The XV Eurasian International Film Festival was held in Nur Sultan, Kazakhstan from 30 June to 6 July 2019. The films were screened at the Chaplin Cinemas in the impressive Khan Shatyr Mall, built to look like a nomadic yurta (tent). The inaugural and closing ceremonies were addressed by the Minister for Culture and Sports and had exquisite performances by classical, Kazakh and contemporary music and dance troupes.
The festival screened award winning films from major international film festivals, including Parasite by Bong Joon Ho (South Korea) that won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival this year, along with some lesser known films by young directors, many of them making their debut. Parasite was interesting for the topography it set up of the city divided between the haves and have-nots. The protagonists live in a one-room basement that looks onto a small busy street, where men often come to urinate. The family manages to find its way, through lies and devious means, to serve in various capacities at the home of a very rich family (comprising also of a husband, wife, daughter and son). The basement in the house of the rich man, where unbeknown to the rich owners, the poor already already hide and live in, is part of this interesting topography. A slick commercial film, with good performances, it did not live up to the expectations raised not only by its having won the Golden Palm but also by the short film greeting sent by the director and his crew to the Eurasian Film Festival, exhorting the viewers not to divulge the twists in the tale and the ending.
The inaugural film of the festival was the well known Kazakh director, Rustam Abdrashev’s Kazakh Khanate. There were several films on historical themes: Romulus and Remus: The First King by Matteo Rovere (Italy) and Sergei Bodrov’s 2007 Mongol. While these were narratives of great kings and the setting up of their kingdoms or empires there were other more intimate and contemporary takes on history, of events in a historical panorama, as in Ardak Amirkulov’s ambitious In Silence (Kazakhstan); or Homeward by Nariman Aliev (Ukraine), Beanpole by Kantemir Balagov (Russia), or Shyrakshy by the festival’s director, Ermek Tursunov. The last film deals with the post World War II period, when an ordinary Kazakh soldier returns home after the war to find his life is changed forever. He sets out with a projector and some films given to him by a defeated German (who realizes he faces sure death) at the end of the war, going from village to village, screening the films, some from abroad, some from the Soviet Union. The screenings are the cultural meeting points and the high points of life in these remote villages and the protagonist makes up for lack of subtitles by spinning out narratives of his own to explain the films in foreign languages. The construction of buildings for cultural activity by the government, brings an end to the era of these makeshift, intimate screenings. Homeward focuses on the Muslim Crimean Tatar population of Ukraine and Crimea. It is a tragic road movie, following the journey of a father and son from Ukraine to bury the elder son in their homeland, in Crimea. The father is conservative and believes his son must be buried in native soil; the sons are open minded and mingle with people of other religions in the cosmopolitan city. The ideological, religious and cultural conflict between the father and the younger son on the way home, and the final passing on of the responsibility of the burial to the latter on Lake Sivash, conjures up the documentary footage in Tarkovsky’s Mirror, but without the emotional saturation the great Soviet master evokes. The rereading of history, without the dominant narrative of Germans as villains was also evident in the short film, Franka, by Mitry Aleinikov (Belarus), in which a family of women and children, whose men are on the front, or killed by the Germans have to contend with an injured German soldier who lands up at their doorstep.
Beanpole is set in post World War II Leningrad, which had faced the worst siege during the war. The young director, Kantemir Balagov, whose second feature this is, says that he was inspired by Nobel Prize winner, Svetlana Alekseevich’s War Does not Have A Womanly Face. The film deals with the different ways two friends, Iya and Masha, deal with the traumatic experiences war unleashes on them. Life is ‘normal’ only on the surface; the continuing horrific effects are felt even after war is over. Beanpole won the NETPAC Award at this festival.
The short films and documentaries also offered interesting films. Zhussup Abdrakhmanov by Ernest Abdyzhaparov, was an investigative documentary on the life, contribution and tragic end of one of the leaders of the Kyrgyz, when socialism was being established in the newly formed Republic. Forouzan by Mirabbas Khosravinezhad (Iran) captures the fear of a hardworking woman in rural Iran, who is afraid her sheep and hens will be stolen in the night. She stays awake, watching over her family and her brood. The film captures the feel of the night and all the fears it gives rise to with finesse much as the The Black Pin by Ivan Marinovic from Montenegro, with its fledgling film industry, does. This was a comic-tragic film about a priest in a sleepy hinterland who gets caught up in nefarious land deals being clinched by a group of villagers. The Father, who has a disobedient son and a mother suffering from Alzheimer’s, refuses to sell his little piece of land. The story is not a very complicated one, but has been told with elan.
There were some women-centred films at the festival. Olma Jon, with its equisite imagery, by debut director, Victoria Yakubova, focused on a girl child who cannot speak. Emilie Piponnier won the Best Actress Award at the festival for her role as the eponymous Alice in Josephine Mackerras’ film (France/Australia). Alice and her young child are devastated when her husband, who it subsequently turns out had hidden his sex addiction from her, suddenly leaves them without any warning. How Alice makes it to the very elite sex work overnight without much of a trauma in the transition from a desk job, is not very convincingly told in the film. The wheel of fortune turns and it is now the husband who finds himself in exactly the same position that he had put his wife in. What’s the Time in your World by Safi Yasdanian (Iran) is the story of Goli, who returns to her native town in Iran after spending twenty years in Paris. She is greeted by a man who seems to know everything about her, including her past, that unsettles her. Though the story is interesting the film is too dialogue oriented and could have done with imagery carrying some of the burden of narrative.
New Kazakh films shown at the festival clearly proved that the country’s cinema is alive and kicking, with very distinctive talents. Gentle Indifference of the World by Adilkhan Yerzhanov is a minimalist narrative of a young girl who shifts to the city because her family had fallen on bad times. She is followed by a boy who loves her and they face travails in the city together. The Girl and the Sea by Aziz Zairov and Mukhamed Mamyrbekov is a unique film about differently abled young people, their dreams and desires, many of which that they know will never be realized. The River by Emir Baigazin is the third film of his trilogy which includes Harmony Lessons (2013) and The Wounded Angel (2016). It is a masterful allegory of authoritarianism over a community, in this case, a family. The father exercises very strict control and discipline on his five children through his elder son. The children are like the five fingers on a hand. The games they play have their own rules and seem to have descended from some primitive age. They look like Neanderthals, silhouetted while climbing a mountain in the sparse landscape. The elder brother takes them to a river, at a distance from the remote farm they live on. The river becomes their place of escape. But not for long: their cousin from the city introduces them to things electronic. And their life changes. The film is an exposition of not just authoritarianism, but also the logic of authoritarianism and the many twisted ways in which it can be justified. The colour, imagery, tone and tenor of the film – all realise the austere theme. The frames are those of a fine colourist: beyond the foreground of the desert-like landscape there is the real/imagined blue of the river.
Fatih Akin’s The Golden Glove fails to achieve the level of allegorisation that The River effortlessly manages to do. Akin’s film is based on the eponymous novel by Heinz Strunk and is about the German serial killer Fritz Honka who murdered prostitutes he picked up at the sleazy pub named Golden Glove in the ’70s. The film does what the whodunit serials always avoid: the actual mess of killing and disposing off the bodies. As such it puts on explicit display what the genre avoids. Despite the depiction of the lower depths of the city, its sleazy, desperate, impoverished underbelly, and its foregrounding of what I would like to term the aesthetics of the ugly, the film fails to provide any insights into the the character of its protagonists. It gets carried away by the details of the horror it shows.
Several films dealt with issues of contemporary life. The Sun Above Me Never Sets by Lyubov Borisova (Yakutia), winner of the NETPAC Award in the Moscow International Film Festival, is about the affection a young boy develops for a grandfather-like figure on a remote island in northern Russia and his efforts to get the old man reunited with his daughter. The Golden Laden Sheep and Sacred Mountain (India) by Ridham Janve has an interesting theme: a shepherd and his assistant in the high mountains hear of the crash of an aeroplane and the reward offered to anyone who finds the remains. The need and greed for money leads to the breakup of this small community, whose members lead a very modest life in the mountains. What is impressive is that this directorial debut has been made in a language and setting that few other directors have engaged with. The use of landscape and the sheep that dot the flanks of the mountains has rarely been seen in Indian cinema. Aurora by Bekzat Pirmatov (Kyrgyzstan) depicts the ‘new Kyrgyz’. In a sanatorium that has been in existence since Soviet times, on Issyk-Kul Lake called Aurora, several odd characters meet and play out their lives. The film is full of humour and pathos and refers to Chingiz Aitmatov’s novella, The White Ship, where the sailor keeps apologizing to the child on the other shore, calling out for help. The director, in this debut venture, uses non-linear narrative, but the transitions from one episode to the other could have been better crafted. The Secret of the Leader by Farkhat Sharipov (Kazakhstan), which had won the NETPAC Award at Almaty, won the main award at this festival. It, too, portrays the new values of society, where ethical compromises have to made in order to survive.
--by Rashmi Doraiswamy