cast non-professional actors in all the major roles, with the exception of the doctor and the two female leads. The young actors who play Mustafa and Sanzhik were both “discovered” in orphanages, to which they returned when filming was complete. The young actors’ personal stories are part of the film’s promotional campaign, further enhancing its quasi-documentary status. The film’s U.S. distributor, Picture This! Entertainment, for example, is promoting the film both on its official website, www.schizo-the-movie.com and at www.comingofagemovies.com, where the headline reads: “We’re orphans and we’re pissed!”. Told with a minimum of complicated historical or cultural detail, Schizo combines a coming-of-age story with a moral fable about a young boy who learns simultaneously to recognize and exploit the corruption inherent in the advent of a capitalist economy. In this respect, the film is also a parable about its own status as a cultural commodity that markets the image of a childlike and developmentally disabled exotic “other” in order to win a victory in the rigged market of international cinema.
Susan Larsen, Pomona College
Gul'shad (aka Guka) Omarova
Gul'shad (aka Guka) Omarova and Sergei Bodrov, Sr.
Khasanbek (aka Khasan) Kydyraliev
and Set Design: Talgat Asyrankulov
Olzhas Nusuppaev, Eduard Tabyshev, Ol'ga Landina, Viktor Sukhorukov, Gul'nara
Eralieva, Nurtai Kanagat, Bakhytbek Baimukhanbetov.
Sergei Sel'ianov, Sergei Bodrov, Sr., Sergei Azimov
Production: CTB (STW) Film Company (Russia) and Kazakhfilm (Kazakhstan), with the participation of Les Petites Lumičres (France) and Kinofabrika (Germany), and with support from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation and the Fond SUD of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (France).
Gul'shad (Guka) Omarova, Schizo [Shiza] (2004)
reviewed by Susan Larsen©2005