Adilkhan Yerzhanov describes his film The Owners as an ‘honest reflection of [post-Soviet] society’ in Khazahstan. The film presents the ‘grotesque actuality’ of ‘“grunge” [social] attitudes towards the abuse of rights and the harassment of people’ while steering away from ‘social film’ clichés. Peter Rollberg, writing about Yezhanov’s previous film The Constructors (2013), points out instead that ‘what matters more [than], the social framework, and even psychological finesse is the cinematic execution’ characterised by ‘rare freshness’ and ‘visual and acoustic control’. The Owners continues to impress with skilful cinematography, and adroit use of visual language. However, the aesthetic flourishes do not overpower the film’s amusing, intelligent, and at times cruel social critique.
The film seems to respond to Khazakhstan becoming increasingly attractive to tourists, prompting the creation of a sterilised, polished image of this ailing country. The region is promoted as the place ‘where ancient meets modern and oriental traditions coexist with Western culture’. As if to comment on the supposed ‘coexistence’, The Owners mockingly juxtaposes the poor living conditions with the ‘highest’ cultural accomplishments of the civilised world. Yerzhanov creates this effect by presenting the impoverished characters in shots composed to evoke the paintings of Caravaggio, da Vinci, Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Seusier amongst others. The allusions to classic art clash with the images of an orphaned family of two brothers and their ill sister moving against the decaying rural backgrounds and crumbling walls of corrupt institutions. In the end, the family succeeds at connecting the ancient with the modern by falling victim to the primitive instincts of present-day impoverished villagers.
The film’s representation of the absurd and grotesque aspects of post-Soviet society recalls the tragicomic glory of established Eastern European films such as I Don’t Like Monday (Chmielewski, 1971) or The Fireman’s Ball (Forman, 1967). This reference to the style and humour of films representing the system at its most repressive suggests that, despite the political changes, Kazahstan somehow failed to move on from its Communist past. The resulting lawless, cruel and disorganised country where the inhabitants claim to ‘deserve to die’ evokes Spaghetti Westerns. However, the film imbues this reference with a much darker tone due to its contemporary digenesis. As the action progresses, the increasing sense of injustice builds up to the film’s impressive resolution which owes as much to classic Western standoffs as it does to Greek Tragedy.
Life May Be
Mark Cousins’ new film Life May Be adds image and sound to his correspondence with Iranian filmmaker and artist Mania Akbari. Essayistic and reflexive, the film juxtaposes photographs, text, and short sequences shot with a handheld camera. The form allows Cousins to explore the idea of ‘film as democratic art’. The collage of these various representations reflects our everyday online communications, the traces left by many thanks to contemporary technology.
Like an extended and embellished Facebook post the film seems simultaneously private and exhibitionist. The ‘letters’ are meant to impress viewers with their depth of reflection, the poetry in their language, the knowledge of anthropology, history and art. The argumentative descriptions of the intellectual roots of Cousins’ and Akbari’s artistic output seem to beg for an academic response. However, their arguments rarely reach the depth that would warrant specialist attention. The fleeting observations range from insightful to clichéd. The recycled ideas unashamedly feign their freshness with nothing to prove their supposed ‘originality’ but the self-confidence of the speakers.
The film is not quite a private confession but also not a message addressed to the audience. At times it feels like an advertisement. It aims to show a unique, truly artistic vision and reflect on how art transforms human perception. The result is an elitist use of a democratic art for the filmmakers self-aggrandisement.
Sorrow & Joy
Sorrow and Joy is a diary translated into a film, an account of the greatest tragedy in the life of its director, Nils Malmros. He realises the impressively difficult task of creating what he describes as ‘nearly’ a reconstruction of the events that led up to and followed his wife’s brutal murder of their infant daughter. In the film, Johannes (Jakob Cedergren), an alter-ego of the director, fights to save his fragile wife Signe, sensitively portrayed by Helle Fagralid, from being destroyed by her mental illness and the legal consequences of the crime she committed during a psychotic episode.
The film has received numerous negative reviews. Some suggest that the personal nature of the story blurred the director’s vision and led to clumsy filmmaking. However, Malmros claims to create all of his films, including those critically acclaimed, by representing real events the way he remembers them and remaining critical of his own choices and behaviours. Like the main character of Synecdoche, New York (2008) he seeks the truth about himself through faithful adaptations. He uses his films as mirrors. As a result, in Sorrow and Joy he values memories and impressions over a strict narrative structure, and challenges audiences to evaluate the conventional responses to the tragedy it describes.
Other films presenting a similar scenario would vilify the mother and gladly condemn her to suicide in a hospital ward. Here, what seems an inexcusable crime, is not treated with hatred but, instead, understanding. This stems from an awareness of the circumstances and a type of love that is rarely portrayed on screen. The director describes this as ‘mature love’, one that endures and uses sorrow to bind rather than to condemn and separate. As Kahlil Gibran states in his poem Of Joy and Sorrow, ‘the deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain’.