Innocent and Not Innocent

in 20th Haifa International Film Festival

by Chris Fujiwara

The film’s title, Schizo (Shiza), is the nickname with which the main character, 15-year-old Mustafa, has been saddled after being labeled schizophrenic. Guka Omarova’s tough, elegant, and witty film casts some doubt on the accuracy of this diagnosis (whose source is a casually imperious psychiatrist who accepts payment in the form of food, which he stores in a refrigerator in his office), and one of the main questions the film raises is: What’s wrong with Schizo? He’s been sent to the psychiatrist for difficulties at school, for not getting along with his peers. But Omarova suggests that in this school, and this society — that of a post-Soviet Kazakhstan where life, to judge from the film, looks nasty, brutish, and short — Schizo’s not-getting-along is an understated protest, an accusation, and even a kind of accommodation. Little by little, the film exposes the perverse logic of this accommodation, as Schizo’s life becomes an ironic success story.

Schizo’s mother’s boyfriend, a low-level gangster, gets the boy a job rounding up amateurs to compete in illegal boxing contests. When the surprise winner of one of these matches proves to be Schizo’s uncle, the mob pressures the boyfriend to retrieve the winnings (a used Mercedes). The boyfriend then forces Schizo to take part in the most preposterous bank heist ever filmed: the teenager walks up to a roadside money-exchange shack, sticks a gun through the window, collects a bag stuffed with money, then saunters back with it across the road, where his partner waits on a motorbike.

The split in our hero is this: he is innocent because he’s not responsible for his miserable circumstances, because he’s too young to know what he’s doing, because he lacks positive role models, because (to borrow a phrase from the introduction to one of the best of all adolescent-criminal movies, Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night) he was never properly introduced to the world he lives in. Yet Schizo is also not innocent. What should we say he is, then? Guilty? Experienced? Omarova denies us any ready-made framework for evaluating a protagonist who changes over the course of the film and who, as he does so, changes the moral frame around him. Through quasi-improvisations, aided by an alert instinct, Schizo learns as he goes along; himself a boy without a father, he even assumes the paternal role in a new family.

The process by which Schizo acquires the loyalty, the skills, and the tenacity he needs for this role goes on underground, in a manner almost inaccessible to the narrative. In letting this process remain discernable beneath the deceptively familiar trappings of a gritty study in post-Soviet degradation, Omarova, here directing her first feature film, demonstrates considerable intelligence and sophistication.

Chris Fujiwara