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Russian cinema

Kolkata IFF screening 6: Song from the Southern Seas (Kazakhstan/Russia/Germany/France 2009)

Vladimir Yavorsky as Ivan, the 'Russian' father

Another first for me – a film from Kazakhstan. It’s a not quite so dramatic as it sounds since there was material from Central Asia during the era of Soviet Cinema and, like many such ‘world cinema’ productions, this has French and German funding. It was directed by Marut Salaru who was born in that part of the Soviet Union that is now Kyrgyzstan (where I think some of the filming took place). The budget of €1.4 million mens that it generally looks good and it shares with many of the other films screened in Kolkata an interest in national identity and history.

The basic story is very simple. A man of Russian origin (at least he is blonde-haired and generally fair) and his Cossack wife live in a remote settlement where their next-door neighbours are a Kazakh couple. The film opens with the delivery of the Russian couple’s baby – a darker-skinned boy with obvious Central Asian genes. Fifteen years later, the boy often truants from school and has developed a sideline in horse-rustling that does not endear him to the true nomadic horsemen. Our Russian hero’s other problem is that his Cossack in-laws think that he is a wimp and try to persuade his wife to leave him. (Wikipedia describes the Cossacks as ‘military communities’ spread across present-day Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan whose origins are open to ‘scholarly dispute’).

There is also a sub-plot in which the local employer, a hydro electric plant-manager, tries to persuade one of his staff – like himself of German origin – not to leave for the West. So here in a neat little arrangement, we have the different groups within Kazakh culture – the Central Asians, the Cossacks, the Russians and the Germans. (The Germans, a community of over 1 million in 1989, were mostly deportees from Western Russia sent to Kazakhstan by Stalin who feared that they would be collaborators or fifth columnists in 1941. Since 1991 and the end of the Soviet Union, some 900,000 Germans have migrated to Germany from Kazakhstan – see this UN Report. )

The main narrative sees the Russian father, feeling abandoned by his son and wife, seeking out an elderly uncle and finally learning something about his own family background. There are a few nice twists in this final section. The other element in the film refers to the title. At various points in the narrative, the live action is interrupted by a sequence featuring the kinds of ‘shadow figures’ created by tracing outlines on paper cutouts that are then moved across a screen on the end of sticks – something I associate with the work of Lotte Reiniger and known generally as ‘silhouette animation‘. In these scenes a traveller approaches a female character in local dress who is Queen of the Northern Seas, Western and Eastern and finally Southern Seas.

There is an ending which in some ways explains each of the plot strands without offering a ‘resolution’ as such. It’s a short film and while not artistically exceptional, it is informative and enjoyable. I hope it gets some kind of European release. One thing it did for me was to reveal my enormous lack of knowledge about Kazakhstan – the ninth biggest country in the world (bigger than Western Europe). Global cinema certainly has the capacity to surprise us.

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