Without question, one of the most dangerous professions in the former Soviet Captive Nations was that of historian. Remembering was risky in general and downright perilous in the case of people and events the Party wanted forgotten. Two generations of Kazakh historians will seek the truth about Kenesary Khan, the last Kazakh Khan, descended from Genghis himself, but both will run into bureaucratic stonewalling and secret police intimidation in Satybaldy Narymbetov’s Amanat (trailer here), which has been official submitted by Kazakhstan as their foreign language Academy Award contender.
The nine-film shortlist is due imminently from the Academy’s foreign language division, which is unfortunately highly likely to overlook Amanat (a Kazakh word for cultural heritage) in favor of films with vocal champions, such as the laughably pretentious Neruda. That is a shame, because Amanat is a smart, historically-aware film in the tradition of the Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble and Katyn. Where Neruda knowingly and deliberately plays it fast-and-lose with the truth for the sake of scoring propaganda points, Amanat indicts the bowdlerization of the historical record to serve the ruling authorities.
Like his ancestor, Kenesary Khan was a comparatively progressive figure, especially compared to the Czarist Russia. Eventually, he led a revolt against the Czar’s imperialist encroachment that was ultimately crushed by the Russian Army. Having won the war, the Czars libeled Khan a ruthless savage in their history books—and the Soviets continued the tradition. The open-minded wunderkind historian Ermukhan Bekmakhanov’s scholarship painted a very different picture, but it quickly led him afoul of the Stalinist thought police.
Just like his subject, the record of Bekmakhanov and his published papers was suppressed until the historian was posthumously rehabilitated under Khrushchev. However, no such revisionism was extended to Kenesary Khan. At this point, the brilliant but scuffling journalist Ramazan Duman starts investigating the Bekmakhanov Affair, tracking down his censored papers and befriending his widow, Khalima. Unbeknownst to Duman, Buchin, the very same KGB agent that hounded Bekmakhanov, starts assembling a dossier on him. Yet even the rather naïve Duman understands 1968 is not a great year for truth-telling behind the Iron Curtain.
Narymbetov dexterously juggles three distinct timelines, following Kenesary Khan as he prepares for his ill-fated final battle, Bekmakhanov as guilelessly falls victim to a Stalinist purge, and Duman as he risks the same fate. It gives the film a massively tragic sweep and a sense of the ironic forces compelling history to repeat itself. Frankly, this is exactly the sort of film the Academy section voters appreciate, but they will need confidence in their judgment to opt for such a dark horse, which would be out of character.
Regardless, the rest of us civilians can appreciate Amanat as the fine film it is, if and when it finds wider festival screenings and distribution in the West. It is a big picture kind of film, but it still features a number of first-rate performances, most definitely including the radiant yet heart-rending Karlygash Muhamedzhanova as Khalima Bekmakhanova. Berik Aitzhanov is so tragically dignified as Ermukhan it practically hurts to watch him, but he also develops some rather sweet and lovely chemistry with Muhamedzhanova. Sanzhar Madiev’s Kenesary Khan is more of symbol than a flesh-and-blood character, but he certainly looks the part donning the armor. However, Aziz Beishenaliev might just make the year’s best villain as the steely cool, game-playing Buchin.