Saturday, September 24, 2022

Mariam, on

There is little about Kazakhstan's formal social structures that you might call progressive. The government was one of Putin’s closest allies (at least until his invasion of Ukraine), whereas the Islam practiced on the steppe still maintains traditional gender roles (at least it is still demonstrably more moderate than that practiced in the Middle East). A desperate woman will get little help from either the government or her community when her husband disappears in Sharipa Urazbayeva’s Mariam, which premieres Monday on

One day, Mariam’s husband left for the market, but he never returned that night. The next day, she files a report with the police, who are coldly professional and a little condescending. Eventually, his horse makes his way back Mariam’s lonely farmhouse, but there are still no signs of him.

As the weeks pass, the owners of the cattle her husband tended transfer them to another tenant farm, thus leaving her with no means to support her three young children. Yet, without a body, the authorities will not issue the death certificate she needs for government benefits. It is a real-life Kafakesque situation that lead thesp Meruert Sabbusinova could certainly relate to, because
Mariam’s story is largely based on her own. Initially, Urazbayeva intended to chronicle her plight in a documentary, but it evolved into this dramatic narrative.

There is indeed a big twist towards the end that threatens to complicate all of Mariam’s efforts to build a new life. Somewhat perversely, nearly every description of the film gives it away. Maybe it is pretty easy to guess, but still.

Regardless, you can feel the truth in Sabbusinova’s portrayal of her fictional analog. It is not a showy performance, but there is eloquence in her understated dignity. Urazbayeva also conveys the physical and social isolation of Mariam and women like her. Life on the steppe is a lonely proposition.

In some ways,
Mariam is a simple, little film, but it has a lot to say. Some terrific films have come out of Kazakhstan in recent years, such as A Dark, Dark Man; Bad Bad Winterand Stranger. Yet, its national cinema remains somewhat overlooked by festival programmers and streamers, so good for OVID for picking up Mariam. It is a worthy film (and the three aforementioned are even better). Recommended for patrons of Kazakh film and everyone preoccupied with gender as it relates to cinema, Mariam starts streaming Monday (9/26) on