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What a wonderful world… the Kazakh New Wave. By Philip Cheah.

The shock of the new is sometimes comparable to the shock of the old. Take two points that stretch across decades. The first point is 1988 with Rachid Nugmanov’s The Needle and the second point is 2007 with Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s short, Bakhytzhamal.

In those roughly 20 years, the brash hard-hitting rock music of Victor Tsoi morphed into Louis Armstrong’s What A Wonderful World. Did so much change? And if it did, why does Louis Armstrong sound so ironic and why indeed is the film so angry?

Therein is our memory of the Kazakh New Wave’s first impact. Victor Tsoi’s punk aesthetic was the shock of the new. “Changes, we desire changes” were the lyrics that his fans rallied to. It was everything that the Soviet system did not allow for - irreverence, rebellion and anti-establishment. It was, in short, a serious shock to the system.

But the real shock of the new was the emergence of a generation that was all geared up to go somewhere, a generation so gifted that their achievements ran ahead of them. Think about it. Rachid Nougmanov, director of The Needle, the most iconic film of the Kazakh New Wave, and the one who coined that label for his generation, was voted in as First Secretary of the Union of Kazakh filmmakers, even before he had graduated from film school, the All-Russian State University of Cinematography (VGIK).

Neither had Serik Aprimov graduated when his thesis film, The Final Stop (1989), won the Best Director Prize at the Molodist International Film Festival in Kiev. Just as surprising was Ardak Amirkulov who had not yet graduated from VGIK when Kazakhfilm Studio approached him to direct The Fall of Otrar (1990), the first genuine Kazakh historical epic.

For a young student director to manage the scale and mammoth logistics in the retelling of Genghiz Khan’s Mongol invasion of Central Asia, was quite unthinkable and a stupendous feat. And to deliver an epic imbued with the individualistic cultural spirit of the Kazakhs with a visceral sense of dramatic cinema indicated the force of this generation’s arrival. This is a film where the shock of the new meets the shock of the old. History is rewired with modern angst.

As Amirkulov told film academic Gulnara Abikeyeva, in her book, The Heart of the World - Films from Central Asia+: “In the Fall of Otrar, undoubtedly, the plot, costumes, sets - all surface elements - are historical. However, the internal dramatic arc, I think, has to be current, even more so: a little bit futuristic. I purposely avoided the pompousness of historical films.

“Remember our Asian historical films: war, exploits, characters, their thoughts and lives all looked unconvincing… Finally, we have this paradox: the stylised paintings of the East are more realistic than realistic paintings of the West, say of the 20th century. During chaotic periods when there are no rules in the arts, the traditional is the most avant-garde.”

Herein is a clue to how the Kazakh New Wave blazed such an unmistakeable trail. Due to the prevailing chaos from the collapsing political Soviet system to the emerging perestroika and glasnost, the young could reimagine the world any way they wished.

Amirkulov did not have to follow the dogma of Soviet historical films. He brought the “internal dramatic arc” to the fore. He made his film “a little bit futuristic”. He could remake “the traditional” as “avant-garde.” After all, The Fall Of Otrar could be read as the fall of the Soviet regime. They too, never saw what was coming at them.

The brutal and detailed torture scenes could refer to the deadly Stalinist times. Foreign film critics saw other things. US critic, Dave Kehr wrote: “The Fall Of Otrar has an edge of cynicism and cruelty that just as often suggests the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone.” But everyone could see that a new energy was exploding in front of them.

What is a New Wave? Nugmanov took this question from the late film historian Ron Holloway in 2001* and replied: “A wave is, after all, a wave. Perhaps I’m viewing the three or four years of its existence too much from my former position as the elected First Secretary of the Union of Kazakh Filmmakers (1989-1992).

“That’s when Kazakh cinema was really on the move. In retrospect, ours was not a full-fledged movement - rather, the wave hit the beach and then disappeared as quickly as it came. However, for the sake of clarity, or perspective, I can well understand why some critics and historians like to state that the Kazakh New Wave lasted approximately 10 years, from 1984 to 1994…

“Although we were not all the same age, most of us had assisted Sergei Soloviev on The Wild Pigeon (1985), a Mosfilm feature he had shot in Kazakhstan in 1984.” It was this fateful participation that led Soloviev to invite his young Kazakh crew to attend his master class in VGIK.

As Nugmanov recounted in Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s documentary, The Story Of The Kazakh Cinema (2015): “Soloviev kept a very tight rein on us… we were working on the set for weeks, we had to prepare sketches. It was an absolutely realistic game with objects that prepared us for real shooting. Afterwards, it was very easy for us during the shooting.

“Because this was absolutely anti-theatrical training. And we found our language; and people working at Kazakhfilm began to call us Soloviev’s gang. By that time, everyone had made a few films… and all these films were sent to the Moscow Film Festival. But it was necessary to find a title for this programme. Suddenly, it occurred to me. Since we can’t call it Soloviev’s gang, let’s call it the Kazakh New Wave. And it all started from there.”

Nugmanov’s own iconic debut, The Needle (1988) was seen by over 25 million fans in the Soviet Union, and this explosive reaction makes one wonder: What did the young Soviet audience see in The Needle at that time? One must assume that the bulk of the audience for this film was young because the iconography of the film was definitely rock ‘n’ roll and, more specifically, it was the sound of ’80s new wave pop and rock.

The haircuts, the clothes, the eye glasses and yes, the drugs. That close-up shot of the syringe needle shooting up into the heroine’s vein was very likely what the youth identified with. Plus Victor Tsoi was considered a rock superstar of that period. Interestingly, the inclusion of Tsoi wasn’t just rock-star identification. His was an Asian face and for the Kazakh audience, it was seeing themselves projected as superstars finally.

Nugmanov was, of course, naturally evoking the spirit of his generation. If the West had Elvis Presley and James Dean, Nugmanov had Tsoi. That opening shot of Tsoi coming through the deserted alley evoked Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues, minus the placards. But you could still hear Dylan-Tsoi-Nugmanov saying: “Don’t follow leaders/Watch your parking meters,” as Tsoi  gives a middle finger to a railcar employee and then fishes his coin out of the public telephone that he’s just used.

The anti-hero imagery continues in a totally unexpected sequence when Tsoi follows the heroine to the desert where she undergoes cold turkey. That desert turns out to be the arid Aral Sea, and Nugmanov captures it in all its aching desolation and stark beauty. It was the closest evocation of a romantic interlude but as Gulnara Abikeyeva pointed out in her film review: “the scene at the Aral Sea looks like a metaphor for the disintegrating Soviet Union - abandoned houses, the dried-up sea, ships stuck in the sand, a crewless ship.”

The Needle broke all the rules of Soviet cinema as there was no sign of a literal narrative. For a Western viewer, The Needle could have possibly evoked James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. Both anti-heroes challenged artifice, fakery and hypocrisy and lived for inner truth.

Where Nugmanov captured urban reality, his peer Serik Aprimov demythologised the idyllic rural aul (village) in The Last Stop (1989). Just as Nugmanov expressed the shock of the new, it was Aprimov who confronted with the shock of the old.

As Aprimov told Abikeyeva: “I am denying the lie that was perpetuated  during all these years. If I created a film with the same concept but about the city life of Kazakhs, people would agree, they would say; ‘Yes, the city corrupts people.’ But Kazakhs developed their holy of holiest places - an aul (a Kazakh village) - where their traditions and morals are kept alive. Our writers always exclaimed in a very theatrical way - ‘My aul! It is my source of wisdom and intelligence! Of everything!’ I ignored this and showed the true life.

“For example, we developed a fairy-tale about our kind-hearted attitude towards women. I say ‘No!’ Women in villages have a hard life and dirty and exhausting labour. Finally, prostitution exists there. I even brought down our belief about respect of the elders. You should see how much alcohol people drink there.”

The Final Stop didn’t stop there. Aprimov carried on with his deconstruction of the idyllic aul with later works such as Three Brothers (1999) and The Hunter (2004), proof that the Kazakh New Wave was no flash-in-the-pan. Their generation had something to say.

In Three Brothers, a gang of children live in an aul near an airfield. Of significance is an old train yard where the kids plan their adventures and listen to the stories of an old train driver who is caretaker of the depot. On one level, the film is a lyrical paean to the foibles and dreams of youth, almost a coming-of-age tale but with a political parable that is introduced in the start and explodes at the end.

On another level, the film is allegorical. The old man represents the previous generation who lived under Soviet rule and the children who are the future. But the old man and his trains are on a collision course with the dreams of the children who want to fly higher. There is no middle ground, no reality that they can be rooted in.

Aprimov went back again to look at his less-than idyllic aul in The Hunter (2004). Seen today, The Hunter could be a Me Too movement film depending on which side of the debate you stand on. But it is one of the key films that examines the Kazakh attitude towards women.

Again, Aprimov makes his point through the eyes of a child. An adopted son is angry that his step-mother is so free sexually with many men (Is this the prostitution that Aprimov has mentioned?). On the night that the hunter sleeps with his stepmother, the boy goes berserk and shoots up the neighbourhood. To avoid arrest, the hunter takes the boy with him to the mountains.

While ostensibly, the film seems like a rite-of-passage film for the boy to reach adulthood, it can also be read as a fascinating account of what Kazakh men think about women. The hunter of wolves and the hunter as wolf. In the most sensational sequence in the film, the hunter notices a woman who lets her hair down. That is taken as a sexual invitation and segues into a sex scene where the act is performed on a galloping horse. But that really isn’t the film’s key scene.

The poignant moment occurs near the end when the pair find the boy’s stepmother frozen by the wayside. To revive and save her, the hunter insists that the boy lie naked against her to share his body heat. As Aprimov explained, Kazakh boys when young are not touched or caressed by their mothers for fear of inciting manhood (sexual maturity)

As a result, the tenderness that men feel for women is inhibited and repressed. This explains the final scene when the boy finds sexual drawings that the hunter has kept. None of the women in this film have names, again expressing the depersonalised relationships Kazakh men have with women.

There were many others who came out of the New Wave. Darezhan Omirbaev, critic-editor for the Almaty-based New Film journal, is referenced as an inspiration by many younger directors today. His debut feature, Kairat (1991), won the Silver Leopard at the 1992 Locarno festival. Abai Karpikov’s Little Fish in Love (1989), was an important addition to the urban tales while Amir Karakulov’s A Woman Between Two Brothers (aka Homewrecker, 1991) is a meditative psycho-drama.

Whether you take the view that the New Wave lasted a brief four years, from 1989-92, or a longer decade, from 1984-94; what’s important to note is that it didn’t sputter out and vanish. Even a filmmaker such as Ardak Amirkulov, who had an epic beginning, with The Fall Of Otrar, went back to investigate his underground roots in 1997, Rustem’s Notes With Drawings [1998].

The music has changed from the new wave pop rock of The Needle to thrash metal. As Amirkulov told Gonul Donmez-Colin in her book, Cinemas Of The Other - A Personal Journey with Filmmakers from Central Asia#: “I thought it might be good for our memory to transfix a special time in history. Everything around us has been changing so fast that we wanted to make a film to mark this period in time to return one day to revive our memory.

“1997 was also the year when it became clear that the political changes were now irreversible, the year when all the monuments were replaced in Kazakhstan… At the same time, it was the 850th anniversary of Moscow, the return of Hongkong to China and the death of Princess Diana. We wanted to mark all these events.”

This was the first contemporary film for Amirkulov but the film is really an inversion of The Fall Of Otrar. 1997 was an improvisational film made with his students when Amirkulov was professor at the Kazakh State Institute of Theatre and Cinema, and showed the disaffected youth of that time.

It was a snapshot of that period. It was modernity as history, an inversion of how The Fall Of Otrar looked at history as a comment of modern times. Perhaps, in the end, nothing has really changed. Just as the heroine walks in a circle in the final scenes, the music also reverts back to new wave pop.

Fast forward 10 years and we come to Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s short, Bakhytzhamal (2007). Whatever we first saw in the Kazakh New Wave, we saw it here again. That raw quality of Nugmanov’s The Needle from his use of non-professional actors was a lesson for Yerzhanov.

In later features such as The Gentle Indifference Of The World (2018) or A Dark, Dark Man (2019), Yerzhanov’s trademark minimalism draws from Omirbaev. As Yerzhanov said in his documentary, The Story Of Kazakh Cinema: “Omirbaev was first to understand the nature of minimalism. His laconic approach freed cinema from unnecessary effects. His film Cardiogram showed that Kazakh cinema can be both silent and austere.”

The epic sense of the New Wave seen in Amirkulov’s The Fall Of Otrar can be found again in Yerzhanov’s most important and most overlooked film, Night God [2018]. It’s equally epic, a grand and terrible gaze at the looming apocalypse.

The dark and foreboding nature of the film was already expressed in the press kit: “In Night God, a father, carrying a bomb strapped to his chest, and daughter, travel through an apocalyptic world where light seems to have disappeared, save for a few meteorites lighting up the darkness. In this nightmarish, violent and absurd land, it is said that whoever sees the Night God shall perish.”

Night God just happens to be the central statement of Yerzhanov’s filmography. In his worldview, there is little hope left, from the homelessness of his early features (Realtor, 2011; Constructors, 2013), the insane bureaucracy (The Plague At Karatas Village, 2016), the issue of unfair ownership (The Owners, 2014) to even philosophical malaise (The Gentle Indifference Of The World) and in his recent film, Yellow Cat (2020), he rhetorically asks the villains - “why does the world have to be this way?”

But in Night God, the apocalypse is already at our doorstep but we cannot recognise it. And because we can’t fix it, we continue with the injustice. As Yerzhanov says: “The hero sees signs in the sky, the demons walk the streets, and nobody cares about his ticking bomb.

“The fate, the irrational force is hiding behind every fatal event, every social injustice, and it’s hard to understand or to fix. The hero relies on rational logic, but there’s no point anymore and no one who could help - the end of the world is already happening, quietly but for a very long time.”

The Kazakh New Wave appeared at a juncture when everything changed and when everything remained the same. It was noted by many directors that one could not make films during the Soviet times due to censorship and then after that, one could not make films during glasnost because there wasn’t any money.

But if there are only two words to define the Kazakh New Wave then those words are hopelessness and energy. That sense of hopelessness at society was also a mysterious source of creative energy. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, if all of us are in the gutter of Night God, then some of us are still looking at the stars, at the film’s end.

+ Published 2003, pp 41
* Published in BigO #198, June 2002, pp 39-45
# Published 2012, pp 27

Note: The above essay was first published in the book, Kazakh New Wave, edited by Gulnara Abikeyeva, released in February 2022. Tselinny Publishing. Almaty, 2021. ISBN 978–601–06–7425–7. An English translation of this book is not available yet.

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