By Ali Moosavi.
When discussing world cinema, Kazakhstan is not a country which immediately springs to mind. Like many of the former Soviet Republic countries though, it is beginning to make a name for itself. These efforts received a major boost this year when the Kazak director Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s film, The Gentle Indifference of the World, was selected in the Un Certain Regard section of the 71st Cannes Film Festival.
Yerzhanov is an independent film maker and a veteran of film festivals who, as you can read below, is at odds with his government. His new film has many themes intertwined together. There is corruption, of the governing system and of personal morals. There is the loss of innocence when moving from the simple rural life to the every-man-for-himself, dog-eat-dog jungle of big cities. And there is the increasing indifference of people to this erosion of morals and systematic corruption; what the great, legendary Italian neo-realist film maker, Vittorio De Sica, described as “the indifference of society towards suffering” back in the fifties.
In The Gentle Indifference of the World we have Saltanat (Dinara Baktybayeva), a beautiful girl living in a farm in the countryside. She has a passion for books and her favourite authors include Albert Camus (the title of the film comes from a sentence in Camus’s The Outsider). When her father dies, her mother informs her that he left them with a large debt and she cannot afford to support her anymore. So, she sends off Saltanat to her rich uncle in the city, who has promised to help them. One of the farm workers, Kunadyk (Kunadyk Dussenbaev), who is devoted to Saltanat, accompanies her to the city to protect her from harm. Saltanat’s uncle, however, has material gains, rather than moral responsibilities, in mind. He asks Saltanat to marry one of his associates, a cold-hearted man who is several years older than Saltanat, as he can pay off her father’s debt and save Saltanat’s mother from going to jail. Meanwhile, Kunadyk gets sucked into a systematic corruption involving the local fruit sellers mafia when he tries to become a simple labourer.
The following conversation with Adilkhan Yerzhanov was conducted at the 71st Cannes Film Festival.
In the film you show both corruption of the system and moral corruption. Did you want to draw a parallel between these two?
To be honest, I do not think that we can separate economic or administrative corruption from human corruption. I think corruption in general emerges from the corruption of the moral, of corruption of everything that is human. That’s erosion of morality when we forget about all the nice and good things that we could do in the world.
I do not think that it’s a new story because of one of our traditional fairy tales from a long time ago. That story is about a rich man who tries to make his niece marry another rich man so that he can gain some more money. However, the girl is in love with a poor boy. So, basically this arrangement by the rich uncle would prevent two young people in love to unite. I just used this old legend and set it in the modern world.
That is why, paradoxically, when we are talking about this ancient legend, no one talks about corruption because corruption did not belong in a fairy tale. But, as soon as I took the same story and brought it to present time, everybody straightaway started seeing corruption, economic crimes, etc. That is why I think these kinds of issues have existed all the time, in any era. There have always been people who are immoral and lacking in humanity.
With reference to the film’s title, do you think that we have become indifferent to corruption and this type of behaviour and don’t show any response to it?
Yes, certainly. I think we’ve become so indifferent to this that somehow, we have become almost numb. We don’t empathise, we don’t sympathise with the suffering of the others. That is why I think art, through film and other forms, is so important because it allows people to feel another human being’s suffering. I want people to feel the suffering and hurt of others so that maybe they stop and think about it.
In several scenes, instead of using music you have used natural sounds like rain, flickering of fluorescent light, station announcements and so on, which have enriched the scene’s atmosphere. Only when you have deemed necessary, you have used music. How do you approach the use of sound and music in your films?
I believe that any sound is music. We can find music and poetry in every sound, no matter what. That is why in my films sounds are conveying ideas as well and are not just simple sounds. There is something behind the sound that tells you more about what is happening in a scene and renders it stronger. I don’t like “commentary music,” the music which is used as a background for a character’s feelings. I think it is redundant. I can convey the feelings more effectively through other means and that is why I have used music in only two scenes in my film. The music in these scenes is important and is like an image in itself, an audio image instead of a visual one.
You tell your story more through images than dialogue. It seems that every shot and camera set-up has been thought and planned well in advance. What is your working method with your cinematographer and set designer? Do you sit together before shooting and discuss every scene?
That’s exactly it. Apart from pre-production, of course, three days before the shooting of any scene, I come with a long list of props and I show them to my art director and my cinematographer. The whole team will get together, and I’m open to any suggestion which is discussed. I show them where the props go in each scene, and we decide which camera angle we are going to use, etc. We discuss everything about the scene. That is why the actual shooting is very quick. Each scene is normally shot in a day. Therefore for each scene we have three days of preparation and one day of shooting.
Was it easy to find actors for the film? Are there a large number of professional actors available in Kazakhstan?
There are a lot of actors in Kazakhstan. It’s probably easy to find actors for a film, but not for mine. Because, to begin with, I’m not very popular in Kazakhstan. There are no lines of actors who are eager to work with me. Secondly, I do not do castings at all. Because I think that for my movies castings are quite useless. What is really important for me is to see my potential actor in real life. I need to know how this person smiles, I need to see this person laugh, I need to see this person walk, I need to see this person react to a serious thing, I need to see them sad, I need to see them happy; that’s when I decide if the actor is right for my film. I would know how actors would react to the situations in the scenes and then, ideally, I can write the whole script with the actors in mind.
So how did you find the actors for this film, specially the two leads?
It was quite easy for Kunadyk, the main male character because I’ve known Kunadyk Dussenbaev for quite a while. He has worked with me on a few films. He is a professional actor but has also worked for me as a production assistant. So I had seen him in different situations and I have always noticed a duality in him. On one hand, he is a big muscular man, very strong and virile; but, at the same time, there is a certain weakness in him, like a hidden suffering, a hidden ache that we can feel in his soul. When I was writing the script, I knew that Kunadyk would be the right actor; even the name of the character is Kunadyk.
As for the actress, it was a bit more difficult because Dinara Baktybayeva is quite famous in Kazakhstan. She is a star and I was afraid that a star would be difficult for my film. Because sometimes they are capricious and get into a bad mood, and I could not afford that. However, when I met her in real life, I found her to be a very simple person, despite being a star and very popular. At the same time, there is this melancholy, this sadness in her eyes and she knows how to show suffering. She is also very beautiful and this beautiful sadness, or sad beauty, which she displays, was ideal for my picture.
You mentioned that you’re not very popular in Kazakhstan. Why is that? Now that you have a film in the most important film festival in the world, how would this be reported in Kazakhstan?
I have an impression that the official Kazak media is actually prohibited to mention my name in any form. This year even the Cannes Film Festival is hardly mentioned in the media, just to avoid mentioning my participation in it. Sometimes it gets rather ridiculous. Here, in the Cannes Film Festival, there is the Kazakhstan pavilion, which has been arranged by the Kazakhstan Government. But I have never been invited there; they did not show any signs of life as related to me. They exist on their side of the festival and I’m on my side. They did not bring any films at all. They brought Kazak music, and I brought my film.
Is that because they think that you present a very negative view of Kazakhstan?
They have not seen the film. So, they can not know if it’s negative, with relation to Kazakhstan as a country, or not. But it is true that a few years ago the Kazakhstan minister of culture put me on a black list, saying that my films shamed Kazakhstan as a country. This was quite a few years ago, but I’m still being neglected and ignored from the viewpoint of the government. Yet I’m here in Cannes representing my country. You know that the flag of every country that has a film in the official section is raised here. So, the flag of my country, Kazakhstan, is raised because of my film. Also, the fact that our Kazakhstan has a stand here means that our government puts some value on cinema, arts, and culture. So I don’t understand why the situation is like this. I think it’s probably been handed down from above because in the depth of their hearts they should understand that I do not at all try to blacken the name of Kazakhstan and show a bleaker picture than the reality. On the contrary, I bring information about Kazakhstan out to the world. My aim is not to put any shame whatsoever on any country. My intention is to make films. That’s what I love doing, that’s what I do well and that’s what I want to continue to do.
I do hope that one day in my country they realize that the films that I make are not intended to blacken my country’s name or show it in a negative way. No, not at all. I want to make films and convey my vision of the world through them.
Sometimes I have a dream that the minister calls me and says hey, look I’ve watched your film and it was great, congratulations! I don’t want him to write about me in every newspaper or whatever, but I think it’s normal to share my happiness for being here in the Cannes Film Festival. For me, just being here, not necessarily winning a prize, is an achievement, and it is an achievement of Kazak film.
(This interview takes place on the terrace of Palais de Festival, the Festival’s HQ. Yerzhanov walks over to the edge of the terrace and points to a flag flying in distance.)
Do you see the Kazak flag? So, an achievement of any Kazak film is an achievement of my country. I’m promoting my country.
Are your films shown publicly in Kazakhstan?
No, not a single one.
Is it difficult for you to find financing for your films?
I feel that each film that I make is the last one because I never know whether I’ll have money for the next one. But each time somehow I manage to get the financing, though not from governmental sources. I think my salvation is the fact that I can shoot a film on a micro budget. Not even a small budget but a micro budget.
Who have been your influences in cinema?
Kubrick, Kiarostami, Godard, Kitano, Parajanov, Peter Weir, Jim Jarmush. It’s difficult to single out directors. I think that I’m pretty much influenced by any great film director and I just love cinema.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).