Central Asia



I Am A Doubting Man

(Interview with Ardak Amirkulov)


From the beginning his strong character and iron will highlight Ardak Amirkulov as one of the leaders of the Kazakh new wave. He had not yet graduated from VGIK but Kazakhfilm Studio appointed him to direct The Fall of Otrar, a two-part epic motion picture. For this film, he received an award from the government of Kazakhstan, as well as various prestigious awards from international film festivals and, was appointed president of Kazakhfilm Studio. When life tested him with illness and unemployment, he found himself as a film instructor. Today, one can say with assurance that Ardak Amirkulov has raised a new generation of Kazakh film directors – the so-called the new-new Kazakh wave.

Ardak Amirkulov was born in1955 in the village of Ak-Kul, in the province of Djambul. In 1980 he graduated from Kazakh State University with a major in philology. In 1984 he entered the directors program at VGIK, in the workshop of Sergey Soloviyev.

1994-1997 President of Kazakhfilm Studio

1997-2001 Master teacher of the film directors workshop at the Kazakh State Institute of Theater and Cinema


1981 – The Hunter

1986 – The Military Tactic Games in the Area of the Crossroads, short

1990 – The Fall of Otrar, two-part epic motion picture

1995 – Abay, two-part epic motion picture

1998 -- 1997. Rustem’s Diary

Gulnara: I have the impression that The Fall of Otrar was divided into two parts stylistically. The first episode has a European sensibility and the second unfolds with the Eastern spirit. This is the way it was scripted by Svetlana Karmalita and Alexey German. In the first, European, episode, the most important element is the relationship between an individual and historical events. Unzhu the nomad, the protagonist, connects the historical events – he is a witness and a participant in the history. The second episode, Eastern in spirit, places in the center of attention not just an individual but also a certain universal order represented by the nobility. The story tells the tragedy of Kairkhan, the governor and military commander of the city of Otrar. The fall of Kairkhan is the fall of Otrar. The second episode opposes the first one in its comprehension of history. The epilog of the motion picture tries to tie the two views. Am I correct?

Ardak: It is possible. In the first episode Kairkhan couldn’t be the protagonist. I needed a character that would introduce other characters of this historic drama. Unzhu meets Mukhammedshakh and Tarken-Khatun, and serves in the army of Genghis Khan. This way I presented a character that has an objective view. And Kairkhan is not the protoganist of the second episode. I just put an accent on him at the end of the film, when Kairkhan sees a fight between two old men, realizes the end of his people and cries. To tell you the truth, I wanted to express my pain for us, the Kazakh people. The ancient city of Otrar was the cradle of our civilization; and we still haven’t climb out from its ruins.

Gulnara: A beautiful Kazakh folk song sounds in the last scenes. Not only in its lyrics but also in its melody there is something special that cannot be conveyed any other way. The wisdom and philosophy of our people are contained in our folk songs.

Ardak: Yes. The song is called Oilan, Balam Listen and Remember, My Son. It says: "Life is short and there is no person who satisfied his desire to live in full. But there are things in life that no one must betray." The main idea is that it is not worth becoming a traitor because life is too short. For me this idea coincides with a dialog of Confucius and Lao-Tse called The Teachings of the Middle. Lao-Tse says: "There is no end to change in life. Without our consent night changes into day, winter changes into spring and spring into summer, etc. Without our consent we die one day. So, if there is no end to change in our life, what can truly upset me or make me happy?" It may sound like a paradox but it contains depth and profundity.

Gulnara: The script of The Fall of Otrar created quite a buzz at Kazakhfilm Studio. Murat Auezov was the creative head of the studio at that time. He highly praised the script and stated that this script gave the studio the opportunity to make a truly historical motion picture for the first time. How did you define your goal as the director of a historical film?

Ardak: I didn’t aim to make a "historical epic." Unfortunately, history has been falsified for a very long time and anything called "historical" elicits a negative connotation. A historical film as a piece of art is a very rare phenomenon. Andrey Rublev by Andrey Tarkovsky doesn’t look dated but the films of Eisenstein do somehow. Films covering our recent history – revolution, war, etc. – are more alive for us. It’s only because these events are real for the last few generations and the film directors didn’t treat the scripts as "historical." In The Fall of Otrar, undoubtedly, the plot, costumes, sets – all surface elements – are historical. However, the internal dramatic arc, I think, has to be current, even more so: a little bit futuristic. I purposely avoided the pompousness of historical films. Remember our Asian historical films: war, exploits, characters, their thoughts and lives all looked unconvincing.

Gulnara: Ardak, I am interested in questions about creative matters. One of the things I tripped over in your film is the excessiveness of references to other films. The most obvious ones are from Andrey Rublev by Andrey Tarkovsky, Kagemusha and Red Beard by Akira Kurasawa… In some scenes I saw a resemblance to elements of The Last Emperor by Bernardo Bertolucci and even Alexander Nevsky by Sergey Eisenstein.

Ardak: Maybe, but not all at once?

Gulnara: For example, the scene when melted silver was poured on Kairkhan’s face – In Andrey Rublev there is almost the same scene, when melted lead was poured in a deacon’s throat.

Ardak: The visuals in this scene look like two scenes in Andrey Rublev at the same time – the scene of molding a bell and the scene of execution that you mentioned. By the way, I didn’t show just the execution. I showed how a man was cast in silver. It was Genghis Khan’s invention. This way his enemies, who also had been great warriors, were immortalized. This was a terrible but noble death. I found it in chronicles. Also, I was interested in "how," not in "what." I wanted to recreate the real technology of this process. Andrey Rublev cannot exist without the scene of molding the bell, and in the same way my film cannot be complete without the scene, in which they immortalized Kairkhan. About the film quote from Kurasawa, the shot of a prancing warrior among Otrar’s resting citizens is my conscious reference and, in my own way, bow to the great Japanese filmmaker, who has done a lot for all Eastern cinema…

Working on my film, I realized that I needed always to tighten the frame. I named this trick the "Kurasava phenomenon". This is a very special technique of concentration and it creates a very special rhythm.

Gulnara: Yes, You take a picture in a kind of double frame – a doorway, crossings of wood constructions…

Ardak: Exactly right. This is a tradition in Eastern arts. Recall Japanese or Chinese parchments – the vertical space doesn’t fit in the space of the screen. By cutting out what is unnecessary, an artist concentrates our attention. We can apply this to the principals of all visual arts: we are looking at European paintings, but Eastern paintings are looking at us. Finally, we have this paradox: the stylized paintings of the East are more realistic than realistic paintings of the West, say, of the twentieth century. During chaotic periods, when there are no rules in the arts, the traditional is the most avant-garde.

Gulnara: One more question about your artistic secrets. What is the logic of switching from a full color image to a black-and-white one in your film? I couldn’t find any explanation for it.

Ardak: There are films where color is the most important element, and there are other films where texture is the most important element. A color undermines a texture. A viewer takes in primarily either a color or a texture. Therefore, I had scenes where I needed texture, and I needed color in others. And only my intuition indicated that I had to do it this way and not another. And also, I think only doubting people shoot on black-and-white film. I, too, am a doubting man. I am afraid of maximalists, especially in the arts.

Interview excerpt, Iskusstvo kino, 1992, issue # 3

Gulnara Abikeeva, 2003

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