Tradition, Heritage and Ballast in Contemporary Eurasian Cinema

in 12th Eurasia International Film Festival

by Carolin Weidner

The plot of Adilkhan Erzhanov’s The Plague at the Karatas Village (Kazakhstan 2016) is that of a typical horror film: an educated, well-behaved man from town arrives in the somehow sinister countryside. A lot of strange things occur there: the village people act in a very weird way, there are masks from tribes, dancing and plays. Some disease – the young man thinks it might be the flu – make the villagers behave like that. But don’t worry: the young man is here to help. Meaning: no singing anymore, no rituals, no oddness. But what if the people in the Karatas village are not infected by the flu? And what if they have no interest in getting cured at all? In Erzhanov’s film, which won the NETPAC prize this year in Rotterdam, the disease becomes a metaphor for the contrast between past and present, tradition and modernisation: a lifestyle that has nothing to do with modern standards is perceived as sick. Erzhanov obviously has a lot of fun putting this idea into effect: the villagers’ cracking up is as disturbing as it is rich in detail and therefore great to watch.

Another film that impressed me was A Father’s Will (2016) by Kyrgyz directors Babytbek Mukul and Dastan Japar Uulu. Here we also have a village in focus and a young man who is entering it. His name is Azat, he is tender and quite boyish, and spent his first years in this village before his parents decided to leave. Azat’s family went to the USA and it seems like they left some sort of debt behind – the reactions on Azat’s return are everything but welcoming. But step by step, Azat wins back people’s trust when he starts to repair the dilapidated house, and pays off the debts. Azat has a heavy weight to carry: he is alienated from the place where he made his first friendships and he might also decide not to go back to the United States. He is floating between very different worlds, but never complains about it. Actually Azat barely speaks at all: he remains silent. That’s a clever move by Mukul and Japar Uulu: the lack of explanation is even more disturbing for the villagers and increases the attention for pure activity – actions speak louder than words.

Another man who is stuck in the past is called Abbas, a provincial teacher of blue blood we meet in Mirbala Salimli’s beautifully shot Red Garden (Azerbaijan, Russia 2016). Married to the stunning Vafa, he is waiting to finally become the father of a son; a son, who can continue the aristocratic line. But life sends Abbas a wife who cannot bear children. Moreover: she falls for a rebellious pupil of Abbas, whom he can’t stand – an orphan Vafa likes to adopt. When Vafa dies, Abbas feels a huge guilt and even becomes suicidal. Red Garden illustrates his struggle in finding peace within himself, which maybe also means to bury a picture you once drew of yourself.

While at least A Father’s Will and Red Garden end with some kind of hope concerning the future, the winner of our price, the FIPRESCI award, only got darker and darker. The Wounded Angel (Kazakhstan/France/Germany, 2016) by Kazakh director Emir Baigazin premiered at this year’s Berlinale Forum and is the second feature film of Baigazin after Harmony Lessons (2013), which was in the Berlinale Competition. It tells the stories of four teenage boys living in a godforsaken Kazakh village during the mid-nineties, all deeply troubled, all ready to rebel in their own vexing manner. Each boy reacts to the huge social and political upheavals in Kazakh society and it makes you wonder, where they might stand right now, in 2016. Baigazin’s The Wounded Angel – a title that speaks for itself – is only the second part of a trilogy. I’m curious about the future work of this young (Baigazin was born in 1984) director who seems to hold quite a critical approach to modern Kazakh and Eurasian society.

Edited by Birgit Beumers