Central Asia



Hymn to Kazakh Women

(Interview with Amir Karakulov)

Amir Karakulov is a poet. A poet that writes with cinematic images and a film director that feels the rhymes of a film frame. And only this kind of poet is able to discover the world in its wholesome existence. Enchanting his viewers with the magic of his cinema, Amir Karakulov draws universal conclusions.

Amir Karakulov was born in 1966 in Almaty. In 1984 he entered VGIK, in the film directors workshop of Sergey Solovyov. At the present time he works in film and advertising and has been appointed president of Début foundation for young filmmakers at Kazakhfilm studio.


Gulnara: The three female characters in Zhilama! represent not only three different generations but also three dissimilar groups in our society. The grandmother is the product of the Soviet era even though she reads Muslim prayers before sleep, and doesn’t hesitate to have a shot of vodka and to smoke a cigarette from time to time. Maira represents the middle generation that matured during the last decade of our independence. She is a beautiful and young opera singer but according to the story line, her voice gets damaged and this is why she comes to restore herself in the village. This generation is full of strength but can’t voice it. The third generation is a seven-year old girl that is terminally ill. She is sweet and curious but her doctor’s diagnosis is unmerciful – she has a few weeks to live. Three women – three generations, three eras. Was this the original construction of your film?

Amir: Not at all, a film is a living thing; it gets born bit by bit. The protagonist was supposed to be a man in the original draft. When I stated to think more about my characters and to feel them much more clearly, I had a desire to concentrate on female characters. Female characters -- truly interesting female characters -- are rare even in world cinema. I thought that it would be great to make women the main characters of my new film.

Gulnara: When you developed their characters, was the social aspect of their life – destitution, desperation and reclusive existence – the key moment for you?

Amir: No, mostly it was my personal interest – a desire to immerse myself into a strange life. I live in a city, never stayed in an aul and don’t speak fluently in Kazakh. I wanted to discover the other – the aul life. I had a feeling that I can take a step and enter another universe, which I originally belong to but know so little about. During filming we had many production problems and solving them was like sorting out myself. I was filming an aul and recognizing myself in it. I filmed like I breathed; if I had doubts about something I didn’t shoot it.

Gulnara: However, the social problems were important for you, weren’t they?

Amir: I was never interested in the subject of survival. There will always be times when it is hard for people to survive, for example in jail. I am primarily interested in a situation where people maintain their humanity. It may not be a very difficult situation but it still involves a moral choice. The depth and drama of a situation like this interests me more. I think, despite of horrific living conditions, that human relationships in the aul are much more pure and better than in the city.

Gulnara: I noticed that, from film to film, you are moving to less pretty visuals. Your images become simpler. In Homewrecker the visuals are highly refined: city landscapes, interiors, portraits. Everything was set and lit precisely. In Zhilama! the visuals are different, almost documentary-like. Did you do it intentionally? Can it mean that you moved to another esthetic because you are searching for some special "truth of life"?

Amir: I changed my style because I don’t want to repeat myself. In general, it is the greatest illusion of the twentieth century that the arts are moving forward and that the novelty is a valuable quality. Novelty for the sake of novelty…It is silly even. I have been thinking for a long time about a cinematic equivalent to the esthetics of Faulkner and Hemmingway. About how the language of Faulkner would translate to the screen. Also, it is always more interesting to walk on an unknown and maybe the most difficult road.

Gulnara: Why does Cio-Cio-San’s aria sound at the end of the film? Not, let’s say, a Kazakh folk song?

Amir: It is an interesting question. I would like to answer it in depth. It wasn’t accidental that I chose the aria. Kazakhs live far away from seas. But seas and oceans connect continents, countries and people. But at the same time, Kazakhs do not live in isolation. The Kazakh Steppe was always a crossroads of cultures – Aryans, Chinese, Russians, Europeans…Kazakhs absorbed elements of foreign cultures and incorporated them into their own culture. Now some people say that we have to return to our roots. I understand that aspect of our culture but we shouldn’t isolate ourselves; on the contrary, we should learn the best from others. Kazakhs are people who live at the center of the Great Silk Road. They are a nation-transmitter. This is why I believe that Kazakhs should not only sing about themselves. The strength of our people is in their ability to adapt easily to other cultures without losing their own identity. This is why the process of globalization should take place in Kazakhstan soon so we would be able to integrate into the world culture. Maybe even faster than Russians and other nations of the former Soviet Union. This is why I touched on the subject of opening up to the rest of the world; and this aria is one of the signs of this openness.

Gulnara: I think that Maira Mukhamed-kyzi, a world-class opera singer, added a special quality to your film. I even heard that the story in the film is biographical – she came from China to Kazakhstan to restore her voice, stayed here a few years and now she works in the Grand Opera in France.

Amir: I told you: a film is a living thing. We almost finished casting for the film, when Ardasha Zhilispekova, my second assistant director, brought Maira Mukhamed-kyzi, a young and attractive woman. At that time I didn’t know who she was. I asked her if she could sing. She said: "Yes, I can. Can I have a dombra?" She started to sing a Kazakh folk song. Her voice was so powerful that I got squashed flat against a wall. In the theater, she sings at a great distance from people; here, maybe three meters from me. Everybody in the room got squashed flat against a wall. I was listening to her, admiring her voice and, at that moment, I realized that this was the main character of my film.

Gulnara: Did Maira see the finished film?

Amir: Many times. In Moscow, when she was performing in front of an audience, she thanked me for the opportunity to star in my film. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to chat about the film. Now she lives in Paris and sings in the Grand Opera. I am considering visiting her there, enjoying the fine voices and talking with her about the film.

Gulnara: What about the grandmother in your film?

Amir: The grandmother is just a grandmother. She has the title of Mother –Heroine; she raised eight children.

Gulnara: The scene where Maira teaches the little girl to count in Kazakh, Chinese and English impressed me. Maira speaks fluently in Chinese, Kazakh and English. It is interesting that there was no Russian language. Our geopolitical orientation has changed, hasn’t it? Is there a new context in it?

Amir: You can interpret this scene differently. I think that it came out so interestingly because of the true curiosity of the little girl. In reality Maira speaks four languages: Kazakh, Chinese, English and Russian. The little girl speaks only Kazakh and she was very curious about everything. She was asking lots of questions including how to count in different languages. She was just obsessed with learning new things. This inquisitive energy of the child and the willingness of a grownup to share her knowledge made the scene very warm and humane and therefore, very meaningful.

Gulnara: One of the reasons why the film looks fresh and original is that it was shot on video and then transferred to film. Were you influenced by the Dogma, the popular European movement?

Amir: It is a complicated question. Of course, I knew about video experiments in cinema. But I came to it very unexpectedly. One of my distant relatives died and his family asked me to browse through the video footage of his life and edit it into a film. I was watching the material and was surprised by how much video can put a focus on everyday life – totally different from film. It gives new opportunities of demonstrating reality. After this work I believed that I could make a film on video. Now it is not important for me how I shoot – film or video, studio or independent – as long as it is truthful.

Gulnara: What is Zhilama! for you?

Amir: For me, it is a hymn to Kazakh women.

March, 2003, Almaty

Gulnara Abikeeva, 2003

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