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CANNES — “The Light Thief” by Aktan Arym Kubat is a bumpy mix of poetry, naivete and documentary (for what it shows us of the little-known Kyrgyzstan and its customs) that works thanks to the director-actor’s profound humanity, which permeates throughout — even when the story falls into one of many narrative holes, or subplots and images recur or disappear without explanation.
Art house sales powerhouse the Match Factory can count on positive reactions from Western audiences who often enjoy this kind of pastoral work from the developing world. The lengthy standing ovation after the official screening that brought Kubat to tears bodes well for life on the festival circuit.
Played by the director, Svet-ake (the film’s original title, which literally means “Mr. Light”) is the electrician of a remote, impoverished village in the Kyrgyz mountains. The villagers turn to him for help with their constantly short-circuiting electricity (which he often steals for them from the town hall) and personal problems. For his part, the kind, spirited father of four daughters has two dreams: to have a son and to bring cheap, wind-powered energy to the valley.
The endless, mountainous landscapes beautifully complement the pride and desolation of the people struggling to survive among them. As the town’s mayor says, “This land isn’t barren: it has been giving life to children forever.” Children who must now leave their homelands to find work in a changing world.
Although not specified, the film is set in early 2005, during the Tulip Revolution that overthrew the government. There are no demonstrations in Svet-ake’s little village, but the changing times are felt nonetheless.
Progress, good and bad, is personified by Bekzat (Askat Sulaimanov), a dubious young tycoon who has returned to his native village looking to buy land and go into business with even shadier Chinese investors. He promises to finance Svet-ake’s surprisingly modern windmills if the latter works for him. Initially trusting of Bekzat, the electrician soon realizes that the changes he is bringing go hand in hand with the death of centuries-old traditions. The long, sustained pitches of the traditional Kyrgyz music that is the film’s soundtrack add to the woeful nostalgia for this disappearing history.
Kabut is irresistible. His Mr. Light may be an innocent in terms of the so-called civilized world but his intuitive perspicacity, mix of humility and pride and unabashed desire for his beautiful neighbor make him complex and human.
The same goes for the supporting characters, almost all non-professionals with incredible faces and little self-consciousness before the camera. What the film lacks in technical structure it makes up for here. Never portrayed as yokels, the villagers may be cut off from the world but they are astutely aware of their position in society.
This is not how the West sees the East, but how someone from the East views the downward spiral of his country. As an artist, Kabut also roots for underdog visionaries. His own underdog status has been given a huge boost here, from the film’s European producers that include Cedomir Kolar (“No Man’s Land”), Thanassis Karathanos (“Ajami”) and Karl Baumgartner (“On the Path”).
Venue: Festival de Cannes — Directors’ Fortnight
Production: Pallas Film, Oy Art, A.S.A.P Films, Volya Films
Cast: Aktan Arym Kubat, Taalaikan Abazova, Askat Sulaimanov, Asan Amanov, Stanbek Toichubaev
Director: Aktan Arym Kubat
Screenwriters: Kubat, Talip Ibraimov
Producers: Altynai Koichumanova, Cedomir Kolar, Thanassis Karathanos, Marc Baschet, Karl Baumgartner, Denis Vaslin
Director of photography: Hassan Kydyraliyev
Production designer: Talgat Asyrankulov
Music: Andre Matthias
Costume designer: Inara Abdieva
Editor: Petar Markovic
Sales: The Match Factory
No rating, 80 minutes
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