Within a mere ten years, director Zhanna Isabaeva carved out a firm place for herself in modern Kazakhstani cinema. She has done so all on her own: neither the state with its ministry of culture nor Kazakhfilm studio had any part in her directorial career.
Peter Rollberg is Professor of Slavic Languages, Film Studies, and International Affairs and Director of the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (IERES) at George Washington University. Rollberg studied at Lomonosov University in Moscow and at the University of Leipzig where he earned his Ph.D. in 1988. His main field of expertise is Russian literature and film, as well as Georgian and Kazakh cinema. In 1996, Rollberg published volume 10 of The Modern Encyclopedia of East Slavic, Baltic, and Eurasian Literatures (Academic International Press) and in 1997, a festschrift in honor of Charles Moser, entitled And Meaning for a Life Entire. His Historical Dictionary of Russian and Soviet Cinema was published in 2009 (second, enlarged edition 2016).
Isabaeva enjoys unique name recognition even though her films are produced on a shoestring budget (benefitting from her past experience as a producer). Often co-financed by foreign companies – usually French or Russian – her full-length feature films cost between $20,000 – and $50,000: a fraction of the budgets of officially sponsored Kazakhstani pictures. And yet, Isabaeva is regularly invited to international festivals and has become a known quantity in the global arthouse circuit. Only in her homeland are her films virtually unseen. However, Isabaeva’s name is present in the public eye – indeed, she has acquired a scandalous reputation because of the uncompromising verisimilitude of her work. There can be no doubt that Zhanna Isabaeva makes films like nobody else in Kazakhstan; she does not emulate anybody, and her work does not betray any particular external influence, be it domestic or foreign. She has steadfastly refused to compromise her artistic freedom and defended her independent worldview and style – a rather unique case in cinema, where financial and logistical dependence is a matter of course.
Isabaeva’s movies on YouTube
Isabaeva’s Oipyrmai, or My Dear Children (Oipyrmai, ili dorogie moi deti, 2009) diagnoses the civilizational crisis that has struck Kazakhstan after independence but treats it with humor. She probes the new urban vanity fair and finds it lacking.
Along with the opening credits we see a young couple with two children trying frantically to get their apartment because the husband’s boss is coming for dinner. The elaborate food preparations are shown from a high angle, showcasing the perfection of the culinary arrangements. When the guests arrive, Kanat, the husband, offers one toast after another, while the boss and his wife eat to their heart’s delight. However, the hosts’ efforts turn out to be in vain when, out of the blue, Kanat’s elderly mother from his home village pays a visit, accompanied by her youngest son, the rotund and boorish Eldos. The sudden arrival of family triggers a conflict between the traditional values (close relatives must be honored under any circumstances) and Kanat’s career advancement, for which the entire festivity had been prepared. Kanat and his wife cannot resolve this conflict: the mother demands attention and respect at the table, and so does Kanat’s younger brother, a cheerfully rude oaf who also expects to be served by Kanat’s increasingly frustrated wife. The tensions reach their peak when the mother takes a bath, preventing the boss from using the bathroom, and ultimately forcing him to leave early and relieve himself in the park nearby. Adding insult to injury, Kanat’s mother demands a monetary contribution for her youngest son’s upcoming wedding; indeed, collecting money from family members is the purpose of her visit in the first place.
Isabaeva divided her film into chapters named after each family member who is visited by the mother (“Kanat,” “Maira,” etc.). As in all her films, she focuses on the unpresentable side of Kazakhstani reality, not the glossy urban surfaces. Isabaeva created a comedy of manners with stark social undertones, sometimes verging on tragedy, in which the old and the new Kazakhstan clash. The village family members are an embarrassment for their city kin as they still eat with their hands and are generally relaxed about all things physical. They also hold a firm belief in the eternal validity of their values, which cannot be shaken by any modern norms. Whatever the new capitalist rules may be, they must not invalidate tradition. The faith in the old rules endows their carriers with enormous positive energy, which is shown as an antidote against modern depression and frustration. When Eldos, the chubby young son, dances with his elderly mother to a modern rock tune in the streets of the city, this comes across as a natural expression of their joie de vivre that cannot be diminished by temporary setbacks and serves as a contrast to urban coldness and vanity.
The penultimate chapter, “Wedding,” brings closure: everybody attends, everybody dances and makes merry. The old values have won, and Eldos is happy with his wife and no doubt will soon have children of his own. There is a deep-held faith in the vital energy of the cultural foundations of Kazakh society that will withstand any external assault. Such optimism is not atypical of the new Kazakh cinema; it is reminiscent of the children’s films of the 1960s in which social conflicts are temporary and regulated by traditional societal cohesion and forgiveness. In this film, Kazakh values come back with a vengeance. The reason for their triumph is rooted in the characters’ ultimate endorsement of family and togetherness.
Isabaeva’s recent films are a far cry from Oipyrmai in tone and atmosphere. Thus, Sveta (2017), a tour de force of astonishing originality, deals with a deafmute woman who recklessly fights for her personal happiness.
Going against all cinematic conventions in treating physical impairments, the film completely avoids melodramatic effects. Instead, it shocks the unsuspecting viewer with the portrayal of a human being who refuses to be a victim, acting as a brutal, antisocial destroyer. The title heroine has learned the lessons of neo-capitalism in her own peculiar way and excels in practicing them. Sveta, filled with existential fury, regards colleagues and neighbors solely as competitors: when the situation demands it, she removes them by force. The harsh surface of the story can easily distract from the cinematic sophistication that the director has accomplished. For long periods, the film throws the spectator back to the period of silent cinema, making the viewing experience exceptionally intense and often uncomfortable. The aesthetic richness of Isabaeva’s films is yet to be explored in-depth; so far, critics have focused on the stories themselves. But Isabaeva’s pictures deserve a more thorough appreciation, beyond the social criticism that comes across more shockingly than in any other Kazakhstani filmmaker’s work. In relation to Isabaeva’s earlier films, Sveta shows a similarly energetic fight for fulfillment but no longer within the framework of protective traditions.
Isabaeva’s latest films depict Kazakhstan as a dog-eat-dog society in which conventional moral codes are systematically neglected. In reality, the law of the jungle rules in everyday life, a law that knows no exception, whether it is for the disabled, the sick, or the abandoned. The economic conditions are shown to be so harsh that they allow no room for forgiveness. Traditional moral values, sometimes hailed as alternatives for the onslaught of post-Soviet modernization, offer no solution either: even the most repressive and cruel patriarchal structures are maintained with a vengeance both by men and women, young and old. When the heroine of The Rejected (2018) begs for readmission to her family, she finds neither support nor compassion – like in ancient times, she is accused of having brought shame to her kin with her out-of-wedlock child, and she is mercilessly excluded from any protective social space.
If Isabaeva’s films would offer nothing but bleak depictions of heartless social conditions, one could easily categorize them as “kitchen-sink realism” as it was called in Britain in the 1960s, or “chernukha” as Russian viewers say to unpleasant images of inconvenient truths. But Isabaeva is more complex than that. As a matter of fact, she discovers humanity in the most unexpected places and moments. Already in her first film, Karoy (2008), the main character, who lies, deceives, and does not even hesitate to rape the pregnant wife of his friend, does treat his ailing mother with mercy – after all, he is the most loved among her children! In Sveta, the title heroine seems to be unfamiliar with the notion of mercy, yet shows pity at the end toward an abandoned girl in whom she recognizes herself. Most importantly, Isabaeva allows viewers to discover unpresentable emotions within themselves: thus, when the abused boy Bopem in the film of the same title (2015) takes revenge on those who have destroyed his life, audiences cannot but feel a deep, albeit illegitimate satisfaction from the child’s vigilante justice. The justice that ultimately catches up with those who destroyed others in The Rejected (2018) validates an even more universal principle, pointing to a karma-like concept. Most importantly, though, Isabaeva’s films subvert representations of glitzy success and self-righteous officialdom: she shows the dark side of reality because nobody else does.
Zhanna Isabaeva captures an image of Kazakhstan as it most certainly does not want to present itself to the outside world and even to itself.
While she is not alone in striving for maximal realism, other directors have compromised for a variety of reasons. Not so Isabaeva. This has given her name an odious ring in the media. Many viewers refuse to watch her films at all, rare as though they may be screened. The filmmaker’s candor with respect to the lack of humanity in everyday life does not sit well with many. However, it is important to emphasize that Isabaeva is not an elitist filmmaker. Her stories are simple to a fault, and when spectators muster the patience to endure cruelty and suffering on screen, they should have no difficulties grasping the inner logic of the narrative. Isabaeva’s early pictures – Karoy, Oipyrmai, or My Dear Children, and, to an extent, Losing One’s Virginity in Almaty (2011), were doubtlessly made with the intention to engage national audiences. Isabaeva now seems more driven by the yearning to create auteur work – films that are recognizable as hers in style and subject-matter.
Zhanna Isabaeva is a director entirely of her own making, and she reconfirms that status with each new film. As an artist of exemplary creativity and integrity, she has brought honor to Kazakhstan and its cinema, whether this is officially recognized or not.
Zhanna Issabeva’s fimography: https://www.kinopoisk.ru/name/1537785/
Main photo: clip from Bopem