Tuesday, 23 April 2013


Harmony Lessons is a Kazak film, not something you frequently run into (‘Borat’, the Sasha Baron Cohen spoof, notwithstanding). It’s an eerie portrayal of that culture tucked into the boundless Asian steppe with a Russian/Soviet overlay resulting from Kazakstan’s 70 year-stint as part of the USSR.

The Tribeca Film Festival throws something like 170 films onto the city’s movie screens every year, a whole lot of which don’t deserve all that much attention. But this one, by Kazak director Emir Baigazin, does, and given New York’s insatiable appetite for film, there was a decent crowd on hand last night for it.

What we saw was a strange juxtaposition, a post-Soviet aesthetic set down in the midst of a peculiar peasant/herder society. The physical and social signs of scarcity were reminiscent of Romanian cinema of the communist period—stark, peeling walls, gruff medical staff, an air of casual brutality permeating human interactions. At the same time, the main character, a boy of about 15, slaughters sheep, takes a bath with a bucket and wears a magic amulet provided by his vaguely Muslim grandmother. There’s not enough setting provided to get much of a handle on the relative preponderance of modernity v/s nomadic heritage operating, but the language switches between Kazak and Russian give a hint of the complexity and contradictions.

The lingering impression of the film is that of a thoroughly joyless existence. Characters never smile, and companionship is expressed through silent tolerance and a willingness to share pain. The society displayed is authoritarian, punitive and dominated by mini-Mafias whose existence are never explained or even questioned and whose operations remain largely mysterious. While this set-up is hardly unique to post-Soviet states, the relentlessness of the abuse is hard to take, and the isolation of a country thousands of miles from any imaginable alternative (Kazakstan lies between Siberia, western China and the other ’Stans to the south) adds a claustrophic note.

What we usually hear about Kazkstan is that it possesses oil and is doing ‘well’, meaning that it has a positive GDP and lots of happy western businessmen doing deals there with the local elites. The Tribeca film is a rare look at what’s happening under that cheery surface.

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