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BERLIN – Sticking a debut feature in a top-tier international festival competition can often leave fledgling filmmakers vulnerable to attack from critics whose expectations have been unduly raised. But the Berlinale programmers have made a bold decision that pays off by ushering Kazakh writer-director Emir Baigazin into the big league with Harmony Lessons (Uroki Garmonii). Grimly poetic, formally disciplined and psychologically gripping, this is a legitimate discovery.
That the director is not yet 30 makes it all the more exciting to see a work with such clarity of vision and precise command of film as both a visual and emotional storytelling medium. As oblique as the fragmented narrative sometimes gets – particularly when interludes of light and dark fantasy begin calling into question how much of what’s happening is taking place inside the young protagonist’s head – this is penetrating drama. It’s stark and surreal, strange and beautiful, and while perhaps overstretched in the final act, it’s entirely riveting.
What also makes Harmony Lessons fascinating is weighing the familiarity of certain thematic elements against the unusual setting and approach. Essentially, the film is about the process of ostracism, humiliation and bullying by which smart teenage kids can be transformed in the cruel environment of high school into marginalized figures capable of violence. There are vague echoes of films like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant in the juxtaposition of brutality and lyricism, but this is very much the culturally specific work of a distinctive voice.
Aslan (Timur Aidarbekov) is a brilliant, scientifically-minded 13-year-old boy who lives with his grandmother (Bagila Kobenova) in an austere home on the lonely steppes of rural Kazakhstan.
Action plays out within a static frame in the opening series of composed shots from cinematographer Aziz Zhambakiyev, allowing us to absorb the brooding beauty of this harsh landscape, with its wild, desolate expanses. We also watch in graphic detail as Aslan, with no display of feeling, catches a sheep, slices open its throat, bleeds and skins the animal and removes its intestines under the supervision of his grandmother.
At his no-frills school, which has little in common with a modern educational facility, he learns about energy in electrical, mechanical and biological forms; evolution; the tenets of peace and the tools of war. All those elements will play directly into his actions. But even more significantly, Aslan observes in the schoolyard the harsh mechanisms of a society seen in glaring microcosm, devoid of compassionate authority figures.
The junior thug who rules this domain is Bolat (Aslan Anarbayev), who with his gang of flunkies runs an extortion racket, collecting protection money from other kids and doling out punishment to those who can’t pay. But Bolat is revealed to be simply part of a hierarchy. He reports to the seniors, who in turn are in the service of more seasoned criminals, raising cash and collecting supplies for those in prison.
There’s a forcefully conveyed sense of the dehumanizing cycle in which crime, coercion and corruption have become the norm, aspects mirrored in the methods of police and prison officers later on. As a depiction – albeit not a strictly realist one – of life under an ostensibly benign authoritarian state, this is a ballsy work for an emerging artist.
Tricked during a medical examination into a humiliating situation, Aslan is socially exiled under strict orders from Bolat to his schoolmates. This triggers obsessive behavior such as a fastidious attention to hygiene. Rarely emerging from the classroom even in lunch breaks, Aslan spends more time alone pursuing his bizarre hobbies. He starts trapping cockroaches, feeding them in sacrificial experiments to lizards in a goldfish bowl. Even more weirdly, he rigs a tiny electric chair for a death-row roach.
Baigazin plants an occasional seed of hope that Aslan will somehow be rescued from complete withdrawal. Another bullying victim (Omar Adilov) tries to befriend him, and he shows some interest in a Muslim fundamentalist girl (Anelya Adilbekova), a fellow solitary spirit who defends her right to wear a headscarf to school. His strongest allegiance is with Mirsayan (Mukhtar Andassov), a new kid sent from the city to stay with his aunt while his parents’ divorce is sorted out.
Mirsayan is uninformed about Aslan’s outcast status, and then unconcerned when he learns of it. He’s also not afraid to stand up to Bolat, while Aslan goes about solving the problem and exacting revenge in more methodical ways.
There is admittedly some symbolic overload here, but with images evoking everything from purity to cannibalism, much of it is truly striking. However, Mirsayan’s talk of an amusement arcade in the city that offers pleasure and escape seems a tad too literal for a film that otherwise shows impressive maturity.
Ultimately, this is an idiosyncratic take on the kind of incident that has parallels in schools across America and around the globe. While it’s inevitable that the story will take a darker turn, it remains unpredictable while doing so, making its worst acts of violence more unsettling by playing them off-screen. The film also ends on a beguilingly odd note that makes it far less downbeat than haunting.
The director gets effective performances out of his nonprofessional young cast. The faces of the Central Asian teens are so unconventionally attractive that their sharp features and piercing dark eyes lend intensity to the characters, particularly in moments of introspection or malevolence. In the central role, Aidarbekov is especially compelling, keeping his feelings tightly contained aside from a brief explosion in a fantasy shaped by one of his earlier experiments.
Baigazin also served as editor. Eschewing non-source music, he establishes a hypnotic rhythm that maintains the drama’s oneiric dimension even through some of its more turbulent developments. Superbly shot in HD on a RED camera, the film is the work of an impeccable visual stylist. The director breathes life into even the most somber tableaux, and shows economy in the rare instances when he allows for subtle camera movement to guide our gaze.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: JCS Kazakhfilm, The Post Republic Halle, Rohfilm, Arizona Productions
Cast: Timur Aidarbekov, Aslan Anarbayev, Mukhtar Andassov, Anelya Adilbekova, Beinitzhan Muslimov, Omar Adilov, Adlet Anarbekov, Daulet Anarbekov, Nursultan Nurbergenov, Nurdaulet Orazymbetov, Erasyl Nurzhakyp, Assan Kirkabakov, Ramazan Sultanbek, Bagla Kobenova
Director-screenwriter: Emir Baigazin
Producer: Anna Katchko
Director of photography: Aziz Zhambakiyev
Production designer: Yuliya Levitskaya
Costume designer: Ulan Nugumanov
Editor: Emir Baigazin
Sales: Films Distribution, Paris
No rating, 115 minutes
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