The life of a world-cinema enthusiast is full of surprises. No matter how open-minded and adventurous your film-going explorations may be, certain corners of the world inevitably sneak up on you with an embarrassment of cinematic riches. When, a couple of years ago, I asked a particularly knowledgeable and adventurous friend if he had heard of Ardak Amirkulov’s The Fall of Otrar (1990), and he responded, “Of course – that’s one of the premiere works of the Kazakh New Wave of the early ’90s!”, I had to stifle a laugh. But as soon as possible I looked into it, and damned if he didn’t know what he was talking about. There was indeed an explosion of reportedly important filmmakers in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, directors such as Amir Karakulov, Darezhan Omirbaev, Serik Aprimov, and Amirkulov. And after seeing The Fall of Otrar and finding it to be an astounding masterpiece, I craved more.
Well, more came, in the form of a program which ran from May 2 to 29 at The Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York (to be reprised at Anthology Film Archives in July/August), a collection of films from Kazakhstan, as well as the other ex-Soviet republics (the “stans”) – Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. An overview historically as well as geographically, encompassing films from as early as 1945 (the beautiful and seductive Uzbek studio film, Takhir and Zukhra) up to the present, the series proved to be a treasure trove, a revelation of a vigorously healthy cinematic culture nearly unknown abroad (only one film in the series, Aktan Abdikalikov’s The Adopted Son , has been distributed in the U.S.).
It may seem mysterious that a collection of countries as apparently marginal as these should have healthy film industries. If this speaks more to our blindness to a large portion of the world than to any objective judgment, it also masks what is a relatively straightforward historical explanation: these regional industries, established in the ’20s and ’30s to produce mostly documentaries and newsreels, took on new importance (and gained resources) when all Soviet film production was parceled out to them for the duration of WWII. There’s no definitive way to account for the level of creative inspiration evident from so many of the films in the series, but certainly the existence of these industries, with the many resources they made available, the community of filmmakers surrounding them, and the education they offered to budding directors, was a crucial prerequisite. This is also a region with an ancient and remarkably complex history, marked by the collision of radically diverse cultures, ethnicities, and religious traditions – collisions that have resulted in the kind of tumultuous, tragic national experiences that tend to make life very difficult but constitute fertile ground for challenging and unique art.
If The Fall of Otrar were the only Kazakh film of major importance it would earn for its national cinema a place of high regard. A nearly three-hour, 13th century set epic of almost miraculous authenticity and intensity, The Fall of Otrar portrays a world which seems not to have been created, painstakingly and carefully, but to have sprung into being fully-formed. Most period films, especially those set in so distant a past, feel like approximations, simulations; the illusion, however well researched and staged, seems to wither away outside the confines of the screen, distracting you with the feeling that a slight shift of the camera would reveal technicians, microphones, and edges of sets. The accomplishment of films like Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1969), the Czech medieval opus Marketa Lazarova (Frantisek Vlacil, 1967), and The Fall of Otrar is that they create expansive worlds, illusions that seem to stretch infinitely in all directions. The means are complex and elusive, but it has a great deal to do with a refusal to condescend to the past. The failure of so many period films lies in the comfortable distance we feel between their conception of the past and our present, a distance based on the presumption that, from our perspective, the past is an open-book, accessible and easily understood. Amirkulov understands that the past is not simply a more primitive, comprehensible version of the present, but a completely different world, with its own logic, its own modes of perception, and its own moral codes. Through a leap of the imagination, he enters into the past, devoting himself more to the inner substance of this alien time than to its surface differences. To watch most period films is to make the acquaintance of a collection of quaint and peculiar characters; with Andrei Rublev or Fall of Otrar, we feel like the strangers, adrift in a world that’s both profoundly unfamiliar and, most importantly, oblivious to our observation. Unlike most period films, Otrar doesn’t lead us by the hand. It begins in media res, leaving us to find our bearings, to figure out for ourselves who is who, what is what, where is where, to puzzle out the various alliances and hostilities. It may make for a challenging, one-step behind experience, but the alternative is a simpler, more accessible, and much more lifeless film.
What distinguishes Fall of Otrar from Andrei Rublev is its unpretentious, no-nonsense earthiness, its concentration on matters physical and political rather than psychological. Andrei Rublev is a masterpiece because it is so finely balanced between its characters’ physical existence and their inner lives (culminating in the astounding passage in which the young boy, through creative inspiration, but also sheer force of will, casts a massive metal bell). Otrar is a different animal altogether, a sober, practical-minded, stubbornly external movie – there is no Rublev here, no inner turmoil, no spiritual seeking, no transcendent artistic creation. Instead, there is blood, blisters, belches. (The film’s brutally unromantic conception of religion is summed up by the scene in which Genghis Khan points out two Muslim clerics battling over an obscure doctrinal matter, and explains that this is how he is able to divide and conquer).
The movie’s protagonist, a Kipchak scout who warns the ruler of Otrar of the threat posed by Genghis Khan, is an utterly convincing portrait of medieval man, thanks partly to the actor’s completely unselfconscious performance and partly to Amirkulov’s conception of him in all his un-anachronistic complexity – he is intelligent but animalistic; cruel but religious (he pauses after killing a man to mutter, “May your soul forgive me if it’s still here”); shrewd, but also eccentric, and even a little crazy (he’s fond of talking to himself). But for all this, he is basically insignificant, a speck of dust within the sandstorm of history (the whole movie is about a doomed struggle, about a people soon to be submerged by the tide of events). Otrar is remarkable for its clear-eyed vision of medieval humanity, as well as for its sensitivity to the relationship between individuals and the structures of a particular society, expressed by the Queen of the Kipchaks in a particularly Central Asian image: “Life is more interesting when viewed from a high hill. But you live in the steppe.”
This exhilarating resistance to romanticism or psychologizing is balanced by the film’s vast scope and its B-movie energy. Never pandering, never anything but clear-eyed and authentic, Fall of Otrar is nevertheless as crowd-pleasing (assuming a crowd that knows what’s good for them) as a medieval epic could ever be – it has a fascinating, appealing protagonist, complicated political intrigue, ever changing alliances and twists of fate, war, torture, sex, as well as an amazing scene in which a library is buried under a layer of rock to prevent it from being looted, and an unforgettable final sequence in which the protagonist’s fate is sealed. Fall of Otrar is a force of nature.
Central Asian history is marked by a seemingly endless train of the sort of invasions and upheavals portrayed in Otrar, from the conquests of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane, through to the region’s absorption into first Russia, and then the Soviet Union (violence has persisted, post-independence, in Tajikistan – a fierce civil war was resolved only in the late ’90s). The Soviet domination of Central Asia was catastrophic – during Stalin’s rule in particular, the traditional way of life of its people was brutally repressed if not destroyed. Millions died as a result of either famine or Stalin’s purges; Islam was outlawed; the Arabic alphabet was replaced first by Latin and eventually Cyrillic characters; farms were confiscated; in Kazakhstan, where the culture had been almost exclusively nomadic, the people were forced to settle; several of the countries were ecologically devastated by Soviet drives to increase agricultural yield; and millions of Russians and other foreigners flooded into the region (while at the same time health care improved enormously and illiteracy was almost entirely eliminated).
Ali Khamraev’s Without Fear (1972) (from Uzbekistan), which takes place at the very beginning of the Soviet period, vividly conveys the tragic consequences of forcing progress on a people profoundly traditional in their cultural and religious beliefs. It is the story of the ethnic-Uzbek Red Army officer responsible for implementing the changes ordained by his leaders, in particular the process of encouraging the women of the village to throw off their veils and embrace a new equality of the sexes. Khamraev and Andrei Konchalovsky (who wrote the film) never simplify the complexity of the situation: their protagonist is decent and well-meaning, truly believing in the progress he is charged with implementing, but his wife, and many of her fellow women, are just as decent and believe just as deeply in the customs they’ve known all their lives. When the officer pressures his wife to be the first to publicly remove her veil, he is motivated by his belief in freedom and equality, but also by his concern for his reputation (when she asks, “Why must we hurry?”, he has no response). Despite his good intentions, despite the seemingly obvious benefits of these new ideas, his efforts end in violence and tragedy, a result of the attempt to impose progress rather than cultivate it. The officer and his superiors have no understanding of the culture they’re determined to transform, or of the mindset of the man at the beginning of the film who refuses to take the parcel of his former master’s land to which he’s now entitled, asking, “When I got married was it the Soviet Power who helped me?”
The filmmaker with the best claim to being the most important chronicler of contemporary Central Asian life is the Kazakh, Darezhan Omirbaev. There’s no better way to express the variety of that country’s cinema than to contrast Amirkulov’s masterpiece with the work of Omirbaev. Three of his five films were shown in the Lincoln Center series – July (1988), Kairat (1991), and Killer (1998) – and his newest film, The Road (2001), also screened recently. All four are quiet, minimal, compact; all four have a very distinctive sensibility; and all four are great films. Otrar, for all its indelible detail, is a sweeping, teeming film, a film about history and conflict and epic violence. Omirbaev’s films are set very much in the present, and their focus is microscopic. They concern themselves with the minutiae of experience – the dull, uneventfulness of daily life, the little, insignificant excitements and dramas that flare up in the void, the waiting, the daydreaming. It may not sound like compelling stuff, but Omirbaev has such a keen eye for the details that are left out of almost all other movies (a boy furtively touching elbows with the girl sitting next to him in a movie theater, for instance), such a sharp, inspired sense of rhythm, and such a fine, subtle sense of humor, that the films positively glow with beauty.
Omirbaev’s sensibility is not so different from Tsai Ming-liang’s – they both pull off the exceedingly difficult feat of conjuring a mood made up of equal parts deep sadness and deadpan comedy – they are masters of the comedy of depression. But Omirbaev does not share Tsai’s interest in the anxiety of modern life, nor his practice of refracting his characters’ emotions through suggestive, dream-like metaphors (leaking water, an inexplicable, incurable neck pain). Omirbaev’s is a drier, more stubbornly ordinary style, rooted in the particular experience of life in Kazakhstan, either rural or urban. The only suggestion of the strange or uncanny in Omirbaev’s films, the only escape from the boredom or grimness of daily life, are his characters’ daydreams – in July, a young boy, who is supposed to be the look-out man while his friend steals a melon, lies in the grass and surrenders himself to his fantasies; in The Road, the protagonist, a filmmaker not unlike Omirbaev, dreams once of an encounter between himself and a lovely waitress, and later of mysterious horsemen come from the past. Omirbaev elevates these reveries, suggesting their importance in the lives of his characters, by blurring the boundaries between fantasy and reality, moving freely and furtively between one and the other.
July and Kairat are movies of childhood and adolescence, respectively. In Killer, his protagonist has grown up, and the balance between humor and depressiveness has shifted for the worse. Marat, a new father making a living as a chauffeur in Almaty, gets into an accident with a mobster. To pay off his debt, he is forced to go to a loan shark, who cheerfully bleeds him dry before using him to pull off a hit. It’s an unspectacular, grim little tale, but even here Omirbaev’s eye for detail and his ability to find comedy in apparently unfertile ground manifest themselves. The scene in which Marat comes home to find the mobster and his men waiting for him is as beautifully crafted and deadpan funny as a scene from a Buster Keaton film. Marat enters the room, sees the man and his several assistants, and without any visible display of emotion, solemnly shakes each of their hands. He sits down, still silent, and they all turn their eyes to the TV for a few blissfully calm moments. Finally, one of the men stands up to turn up the volume, and Omirbaev cuts to Marat’s wife in the kitchen as she hears thuds and crashes from the living room.
There’s a comic dimension too to the scene later in the game when Marat goes to the house of the loan shark, a large, ostentatious, and well-adorned structure in a rich neighborhood, and meets with the ever-so-friendly man, his fat, spoiled little kid, and utterly uninterested wife – but the comedy has begun to give way to a much more troubling mood. Omirbaev has provided here a remarkably straightforward, convincing portrait of the banal face of crime and exploitation, and it’s this aspect of the film that gains momentum as it comes to its devastatingly simple, inevitable conclusion, one that illustrates the words of Marat’s employer, a well-known scientist, at the beginning of the film: “All our moral guidelines have disappeared.”
Omirbaev is not alone in highlighting both the pervasive aimlessness of life in rural and urban Kazakhstan and the absence of moral order in its society – the result not only of Stalin’s systematic destruction of Kazakh culture beginning in the late ’20s, but, more recently, of the rising rates of crime and unemployment so familiar from all the former Soviet republics as they have struggled to adopt free-market economies. Both Amir Karakulov’s Last Holiday (1996) and Serik Aprimov’s Last Stop (1989) take place before the fall of the USSR, and both portray a society morally and psychologically adrift.
Last Holiday is an even darker film than Killer. Tracing the chain of events set off when a group of teenage friends steal a guitar – the step-father of one of the kids finds the guitar and turns him in, the police beat him so badly that he ends up dying, and his friends retaliate by killing the step-father – it’s an over-determined, alarmist film, but its vision of the vicious circle of corruption, of the disintegration of a society on every level, is bracing nonetheless.
More subtle, and more peculiar, is Serik Aprimov’s Last Stop, a film in which nothing so sensationalistic occurs. Erken is a young man come home to his village after serving in the Soviet Army, and Last Stop portrays his brief stay, and the profound emptiness he finds there, before leaving again (his friend sees him off with the observation, “It’s a good thing you’re leaving. You’d ruin your life here”). The sort of aimlessness and ennui Aprimov captures is a familiar subject, not only from Omirbaev, but from films such as Fellini’s I Vitelloni (1953), Fassbinder’s Katzelmacher (1969), and Jia Zhang-ke’s Platform (2000). But Last Stop is far more radical in its approach – seemingly artless, with its almost complete lack of forward momentum or conventional characterization, it only gradually becomes clear that the film is, intentionally, as enervated and aimless as its characters (there is conflict in the film, but it’s clearly a violence of impotence, directed not at anyone in particular but rather a beating against the walls of the cage). If returning to the village is, for Erken, like entering into a state of paralysis, so is the experience of watching the film. By definition, a movie about boredom has to dispense with a conventionally linear plot and concentrate instead on capturing a sense of a time, place and mood. A film like I Vitelloni goes a long way towards doing so, but it still has a familiar structure and sense of characterization which may make the movie itself more compelling, but at the expense, perhaps, of a deeper authenticity. Last Stop is more like a tone-poem than a symphony – it’s an environment, not a story. Aprimov refuses to misrepresent the characters’ experience by imposing on them a direction and a meaning, even if only within the context of the movie. It’s not an easy film, but it has a remarkable integrity and honesty.
The dominant ethnic groups in the Central Asian republics are descended from Turkic tribes (with the exception of the Tajiks, whose ancestors are Aryan and whose language is a form of modern Persian), but each country is highly multi-ethnic – in Kazakhstan, Kazakhs do not even constitute a majority, with Russians making up only a slightly smaller percentage of the population, along with significant numbers of Ukrainians, Germans, Uzbeks, Tatars, and so on. In addition to this mixing of ethnicities, there is a remarkable co-existence of ways of life. The Soviets introduced industrialization to the region, but the economies of each of the countries are still primarily agricultural, creating a society encompassing the modern, urban (and Russian-dominated) life of the cities and the more distinctive rural life, where traditional clothing, customs, and food have been maintained. In Tajikistan, tribal allegiances still dominate, and in Kazakhstan many people continue to live as semi-nomadic shepherds.
Aktan Abdikalikov’s The Adopted Son (1998) provides a glimpse of the kinds of traditions that have persisted for centuries in Kyrgyzstan, capturing something profound and moving about this continuity. The custom at the center of the film, according to which a baby born into a large family is given to a childless couple, drives the story, in which 13-year-old Azate struggles with the discovery that he is such a child. But it is perhaps the more familiar ritual we see enacted at the end of the film, when Azate must speak at his grandmother’s funeral, that provides the film’s most incisive and memorable moment, making it more than simply an elegiac celebration of the timelessness of Kyrgyz village life. It is here that the tension between collective ritual and Azate’s individual emotional development comes across most vividly, manifesting itself in a kind of trial-by-fire by which Azate must take charge of his family at almost the very moment he learns that his place in it is not natural. These customs lead him into a psychological crisis, but they also give him the strength to withstand it. When he declares to the congregated villagers, “If granny owes anything, I will pay it; if she is owed anything, I void it”, his entry into adulthood, difficult but definite, is deeply moving.
Ogulkeyik, the heroine of Khodjakuli Narliev’s The Daughter-in-Law (1972), is similarly subject to ancient customs. Where Azate feels suddenly bereft of family ties and isolated within his village, Ogulkeyik has for many years been separated from her husband, Murad, a sheep-herder’s son long since lost to the Second World War, and she is much more literally isolated, living alone with her father-in-law in remote rural Turkmenistan. Although it’s much more casually portrayed than the tradition at the heart of The Adopted Son, The Daughter-in-Law, no less than the Kyrgyz film, draws much of its power and interest, and even a great deal of its cinematic approach, from the customary vow of silence taken by a widow. For the first half of the film, Ogulkeyik, is essentially mute, speaking eventually only to her sister-in-law and the woman’s small son, and her own brother. She also prefers to wear her veil, even though it’s apparently not necessary (echoing the wife in Without Fear, she responds, when asked why she hasn’t taken it off, “I’m used to it; I’ll take it off someday”). The film reflects her silence by indulging in long passages without dialogue, and in communicating Ogulkeyik’s thoughts visually, by means of fragmentary images, brief flashbacks (or sometimes possibly fantasies), not always fully comprehensible to us, that seem to take the place of language for her.
A beautiful, lyrical film, The Daughter-in-Law portrays, in vivid detail, the existence of Ogulkeyik and her father-in-law, who depend on each other both practically and emotionally. The film opens with Ogulkeyik motioning to her father-in-law that the sheep are drinking from a trough with a dead mouse. Immediately we’re plunged into their urgent precautions against infecting the sheep: they drive the sheep away, empty the well (the father-in-law descending into the well, atop the bucket, to drain it completely), and drive the sheep through fire to kill potential germs. There’s an anthropological fascination to this and many subsequent passages in the film, the thrill of observing in detail what exactly such a life consists of.
Above all, though, The Daughter-in-Law is a song of grief, a portrait of a woman hanging onto hope for dear life, refusing to face the prospect of a life of solitude – in denial, perhaps, but a denial that allows her to face what she can’t face. Narliev beautifully conveys Ogulkeyik’s profound sadness, and the suffering that defines so many lives, but also the beauty of her existence, a beauty she partakes of quite freely thanks to the power of her fantasies. Of course the fantasy is doomed never to equal the suffering, but seen from another perspective, neither will the fantasy be completely defeated. The Daughter-in-Law concludes with the childless Ogulkeyik snatching her sister-in-law’s newborn, placing it in the hammock she has lovingly constructed for it, and, giving it the name of her almost certainly dead husband, singing to it with a joyful smile on her face the song of her grief – an eloquent image of the fluidity between joy and suffering.
A song of grief concludes Mairam Yusupova’s The Time of Yellow Grass (1991) as well, but here the suffering is a collective one, a shared state of being. Like Last Stop, Yellow Grass is a portrait of a place and a community, more than of any particular individual, and it is similarly preoccupied with conveying the flavor of a certain kind of existence rather than telling a story. The film’s catalyst is the discovery of a corpse in the hills outside a Tajik village, and much of the film concerns the villagers’ debates about what to do with it. But this unusual event is like a stone thrown into a pond – it creates ripples, but only ripples, and they’re quickly subsumed into the uniform, unchanging rhythm of the villagers’ life. The real substance of Yellow Grass, paradoxically, consists of the characters thinking (their thoughts often audible to us via voice-over), performing their daily tasks, and often simply staring dully into empty space, nurturing their sorrow (the corpse seems like a manifestation of the deadness at the center of their shared existence). The film portrays a community, but a community whose members are each lost to their individual solitude, speaking to each other when necessary, but never in an attempt to establish a connection, to find a way out of their isolation. The closest thing to real communication comes when an old woman sees her daughter-in-law, thinks to herself, “She hardly moves at all, the lazy slug,” and then, hearing her weep, screams, “Why are you crying? Who are you mourning for? You tormented my son to death.”
Sharing the sense of paralysis that suffused Last Stop, Yellow Grass has a more timeless, existential quality. Yusupova’s conception of life is suggested by the constant, steady wind visible at every moment (itself reflected by the strange, trance-inducing hum ever-present on the soundtrack) – life for these people, in this place, is not a series of discrete events and incidents, but a uniform, unvarying, drone-like condition.
Solitude, aimlessness, oppression and conflict suffuse these films. But while many of them bear witness to a life of hardship and suffering, none grapple with the human condition with as much determination and single-mindedness as The Fierce One (1973), by the foremost Kyrgyz filmmaker Tolomush Okeev. The story concerns a young boy, Kurmash, raised by his uncle and grandmother, who becomes attached to a wolf cub he saves from death at the hands of his brutal uncle. What matters though, in this elemental, utterly unsentimental film, is not what happens but what’s at stake. A profound and urgent investigation into the relationship between human beings and their essentially hostile world, and in particular the way a child is prepared for its existence in this world, the film becomes a kind of dramatized debate between opposing philosophies of parenting – between raising a child with kindness, at the risk of sending it into the world ill-equipped for survival, and raising it with harshness, in order to arm it against a cruel existence.
The debate is anything but abstract, thanks to Okeev’s visceral filmmaking and his profoundly unromantic view of his characters (man, woman, or child), their surroundings, and the animals they co-exist with. The world of The Fierce One is a brutal, unforgiving one, making it impossible to dismiss the uncle’s conviction that it is his duty, in raising Kurmash, to toughen him, to stamp out any weakness in him – “I want him to grow up strong as a rock; he must be a man,” the uncle declares. He is a fascinating character – though often despicably cruel and morally bankrupt, his devotion to Kurmash and his belief that he is doing the best for him become increasingly unmistakable and moving. And when his efforts backfire, and Kurmash, feeling betrayed and disillusioned, rejects him, he is devastated. His attitude towards life seems fatally flawed, but Okeev never lets us imagine that the struggle to determine a happier alternative, much less to put it into practice, is an easy one. The Fierce One is a portrait of a chaotic, hostile world, but it’s more than that as well – an honest, committed attempt to engage with that world, to resist its chaos and brutality, to carve a path through the moral wilderness.
This willingness to confront the hard truth about life on earth, past and present, distinguishes these films. There is an urgency even to the more modest and gentle among them, a desire first of all to bear witness to a particular way of life and historical experience, but beyond that, a determination to represent human existence in general without manipulating it to render it more palatable. If films like The Fall of Otrar, Without Fear, Killer, Last Stop, Last Holiday, The Fierce One, Time of Yellow Grass, and Daughter-in-Law, have a quality in common, it’s that they harbor no illusions as to the essential harshness of existence and refuse to indulge in comforting delusions or wishful thinking. Sometimes despairing, sometimes resigned, sometimes stubbornly hopeful, these movies vary greatly in tone and sensibility. But they are all devoted to articulating truths, capturing experiences, and conveying states of mind that most films don’t have the honesty or the nerve to face. They deserve to be widely seen in the West, not only because they shed light on a region and a people most of us know little or nothing about, but because they show an understanding of aspects of reality so rarely acknowledged in our own, more faint-hearted culture. They are messages from a culture forged by a history of conflict and exploitation, and lacking the luxury of distraction and the illusion of security that come with prosperity and power. Their testimony is crucially important for a Western culture in which one’s experience of the world is increasingly mediated and detached.