Millions have laughed at Borat, the movie about the bogus journalist and filmmaker from Kazakhstan, and at its mocking depiction of the economically struggling former Soviet Republic. Maybe it’s poetic justice that a film by a real Kazakhstan director about the real Kazakhstan should win the FIPRESCI Prize at the Torino Film Festival.
Zhanabek Zhetiruov’s Notes by a Trackman (Zapiski Putevogo Obkhodchika) opens with an image that immediately establishes its world and introduces a new director who is already confident and mature in his craft. An old man in traditional Kazakh dress performs what looks like an odd dance along a railroad track, hopping back and forth on the ties, his booted feet sensing irregularities in the rails. Locating one, he marks it with a stone. He is blind, but as played by Nurzhuman Ikhtymbayev, one of the few professional actors in the cast, he is also wise, forbearing, funny and indestructible, the ideal grandfather, though devoid of sentimentalism and cliché.
He also possesses intuitive abilities, and often joins his son, the local railway traffic controller, for tours along the tracks during which he can detect faults in the line, relating them to his son, who writes them down in a notebook. It’s a neat system combining rationalism and instinct, but certain obstacles have arisen. The railroad workers complain about all the extra work the father and son team comes up with for them to do. The son’s wife, meanwhile, has been getting suspicious about her husband’s long absences checking the rails and thinks he might be two-timing her. (This is where Notes of the Trackman shows signs of confirming some of Borat ‘s grotesque if hilarious stereotypes as the son puts the move on a fetching woman in a polka dot dress). Most ominously, the railroad officials with their high-tech equipment have been coming down on the son’s reliance on such a primitive, if uncannily accurate, resource as his father’s shamanistic sensitivity.
This deceptively simple narrative unfolds through sequences, images and scenes of sometimes breathtaking beauty, depth and subtlety, often illustrating with striking novelty the condition of blindness or embodying the film’s theme of the conflict between the modern and traditional while at the same time evoking the moment’s keen physicality. In one scene the grandfather, tethered to a tree to keep him from going astray, cuts a wide circle of hay for forage. He stops to rest, and through his sense of touch finds his way to the small rim of shade offering relief from the heat. In another, the film cuts from the old man’s serene face to reeds caught up in a breeze, and it takes a moment to realize that although the old man cannot see this, he can hear it, just like us. And some scenes are just emotionally thrilling, as when the old man cries out upon finding his grandson, “I would recognize your voice among a thousand!”
That scene might suggest that Notes by a Trackman has a bit of a sappy heart. It does not. It is not nostalgic, but celebratory and melancholy. Rather than moan mawkishly about a vanished mythic past, it evokes and vindicates a fading way of living, an endangered attitude to nature and people essential to human survival.