A little boy falls in love with a girl, who is older than him. They spend time together, chatting on a swing. Selkinchek means "a swing" in Kyrgyz. All of a sudden a young sailor comes to the aul. He shows everybody a seashell, an exotic wonder for the villagers. The sailor and the girl are in love but for the little boy this is a tragedy of his broken heart – the first moment of growing up. At the end of the film, the little boy steals the seashell from the sailor and runs away to the mountains to throw it down to crash.
In May of 1993 a phone rang for me in the office of the magazine Asia Cinema Presents. Aktan Abdikalikov and Ernest Abdizhaparov called me and said that they were in Almaty editing their new film at Kazakhfilm Studio. After a few minutes of our excited greetings, they invited me to see a rough cut of their new film named Selkinchek.
What I saw exceeded all my expectations. Last year at the Ashkabat Film Festival, I had seen Where Is Your House, Snail? and liked it a lot. This is how I discovered Aktan Abdikalikov, the film director, for myself. Now, last year’s film seemed too traditional and outdated, in compared with the new one. In Selkinchek Aktan Abdikalikov used the absolutely new, or one could say the old and forgotten, esthetics of black-and-white graphic images, the symbolism of objects and a minimum of dialogs. The film had a documentary style.
The story takes place in a Kyrgyz aul: an old man trimming tree branches; a girl placing blankets to dry in the sun; boys playing asiki (a type of dice game); an old woman drying wool. First of all, the film astounds the viewers by its national character and mentality being displayed so naturally and organically that we can recognize every backyard and every face; every detail by its touch, by its smell, by its taste. When I saw the scene of children hiding among the blankets drying on the sun, I wanted to exclaim: "We used to hide among blankets, too!" My memory recreated the smell of the hot sun, the touch of the fabric and the feeling of happiness that could happen only during childhood.
It is hard to pinpoint the period the film is set in. It is kind of a gap of times: people lived like this in auls ten years ago, and twenty, and fifty. There is a phrase that refers to a specific time period. The little boy jumps down from the roof with a self-made parachute and screams: "Ainura, I am Gagarin and you are Titov!"
It becomes obvious that it is the 1960s. The film even has the myth and poem-like style of the cinema of the sixties:
The camera pans up on the white, freshly limed trees in a grove and flies high up… in an unusual angle, the camera turns back down to an herd of black bulls passing through the grove.
"Everybody knows his strengths, probably," Aktan shares his thoughts with me after the viewing: "I think my strength is in the visuals of a film. This is why Selkinchek doesn’t have any dialogs. People used to have silent movies. Weren’t they great? Why do we need words or dialogs if everything is understood without it? Moreover, we purposely refused to use any music in the film. I believe if music can exist without film, independently, it doesn’t belong in a film."
Another special quality of this film is that it has a unique balance between a documentary and a narrative film:
Kyrgyz old ladies are passing the seashell to one another. For them it is a rare wonder. They look inside it, put it to an ear and listen, whisper something to each other and smile – no doubt, this was shot like a documentary; there are no real actors in this scene. Right away, the narrative life of the friendship between the little boy and the grown-up girl continues.
"By using a seashell, we wanted to avoid the stereotypes used in European cinema: love confessions and kisses… A seashell, also, has an erotic character. As well as swings, it is a love symbol in Kyrgyz poetry. These symbols are not the goal of the film. I am against symbolism for the sake of symbolism. I am for visuals that can express everything: an atmosphere, an internal condition of the hero…"
After the viewing we sat in an editing room drinking cognac, and discussed the film and enjoyed the success of the film.
Aktan told me about mystical events that happened during the filming. When most of the principal filming was completed, they found out that the film reels they used were defective. Aktan realized that film was not going to happen but decided to complete it for himself. They processed the film and found out that out of, for example, four takes of a shot, three were defective and the best take was on a good part of the film. The entire film was in fact made of only takes. It was quite unbelievable.
We would’ve stayed in that editing room for a long time, daydreaming about international film festivals, but somebody brought up that Marco Muller, the director of the Locarno Film Festival, and Alberto Barbera, the director of the Turin Film Festival, were screening Kazakh films upstairs. We decided to show them the rough cut of Selkinchek. Aktan had some doubts because the film was still in a rough cut. But, on the other hand, he might not have another opportunity like this. Marco Muller and Alberto Barbera agreed to see the first part of the film, than the second, then the third and then the rest of the film. After the screening they talked for an hour with Aktan. Aktan was telling them about himself and playing the music for the film on a shan-kobiz (a mouth string musical instrument).
The same day, without waiting for final cut, the film festival directors invited Aktan to compete at the Locarno Film Festival, in "The Leopards of Tomorrow ", the short film program, and to show his film in the guest program at the Turin Film Festival.
At the forty sixth International Film Festival in Locarno – a festival with a reputation for representing "new trends in cinema" – Selkinchek received the Golden Leopard in the program of short films. The worldwide recognition of Aktan Abdikalikov the film director started that day.
Kyrgyzstan, 1993, 48 minutes, black and white
Director: Aktan Abdikalikov
Script by: Aktan Abdikalikov, Ernest Abdizhaparov, Talgat Asirnaulov
Cinematographer: Khasan Kadiraliyev
Music by: Sergei Lobanov
Produced by Maek Studio
Awards and Participations in Film Festivals:
Grand Prize at the Locarno Film Festival, 1993
Prize of FIPRESCI at the Turin Film Festival, 1993
Grand Prize at the Potsdam Film Festival, 1994
Participation in the London Film Festival in Great Britain, the Angers Film Festival in France, the Goteburg Film Festival in Sweden, the Augsburg Film Festival in Germany, and the Tokyo Film Festival in Japan.
Gulnara Abikeeva, 2003
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