Folklore Traditions in Kazakh Cinematography

Issue #1 • 1347

Kyz-Zhibek. Director S. Khojikov. 1970 Film critics exploring the influence of folklore traditions on cinematography identify several levels of screen-folklore connections in cinematography. These include: direct level, or the screen version of folklore and literary works; indirect level, or the interpretation or rendition, when films are inspired by folklore and literary works; and quotation, when the inclusion of a folklore piece fragment into the film structure happens naturally at the level of artistic thinking and insight of a contemporary author (1, p. 140). In this instance there also emerges a new understanding of quotation “as a fragment of text that interrupts the linear development of the latter and receives motivation integrating it into the text, outside the given text” (2, p. 61).

Aksak Kulan. Director A. Khaidarov, Art Director Zh. Zhumabekov, 1968 V. Fomin notes that “a folklore fragment often turns out to be a complex and key metaphor, a kind of poetic mirror, and in its reflection the “non-folklore” part of the narration boldly exposes problems, conflicts and new semantic meanings hidden in it. This is how classic films are structured, namely “Zvenigora” by A. Dovzhenko and “Bezhin Lug” by S. Eisenstein, and of contemporary works one can mention “The White Steamboat”, “Lyutiy”, “Love Story”, and “Singing Blackbird” (1, p. 140). This list of screen-folklore works can be complemented by the Kazakh New Wave films such as “The Three Brothers” (2000) and “Hunters” (2004) by S. Aprymov, and “Zhol” (2001) by D. Omirbaev.

The development of fiction cinematography in Kazakhstan has gone through all stages of interpretation of folklore traditions. National film direction originated from a photoplay titled “Poem about Love” (1954), which was based on a folklore tale “Kozy-Korpesh and Bayan-sulu”. The screen version of the play was produced by S. Aymanov, already well-known theatre actor and director by then. In other words, Kazakhstan’s cinematography began its evolution from the exploration of theatre and folklore traditions.

The Magig Pipe.  Director and  Art Director Zh. Danenov, 1973 Gradually, the forms of screen-folklore connections became more complex. By 1970 national cinematography reached its apogee in creating screen versions of folk tales. Diserial film by S. Khojikov “Kyz-Zhibek” (1970) – the most expensive for that time – broke all attendance records. In modern language, it was a blockbuster, the picture about love, but, most importantly, it reflected folk traditions, the richness of folk arts and crafts and oral poetic traditions; it also accurately represented sentiments and mentality of nomadic nation. Until this day “Kyz-Zhibek” stays in demand as world’s national classics: virtually any Kazakh in any country knows this film.

Balcony. Director K. Salikov, 1988 As for the interpretation of folklore, the most renowned films include “Trizna” ["Funeral Feast"] (1972-1987) by B. Mansurov, and “Foe, Beware of the Ninth Son” (1984) by V. Pusurmanov. The latter, inspired by a folk tale, was warmly received by both audience and critics. Major debate was triggered by “Trizna” – the film based on “Kulager” poem written by a prominent poet I. Zhansugurov who was repressed in 1937. The character of the people’s poet Akan-sere and his dependable horse Kulager that was meanly shot during a race became an allegory of poet’s fate and brutal age that was presented both in the poem, and in the real existence of poets Akan-sere and Ilyas. In a word, in terms of semantic saturation and blending of poetic, mythological and screen-pictorial texts into a single cinematographic canvas the film can be perceived in the context of inter-textuality of contemporary screen art. The base version of the film was created in 1972 – the time when neither cinematographic community, nor the audience were ready for receiving this work, in which the cine-text was literally overloaded with pictorial details largely generated by the fantasy of the authors of the poem’s screen version.

Leila's Prayer. Director S. Narynbetov, 2002 In the late 1980s when the time came for irreversible revolutionary changes, the Kazakh New Wave was born, the philosophy and aesthetics of which were in sharp contrast with “engaged” soviet cinematography of stagnation era.

The new “author’s” cinematography of 1990s was explicitly critical and nihilistic about soviet socialist society and its party-driven ideology. It seemed that films made in the manner of a documentary chronicle could never touch with folklore traditions. However, S. Aprymov’s “The Three Brothers” and D. Omirbaev’s “Zhol” that concluded the cycle were the films that easily and freely absorbed and transformed the screen-folklore traditions. It may appear paradoxical, but the fact is that the so-called “social” films of the Kazakh New Wave represent the quotation level of the screen-folklore connections. Here the folklore elements – a fairy-tale, an epic, an anecdote, or a saying – fit naturally into a cinematographic text, while maintaining linear development of the screen action.

Love Station. Director T. Temenov. 1993 Speaking of quotation, some New Wave films, specifically the works of D. Omirbaev “Kairat” (1990) and “Zhol” (2001), could be classified as post-modernist, yet in their conceptual and artistic insight and material presentation these films, as the concluding New Wave films in general, pay tribute to “folklorism” in cinematography. In “Zhol”, along with purely film-based quotations from the author’s earlier work “Killer” (1998) and references to “Shilde” (1988) and “Cardiogram” (1995), we can observe the inclusion of sound text from a radio broadcast into the series of film events – a historical reference about psychological power and effrontery of Genghis-khan’s warriors and the panic fear and slavish obedience of the nations he conquered. This verbal quotation comes alive on the screen and is visually played around in the lead character’s dream-imagination with an explicit ironic connotation. Contemporary Kazakhs, the descendants of great kypchak warriors turn out to be the weak-willed captives of the Mongolian warrior, resignedly awaiting their fate to be decided. Omirbaev also uses semantic quotation as metaphor, as ironic reference, and as a sad conclusion.

Why the Swallow has the Two-Horn Tale. Director and Art Director A. Khaidarov. 1967 E. Stishova would say this about the “folklorisation” of Central Asian cinematography: “Historical discourse and folklore motifs are naturally present in all pictures about contemporaneity. One can even assume that folklore-epic concept of time prevails in Central Asian cinematography: past-present-future exist in a single flow, and the artist zooms on one or another temporal fragment, depending on his needs. In Omirbaev’s recent picture “Zhol” (“Road”, 2001) the linear road-movie plot gets epic as the director mounts edge to edge the real and imaginary experiences of the hero – the episodes of his journey to visit his dying mother and his fantasies (the hero is a film director taken away from the filming site by the phone call). A mad dash in a car off roads, over gravel and mud, is turned into a leap over space-time. With the power of his creative fantasy the hero transforms the wretchedness of surrounding landscape into a great steppe where a menacing cavalry of nomads once strolled.” (3, p. 25).

Kotytorgai. Director A. Tokhshabaev, Art Director B. Zhabarov, 1989 Apart from the presence of quotations, the Kazakh New Wave cinematography is also generally characterized with a liberal play with genre structure, which is evident in “Hunter” and “Zhol”. In “Hunter” (2004) S. Aprymov, the founder of the Kazakh New Wave, abandoning his former artistic principles, decisively moves to create metaphorical folklore films. The Hunter, his horse, majestic mountains, and harsh nature around… A boy learning the lessons of kindness and hatred from the Hunter feels his unity with the earth, the mountains and the wolf; he does not have enough space in the city. The city is pictured as prison, as a sinister place that suppresses human will and man’s natural aspiration for freedom and independence.

One has to mention specifically that folklore traditions in fiction cinematography are not limited to traditional genres of historical revolutionary and historical biographic films that serve to create legend characters of revolutionists, commissars and heroes of the Civil and Patriotic Wars. Folklore traditions also work successfully in the genres of contemporary author’s, commercial and producer cinematography at large.

Khodja Nasir is builder. Director  A. Khaidarov, A. Djunusov. 1970 As an example of folklore traditions in producer cinematography one can mention an expensive, by local standards, project titled “Nomads” (2005). Originally, the plan was to make a historical film about an eminent Kazakh khan Abylai who united the nation in the fight against aggressive wars of Jungaria and preserved the country’s independence. However, the attempt to make it a blockbuster intended for international distribution resulted in the fact that the film was made along the templates of a historical Hollywood blockbuster. This first national mega-project engaged cinematographers from several countries: I. Passer (USA), R. Ibragimbekov (Russia/USA/Azerbaijan), S. Bodrov (Russia), and T. Temenov (Kazakhstan). The largest share of the film cost was borne by the state budget of the Republic of Kazakhstan – over 40 million dollars. Lead characters were played by foreign actors, and the crew was international too. This producer-driven film vividly presented screen-folklore traditions of American western movies about good and bad guys in the spirit of a cine-tale; naturally, with the elements of oriental martial arts. The characters and the ways of their aesthetic presentation on screen originated from folklore poetics, with a clear and contrasted segregation of the characters into “ours” and “aliens”. The long-awaited “Nomad” came as a disappointment for domestic audience, but appealed to many teenage people educated on popular culture.

The Mole and The Hare. Director B. Omarov, Art Director Zh. Danenov, 1978 Thus, in many signature films in Kazakh fiction cinematography screen traditions are closely intertwined with folklore traditions.

The latent quotation level of using screen-folklore traditions is present basically in all contemporary films, sometimes independently from the will of their authors, as “westernization” of the current cinema process is essentially the most explicit interpretation of folklore traditions in contemporary cinematography. Therefore, one can confidently argue that the multimedia and poly-quotation form of a fiction film is completely in line with the quotation level of screen-folklore connections.

Literature
1. Фомин В. И. Кино и фольклор: ступени взаимодействия // Вопросы методологии и методики изучения истории советского театра и кино. Кишинев, 1983.
2. Ямпольский М. Память Тиресия. Интертекстуальность и кинематограф. М., 1993.
3. Стишова Е. Эх, дороги… // Искусство кино. М., 2001, № 10.

Bauirzhan Nogerbek

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