Central Asia



Surzhekey the Angel of Death

Historic drama. Kazakhstan in the 1930s: the establishment of the Soviet regime, the period of collectivization. A story of the brothers Azbergen and Pakhraddin unfolds. One of the brothers insists that their dynasty should immigrate to China to escape the Soviet repressions. The other brother is certain that they have to remain in their motherland no matter what. The dynasty stays in Kazakhstan and becomes deprived of everything: livestock, food, friends, relatives and freedom. The people bear the repression and don’t openly protest; and finally one night, when it becomes obvious that starvation is the reality, they quietly back their belongings and leave. But this is just another step towards the inevitable fatality. The story is built on a metaphor from an old legend of Korkut – it doesn’t matter where Korkut goes, he always finds a freshly dug grave for him.

Who are Kazakhs? One can say that they are people bonded by a common language, one territory, traditions and rituals. What else? Their religion, national heroes, fairytales, legends and epics. It all is correct, but also we are connected by our history – our history of suffering and tolerance, unity and survival. From one year to another, from one generation to another, by word of mouth, under threat of death, the word dzhut was pronounced, the word that was banned from the official history. Dzhut was the most horrific famine of the period of 1931-1937. During that period six million Kazakhs starved to death and one million immigrated to China. This is the history of the Kazakh genocide. Also, it was called by a new definition – collectivization.

Surzhekey the Angel of Death, by Damir Manabayev, is the first film that tells the truth about collectivization. The film director not only recreated the story about one of the most dramatic moments in Kazakh history, but also described the behavior and character of the Kazakh nomads. They had always been free and unafraid until the Bolsheviks came and spread their monstrous power and destroyed everything in the Kazakh steppe, like a wildfire.

Jean Gottmann, the geopolitical theorist, invented the term of the iconography of the space. Besides various social forms of existence, the iconography of the space includes the different forms of human existence typical for a region: the historical images, myths, sagas, legends, symbols and taboos.

Note how the film director of Surzhekey the Angel of Death recreated the iconography of Kazakh space. Let’s study it from general to specific: from nomadic lifestyle and the aul type of community to a specific family and then to epics and legends. The main tragedy of the establishment of the Soviet regime in Kazakhstan was based on the fact that Kazakhs, traditional nomads, were forced to settle down. I would like to recall the etymology of the word Kazakh. It means free people. In the period of one generation Kazakh people became colonized and lost their freedom and their traditional lifestyle of home (yurta) and provision (livestock). The scene when the people back their belongings and migrate overnight awakes a controversial feeling in me. On one hand, this feeling is a kind of genetic admiration for their mobility and organization. On the other hand, it’s heartrending because they were forced to leave.

Surzhekey the Angel of Death was filmed in Mangishlak with its harsh sands and winds and its magnificent and unkind landscape. The spirit of nomadic existence was recreated vividly without unnecessary theatrical artificiality. There are two types of visuals in the motion picture: one is the monochromatic (almost black and white) exterior and the other is the colorful interior. The monochromatic image of the outside reflects the true psychological state of being in a steppe or a desert. In a dry spell with winds and heat of the steppe, one almost is unable to see the color – it all blurs into a palette of earth and sand. As soon as one enters a yurta, he or she is overwhelmed by the vivid colors of tekemets, patchwork blankets and rugs.

There is a scene, in which a family takes its yurta apart. The shots from the yurta’s interior make the process seem like a giant animal has been butchered: the skeleton is already seen but this giant whale or dinosaur is still breathing and its rib cage is expending and contracting – the wind shakes the wooden construction of the yurta. These metaphoric visuals enrich the film with one more level of depth – it transforms into a requiem for the dying nomadic civilization.

The film has a truly epic scale. The scenes with kazakns, giant steaming iron pots set outdoors; playing children; women performing their chores – mesmerize the viewer. But this fascinating scenery doesn’t last. A Bolshevik commissar arrives and demolishes the centuries-old traditions. The devastations begin.

A scene of expropriation of a bai’s (the wealthy head of the dynasty) property is tear-jerking and comical at the same time. It starts with an argument between two women and is reminiscent of a harmless market scuffle. Then other women of the aul go into the bai’s house and take all the household possessions they can grab: a sewing machine, pillows, dishes, blankets, etc. While the women are dividing the things and arguing over them, a Red Army soldier drags the bai and his wife outside their home, puts them in a wagon and takes them away without telling anybody. The villagers are confused about everything and don’t know that behind hills the head of their family and his wife were shot without a trial – like stray dogs. And only an old blind lady, who told the legend of Korkut to her granddaughter a day before, understands what just has happened and she starts the zhoktau, the mourning cry for the victims. The other women forget about their pitiful booty and stop their fight. They realize the horrific events, and join the mourning cry. This community grieving brings them together and puts their material interests in perspective. The aul is a community, a family, which functions in accordance with the rules of mutual support – otherwise, nobody has a chance to survive. The aul is the root of the tribal mentality of Kazakhs.

The traditional Kazakh family is the most tightly bound unit of the society. Families had been fairly large. First, many generations lived together: grandparents, great-grandparents, parents and children. Second, relationships between dynasties related through marriage were very close; they called each other kudalar and include each other in all family functions. One family could consist of ten to twelve couples. Therefore, the true tragedy described in the film is the rupture or these connections.

The story of the two brothers Pakhraddin and Azbergen is about the two poles of the same axis, the two possible paths that could’ve been chosen. Azbergen urges his brother to escape to China and save their dynasty from the Soviet disaster. He had seen the Bolshevik’s atrocities in other places. Pakhraddin believes that the chance of living in their homeland is worth risking their lives. Both paths are doomed.

The tragedy touched other members besides the brothers. The civil war divided the family members into the opposite sides of the barricades, cutting blood ties like a sword: son against father, husband against wife, etc. The beautiful Khansulu is torn between her love for Shege, her Communist husband, and her duty to her father Pakhraddin. First she runs to her parents to protect them, and then she returns to her husband. Shege’s father finds out that his son is going to expropriate the property of his own father-in-law and renounces Shege. The tragedy of broken families enters every home. A wife renounces her husband; brothers become strangers – it is all evidence of the chaos and destruction of human lives. The story of this particular family represents the tragedy of the entire nation.

The iconography of Kazakh space in Surzhekey the Angel of Death would’ve not been complete if the narrative wasn’t punctuated with the legend of Korkut, a Turkic tale predating Islam. The old blind granny tells it to her granddaughter. This what the story is about:

When Korkut was born, he was foretold that an inevitable death was awaiting him and there was no escape. From his early childhood he tried to evade his death. But everywhere he went, he came across people digging a grave. He would ask: "For whom is this grave?" The answer would always be the same: "For Korkut." It was the same in north, south, east, and west. He spent all his life in hiding and became old. The Turkic God took mercy on him and said that he would remove the curse if Korkut could find the center of the universe. Korkut found the center of the universe. It was his place of birth – the Sardaria River. Sitting on the shore, Korkut invented the kobiz, a small cello-like instrument. While Konkurt played his kobiz his death avoided him. Korkut was the only mortal who had outwitted God. He discovered a space between death and life; and people named it the arts.

It is interesting to note that the blind old granny – the archetypical Kazakh mother figure – tells only the first part of the legend of Korkut, and the second part is left beyond the camera’s view. Since every Kazakh knows this tale from earliest childhood, it didn’t need to be told in full. The implications of the legend are that collectivization is the death that was constantly following Korkut; and the dream of a promised land – the escape from death and suffering – only existed in people’s minds.

Many years had passed and the oral tale was officially allowed to become a motion picture for the public to see. And only during this independence period did we learned out the truth about the establishment of Soviet power in Turkestan, and filled in the blank spaces in the tragic history of collectivization. Probably, this is why, at the end of the film, a heart-breaking Kazakh song sounds like a cry for the victims and the requiem for the extinct nomadic civilization.

Surzhekey the Angel of Death

Kazakhstan, 1991, Catharsis Studio, 129 minute, color

Director – Damir Manabayev

Screenwriters – Smagul Elubayev and Damir Manabayev

Cinematographer – Bolat Suleyev

Composer – Almaz Bestibayev

Cast: Meiram Nurkeyev, Nurmukhan Zhanturin, Zhanas Iskakov, Bakhitzhan Alpeisov, Shamshigul Mendiyarova.


Awards and Participation in Film Festivals:

Grand-Prize in the Silver Crescent Film Festival, Ashkhabad, 1991

Grand-Prize in the Bastau Film Festival, Almaty, 1993

Gulnara Abikeeva, 2003

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