There's a stark, primal power to "Native Dancer," the story of a businessman caught between a traditional healer and the mob. As she did in "Schizo," writer-director Guka Omarova combines an ethnographer's eye for Kazakh culture with a good-vs.-evil template of Western crime drama. Benefiting from Omarova's documentary background, her sophomore feature conveys a strong sense of place. And however cliched the film's mobster elements, her cast, mostly nonprofessionals, creates compelling characters. The film is receiving its stateside debut in AFI Fest's Showcase Kazakhstan section.
Working with co-writer/producer Sergei Bodrov ("Mongol"), Omarova centers her tale on a sparse encampment in the Jarkent area of Kazakhstan, where Aidai-apa (Nesipkul Omarbekova) receives a constant stream of visitors seeking cures and guidance. She urges a middle-aged woman to throw away her crutches after bathing her in sheep's blood, tells an elderly couple where to find their stolen cow, delivers the tough truth about a sad-eyed blonde's missing husband and takes in a promiscuous teen girl (Asel Abutova) whose mother can no longer deal with her. Her treatments can be nurturing, like the green clay she tenderly applies to the girl's skin, and harsh, as when she places a ne'er-do-well (Tolepbergen Baisakalov) in an underground pit.
The land she lives on looks barren and desolate, but for Aidai it's sacred. And for the local mafia - represented by a young SUV-riding meanie in shades and shiny suit - it's the spot to build a gas station and a restaurant called Las Vegas. Batyr, who owns the land, resists the mob's pressure. But his young son (Almat Ayanov) - the only one who truly melts the healer's stern gaze - becomes a pawn in the tug-of-war between tradition and "progress," setting off a life-or-death race for Batyr (played by Farkhat Amankulov, whose taciturn intensity is magnetic). "Native Dancer" turns what might have been a boilerplate showdown into a forceful expression of grief.
A CTB Film Company and Studio Kazakhfilm production with the participation of Kinofabrika and Les Petites Lumieres
With: Nesipkul Omarbekova, Farkhat Amankulov, Tolepbergen Baisakalov, Almat Ayanov, Asel Abutova.
Director: Guka Omarova.
Screenwriters: Guka Omarova, Sergei Bodrov.
Producers: Sergei Bodrov, Sergey Selyanov, Sergey Azimov, Natacha Devillers.
Director of photography: Rafik Galeev.
Production designer: Almagul Menlibaeva.
Editor: Darya Danilova.
Sales agent: Fortissimo Films.
No MPAA rating, 86 minutes