Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
TIFF ’15: Stranger (Zhat)
the Captive Nations era, Kazakhstan was the whipping post of the Soviet Union.
The Republic was a dumping many nationalities forcibly exiled after WWII (de facto
ethnic cleansing), suffered widespread famine as a result of agricultural
collectivization, and endured Party campaigns against regional cultural
diversity. The reclusive Ilyas is case in point, even though the rugged
mountain man is almost completely oblivious of the macro forces conspiring
against him. He is simply incapable of conforming to meet the demands of socialism
in Yermek Tursunov’s Stranger (a.k.a. Zhat, trailer here), Kazakhstan’s
official foreign language Academy Award submission, which screens at this year’s
Toronto International Film Festival.
was in awe of his father, Yedige. The experienced hunter was also his only
family in the world, so when Yedige was inexplicably picked up in the dead of
night during Stalin’s purges, it understandably devastates young Ilyas.
However, instead of relying on other’s charity, Ilyas disappears into the
mountains, living on game and the proceeds of his pelts. Sadly, he leaves
behind the great love of his life, Kamshut, who will be forced to marry his true-believing
time, Ilyas develops quite the reputation. Naturally, he is invited to join the
fight against Stalin’s former allies, the German National Socialists, but the
Great Patriotic War means nothing to him. He simply has no reference points for
it. Unfortunately, this will cause resentment as Stalin’s bungling prolongs the
war and the village’s horrible suffering. When Ilyas finally starts to lose a
step, there are those who will take advantage.
a way, Ilyas is an archetypal holy fool, but in terms of temperament, he is
much more closely akin to the classic western mountain man. Tragically, he is
also a man very much out of step with the ideological madness of his time. He
is like a Dostoyevsky hero transplanted in a John Ford film. Clearly, Tursunov
understands both disparate traditions and reconciles them remarkably well.
is not exactly chatty, but Erzhan Nurymbet’s powerful presence does not need
much dialogue. He expresses his mournful regret and guilelessness with forceful
directness. He is a symbol, but he is also a flesh-and-blood character. His desolate
fate is not just an allegory to unpack. It has deep emotional resonance.
paints on a big canvas, but he still shows a delicate touch with the intimate
scenes Ilyas steals with his beloved Kamshut. Frankly, there is a little Doctor Zhivago reflected in their
star-crossed love and the tension between tradition and nature on one hand and
Communist materialism on the other is very much in keeping with the themes of Wolf Totem. Stranger also has its share of wolves as well.
Cinematographer Murat Aliyev captures the
grandeur and unforgiving harshness of the steppe, contrasting the spectacular
vistas with the grubby, shabby atmosphere of the village. It is a haunting film
that spells out the particulars of Soviet oppression in no uncertain terms,
while giving the commissars and apparatchiks precious little face-time. Very
highly recommended (particularly for Academy voters), Stranger screens again today (9/18) and tomorrow (9/19) as part of
this year’s TIFF.
Labels: Kazakhstani Cinema, TIFF '15