Friday, September 18, 2015

TIFF ’15: Stranger (Zhat)

During the Captive Nations era, Kazakhstan was the whipping post of the Soviet Union. The Republic was a dumping many nationalities forcibly exiled after WWII (de facto ethnic cleansing), suffered widespread famine as a result of agricultural collectivization, and endured Party campaigns against regional cultural diversity. The reclusive Ilyas is case in point, even though the rugged mountain man is almost completely oblivious of the macro forces conspiring against him. He is simply incapable of conforming to meet the demands of socialism in Yermek Tursunov’s Stranger (a.k.a. Zhat, trailer here), Kazakhstan’s official foreign language Academy Award submission, which screens at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

Ilyas was in awe of his father, Yedige. The experienced hunter was also his only family in the world, so when Yedige was inexplicably picked up in the dead of night during Stalin’s purges, it understandably devastates young Ilyas. However, instead of relying on other’s charity, Ilyas disappears into the mountains, living on game and the proceeds of his pelts. Sadly, he leaves behind the great love of his life, Kamshut, who will be forced to marry his true-believing contemporary.

In time, Ilyas develops quite the reputation. Naturally, he is invited to join the fight against Stalin’s former allies, the German National Socialists, but the Great Patriotic War means nothing to him. He simply has no reference points for it. Unfortunately, this will cause resentment as Stalin’s bungling prolongs the war and the village’s horrible suffering. When Ilyas finally starts to lose a step, there are those who will take advantage.

In a way, Ilyas is an archetypal holy fool, but in terms of temperament, he is much more closely akin to the classic western mountain man. Tragically, he is also a man very much out of step with the ideological madness of his time. He is like a Dostoyevsky hero transplanted in a John Ford film. Clearly, Tursunov understands both disparate traditions and reconciles them remarkably well.

Ilyas is not exactly chatty, but Erzhan Nurymbet’s powerful presence does not need much dialogue. He expresses his mournful regret and guilelessness with forceful directness. He is a symbol, but he is also a flesh-and-blood character. His desolate fate is not just an allegory to unpack. It has deep emotional resonance.

Tursunov paints on a big canvas, but he still shows a delicate touch with the intimate scenes Ilyas steals with his beloved Kamshut. Frankly, there is a little Doctor Zhivago reflected in their star-crossed love and the tension between tradition and nature on one hand and Communist materialism on the other is very much in keeping with the themes of Wolf Totem. Stranger also has its share of wolves as well.

Cinematographer Murat Aliyev captures the grandeur and unforgiving harshness of the steppe, contrasting the spectacular vistas with the grubby, shabby atmosphere of the village. It is a haunting film that spells out the particulars of Soviet oppression in no uncertain terms, while giving the commissars and apparatchiks precious little face-time. Very highly recommended (particularly for Academy voters), Stranger screens again today (9/18) and tomorrow (9/19) as part of this year’s TIFF.