Quest for Freedom

in 12th Eurasia International Film Festival

by Oleh Baturin

A young newly appointed mayor arrives in the quiet village called Karatas; he sincerely wants to change the lives of local people for the better. Instead of finding a new place for himself, he sees strange things, terrible desolation and poverty. On top of that, it appears that a terrible disease is rampant in the village, and most of the budget has been spent on fighting it. The authorities of Karatas say that it’s useless to spend all this money on an anti-flu vaccine. The mayor, however, is convinced that the problem is very different and wants a more effective use of community funds, but he faces resistance all around, even from people close to him

The Plague at the Karatas Village (Karatas auilyndagy oba) by Adilkhan Yerzhanov, one of the leaders of so-called Kazakhstan “partisan cinema,” takes place only at night. In an exaggeratedly fairy-tale-like, metaphorical manner the director continues to show the everyday life of modern Kazakhstan stuck in corruption and total confusion. The film was not very welcome in its homeland: screenings were almost immediately restricted to cinemas. So the Eurasia International Film Festival perhaps was the only chance to reach a general audience.

The fairy and willfully theatrical narrative style was characteristic of many films from Central Asia in the Eurasia programme. For some “inconvenient” producers this is the only way to make a film, especially in a country like Kazakhstan, where censorship has been increasing lately, copying the processes of neighbouring Russia. Perhaps it somehow explains the low quality of many films presented in the festival programme in Almaty, even though some directors acknowledged that they intentionally shot their films in Soviet style.

The Dream Of The Ape (Son obeziany) by Rumi Shoazimov (Tajikistan), based on William Jacobs’ novel The Monkey’s Paw, is a good example of such a “fairy tale for adults,” shot in a strictly conventional manner. Likewise, Once A Week (Raz v nedeliu) by Igor Piskunov (Kazakhstan), looks more like a teleplay than a movie.

The lack of depth and the hollow feel of the protagonists are characteristic of another Kazakh film, Bopem by Zhanna Issabayeva. This is the story of a 14-year-old teenager, seriously angry at the whole world for making him lonely and unhappy. The film shows an unpleasant picture of life in the Kazakh hinterland, with people left alone in their poverty.

A different kind of conventionality can be seen in the film The Traitor (Sotkin) by Rustam Sagdiev from Uzbekistan. On the one hand, the director shows quite terrible things: the tragedy of an Uzbek family, who are the victims of religious fanatics. However, obtrusive music, a lot of close-ups, the theatrical style of acting and the TV-grade picture quality suggest that it’s another tale for adults. There is no mention of the real problems of the Uzbek people: total corruption and rampage of authorities. Every little hint at their existence in the film is thoroughly avoided. “Bad” religious extremists and the local mafia backing them are very similar to the evil characters in oriental tales.

Such a manner is typical of modern cinema in Uzbekistan. Even in Soviet times it gravitated to simple genres, mainly action films and melodramas à la Bollywood. By the way, Uzbekistan is one of the few countries, which has a Ministry of Cinematography. The national production company Uzbekfilm firmly stands on its feet, annually producing from 40 to 80 films for the local market. They are mostly funded through the state budget, so the government can control the film industry and prevent the emergence of “dangerous” films.

Similar tendencies can be seen in Azerbaijan. The Eurasia festival programme included The Red Garden (Qirmizi bag) by Mirbaly Salimli. It is more elegant when compared to the Uzbek film, but still The Red Garden is rather an illustration of commonplace truths and a fairy-like melodrama, played in rather exotic scenery.

The situation in Kyrgyzstan is much more favourable for creative production. The population of the country is only 5 million people, but there are more than 100 films released every year. Only few of them are supported by the state. The producers gladly invest their money into projects, which are interesting to the local audience. There is even an institute for movie stars in Kyrgyzstan, and film production is approaching the point of sustaining itself.

In freedom-loving Kyrgyzstan there is no need to spend public funds to entertain the local audience: this is done well by private investors. The directors, receiving support from the budget, are not afraid to raise serious problems of Kyrgyz society. For example, a social drama debut A Father’s Will (Atanyn Kereezi) by Bakyt Mukul and Dastan Japar Uulu, shows the problem of migration from rural areas.

However, the FIPRESCI jury at the Eurasia film festival was strongly impressed by Emir Baigazin’s film The Wounded Angel (Ranennyi angel) from Kazakhstan. This is a well-done story of four teenagers, who live in a godforsaken village. It continues the theme opened in the previous work of the director, Harmony Lessons (Uroki garmonii, 2013). Noteworthy is that at first The Wounded Angel, like The Plague at Karatas Village, was not even included in the FIPRESCI program. Later, the festival management corrected this mistake and let us get a more comprehensive picture of Kazakh cinema. The artistic value of the film left no place for doubt about the winner.

Edited by Birgit Beumers