ERMEK SHINARBAEV with Tanner Tafelski
Compared to the concurrent New Taiwanese Cinema, the Kazakh New Wave is an under-exposed movement in cinema, even though many filmmakers associated with it have screened works and won major awards at Cannes, Toronto, Rotterdam, Locarno, and among other film festivals.The New Wave can be traced back to a workshop filmmaker Sergei Solovyov organized in 1983 at Moscow’s prestigious film school, VGIK. Solovyovinvited a few Kazakh students to this program, including Dareen Omirbajev, Rashid Nugmanov, Serik Aprymov, Amir Karpikov, Abai Karypykov, and Ardak Amirkulov. Studying during glasnost and perestroika, the students graduated in 1988, and began making films as the USSR disintegrated and Kazakhstan became a sovereign country. These filmmakers were supportive of one another and shared thematic and aesthetic concerns. As Birgit Beumers writes in KinoKultura, the filmmakers created “a cinema that focuses on marginal groups and exploresthe roots of Kazakh culture in the village or in pre-Soviet times; a cinema that engages with the young generation and portrays types; a cinema that is experimental in form.”
The class of 1988 forms most of the Kazakh New Wave. However, a few filmmakers like Ermek Shinarbaev (who studied at VGIK earlier) weren’t a part of this group, but became tied to the New Wave nevertheless. Moreover, Shinarbaev made one of the New Wave’s crowning achievements—Revenge (1989). An epic split into seven related “tales” and a prologue, Revenge spans hundreds of years. It begins in Korea, sometime before the invention of the Gutenberg printing press. After a lord has a man tortured, a court poet refuses to recite poetry and is banished from the kingdom. From there, the film leaps forward in time to Korea in the early 20th century, now focusing on a man whose life goal is to avenge the death of his daughter by murdering the poet who killed her. Once too old, he sires a boy who inherits this drive or revenge.
Restored in 2010 through the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, Revenge received its US home video premiere in May thanks to The Criterion Collection. Shinarbaev’s film is one of several works, including Lino Brocka’s Insiang (1976) and Edward Yang’s Taipei Story (1985), found in the latest World Cinema Project boxed set. For this occasion, I spoke with Shinarbaev over Skype about his start as a filmmaker, Revenge’s miraculous and mysterious making, and contemporary Kazakh cinema and politics.
Tanner Tafelski (Rail): I know you studied at Moscow’s VGIK film school twice. What was your experience like there?
Ermek Shinarbaev: At that time, VGIK was the only institution in the Soviet Union where you could train as a filmmaker. I studied in VGIK from 1970 to 1981, eleven years. VGIK was perhaps the best school. At VGIK, we were taught only the art of cinema. Just after finishing my studies at VGIK, when I began to make films, I was sure that cinema was art. Now I know that cinema is art three percent of the time and the rest of it is part of the entertainment and commercial industry, nothing more.
From 1970 to 1981, it was the high point of the Soviet regime, and it was a very difficult and strange time. Nevertheless, VGIK was some sort of island, especially in the ateliers of acting and mise-en-scène where I was enrolled. We were protected; we never talked about Communist ideas or anything like that. We talked only about art. It was maybe the only institution in Moscow where there was this ambiance of freedom.
Rail: You and your classmates were a close-knit group, and I know you studied at VGIK a few years before the 1988 class, but were you aware of the sense that there was a movement happening that was to become the Kazakh New Wave?
Shinarbaev: It was clear to us that there was no Kazakh cinema at all. We were all Soviets. Being at VGIK, I never felt a part of Kazakh cinema. I was part of Soviet cinema.
Rail: So you see yourself as part of Soviet cinema’s lineage?
Shinarbaev: Yeah. Only after the Soviet Union’s crash, when Kazakhstan became an independent country, were we unhappy. I was so sad. I thought to myself, oh my goodness, it’s the beginning of nothing. But I was wrong. Thanks to this crash, we became Kazakh; we became famous. At that time, at the beginning of perestroika, Kazakh cinema became one of the most famous cinemas in the world. We were extremely poor. At the same time, we were free. However, not today.
Rail: How did Revenge come about? I know you collaborated with the Korean-Russian author Anatoli Kim, and you’ve worked with him prior to Revenge on My Sister Lucy (1985) and Out of the Forest and into the Glade (1987).
Shinarbaev: It was a chance of a lifetime, this collaboration with Anatoli Kim. When I finished my studies at VGIK, I returned to Kazakhstan and was desperate. After spending three years in Kazakhstan trying to do something as a filmmaker, I decided to quit forever. I understood that cinema wasn’t for me, at least Soviet cinema wasn’t for me, and it was better to do something else. I would start my career from scratch to do something with Chinese literature or history. Suddenly, a friend of mine gave me one of Kim’s books. I read it during the night and I was amazed. I decided to contact him, but I was so naïve. At that time, he was an outstanding celebrity in Soviet literature. A lot of filmmakers tried to persuade him to work with them and he refused all the time. Out of nowhere, here I come from Almaty. I was still a student. I tried to ask him to collaborate, and I wasn’t aware that he saw me as a crazy guy. I was so young; I didn’t have any experience in cinema. It was miraculous. Our third film, Revenge, was our last. We were full of ideas and wanted to continue our fantastic collaboration, but it was the end.
Rail: Revenge is split into seven “tales” and a prologue, and deals with fate and destiny. The characters may go about their random life, seemingly not following a path, but it all leads to a larger plan colored by revenge. Revenge has a temporal element in the film. Could you speak a little bit about the sense of fate in Revenge?
Shinarbaev: I never thought about the film’s story, that of somebody who was obliged to fulfill this revenge. I regarded the script by Kim as a poem. When you are reciting any poem, you don’t think about the real meaning. You’re thinking about melody, rhythm, and the beauty of the words and language. It’s a kind of music. When you are listening to a prelude by Chopin, you’re not thinking about its meaning, but feeling the prelude, nothing more. Revenge’s script was a kind of music, a kind of poem. I don’t think about this film as a story of revenge. It doesn’t matter to me.
Rail: What was Revenge’s editing process like?
Shinarbaev: It was done in the Soviet tradition. In Soviet cinema, there was no one known as an “editor.” It’s strange to hear now, but during the Soviet Union, it was normal for the director to be the author of the script. Just after shooting the film, the director could spend two weeks thinking, and then have six weeks to edit the whole film by themselves. It was so strange! But at that time, it was normal for me and for others. I spent six weeks editing this film by myself; I was alone. Kim couldn’t come to Almaty; he was very busy. During the editing, I was afraid that the film was a catastrophe. Only during the first screening was I surprised that it was a film. My editing team was stunned. My goodness, it is a film! To this day, I’m not sure what kind of film it is.
When I finished making Revenge, I was exhausted. I went to Germany to spend three months with my friend and colleague Katrin Laur, who is Estonian and lived at that time in Germany. I spent three months in Germany just trying to recover from the terrible making of this film. During these three months, I met by chance one well-known German film critic, Klaus Eder, who is the general secretary of the International Federation of Film Critics. Eder surprised me; he said, “I just returned from Almaty.” “What!” I said. “Yes, I was in Almaty and I spent three days there looking for new Central-Asian films and I’ve seen your film.” Dare I ask him what he thought about Revenge? He said, “You know it’s not bad, but I’m not selecting this film for FilmFest Munich.” He was a programmer for the festival. “I did not select this film. It’s not so good.”
I was not surprised; I was shocked. I was sad and devastated. Exactly one year later, I met Eder at the Croisette in Cannes one morning. I was so happy to meet him that I embraced him and said, “I’m so happy. I’m so grateful to you. Thank you for not selecting my film for FilmFest Munich because Gilles Jacob selected it for Cannes. Thank you very much. I’m so grateful!”
Rail: You said the making of Revenge was terrible. Could you talk a little more about that?
Shinarbaev: The script wasn’t written for me. Kim wrote it for a Russian actor who wanted to make his directorial debut. This actor dreamed about making Revenge for the cinema, and he asked Kim to write the script. Kim spent maybe the whole year writing the script, and he gave it to him, but he said no. It wasn’t the script that he wanted and he couldn’t do it. Kim was so sad that he told me during one telephone conversation, “you know, I wrote the script and it was rejected.” I told him it’s okay, I will do it. I didn’t read the script, but I immediately said that I would make this film. But I was a Kazakh filmmaker and that’s why when I tried to fund this project, Goskino [the State Committee for Cinematography], which regulated cinema and operated out of Moscow, was not so favorable to this idea. They said, “if you want to make this film, we can give you 800,000 rubles.” This was 30 percent of a real budget. It was necessary to have two million rubles, but they said no for a Kazakh film. The ceiling is 800,000. I was forced to make this film having only 30 percent of the budget. It was difficult not having anything.
We shot for three months and we made several trips to Sakhalin Island. I always had this impression that the film was a catastrophe, that I was making the greatest mistake of my life. The script was great, but I had neither time nor money nor experience for making this film properly. When I finished shooting, I was exhausted by my inability to make a film. It was too much, too big, and too beautiful for me. I said to myself that I am unable. That’s why when I met Eder in Munich, and he told me that Revenge wasn’t good, I agreed with him.
Rail: The lighting in Revenge is unlike anything I’ve seen. You worked with the director of photography, Sergei Kosmanev. How did he achieve the film’s luminous look?
Shinarbaev: To make this film, I invited a very good director of photography from Moscow. This DP spent one month preparing the shoot and then he left. He said, “no, I can’t work with you, not only because of the lack of money, but also because of your lack of understanding.” He left and I was shocked. I was alone. I invited another DP from Kiev. We started shooting with him, but he left after the first week. I was caught with my pants down. I then asked an assistant director of photography, Sergei Kosmanev, to shoot it. He had never lensed any films before. I told him, “please help me make this film.” Kosmanev said no, not because he was afraid of shooting his first film by himself, but because he knew two previous DPs left me. He didn’t want to be a replacement of somebody. And in one week, he said he would try.
Kosmanev shot Revenge and my following film, The Place on the Tricorne (1993), and that was the end of his career. A lot of people tell me that Revenge is great and painterly and I don’t know who made it.
Rail: The film is a bit of a mystery then.
Shinarbaev: This film was made by itself. It’s a kind of mystery. You’re 25 years old; you cannot imagine how life was like in the Soviet Union. It was different; it was not horrible. We had no film for shooting. I had only eight cans of Fujifilm, not 8,000 meters, but eight cans and nothing more. Afterwards, what was left was Soviet film. You shot one scene, but you weren’t sure if it was done. You’d have to wait for the film’s development.
Rail: So every shot counted then?
Shinarbaev: Yes. I said to my actors sometimes, “I want to make this scene on Fuji, that’s why I only have one shot. Please be aware.” That’s terrible; you can’t say that kind of thing to actors, but I was forced to say it. But I’m not complaining. It was the way of life in the Soviet Union. Nobody was shocked or surprised. It was a happy time. We were happy nevertheless. I’m old and now I know that each film is a catastrophe.
Rail: Out of the chaos, comes the creation.
Shinarbaev: Yeah, when I began to make films, I said to myself that each film is a kind of road trip. You are sitting inside of your car and trying to drive at the highest speed, and it is inevitably a catastrophe. After that, you should spend some time in a hospital to recover. But I am lucky that I’ve made several feature films and I’m in love with all of them.
Rail: One point I wanted to bring back up about Revenge. You mentioned Sakhalin Island, and I read that prior to Revenge, it was forbidden to take pictures or record videos there. How did you get access?
Shinarbaev: Sakhalin was forbidden territory, and we made requests for shooting there. Maybe we were exceptional because only one film crew from Leningrad came after us. It was difficult to go to Sakhalin. Each crewmember had to have a special stamp on their passport to be permitted to Sakhalin. We made three trips, and each time we went, a special person greeted us by our airplane to check whether we had this stamp or not. Nevertheless, we succeeded in getting these permissions and we spent a fantastic time in Sakhalin. The island was extremely poor. We had nothing to eat because there was little food in the stores. But it was like that practically all over the Soviet Union. Sakhalin is very close to Japan and China, that’s why it has a strict mode de vie. We were in terrible conditions in this hotel. We were not surprised. We were Soviets and we were used to seeing these terrible things. At the same time, we were happy in Sakhalin. The island is a kind of paradise.
Rail: Do you think a film like Revenge could be made today in Kazakhstan?
Shinarbaev: No, we are now living in a strange country. Kazakhstan is very rich; we have everything here. We’re comfortable. There’s a lot of money. At the same time, we are living in an ex-Soviet country. When I was a student in VGIK, it was obvious that it wasn’t possible to make cinema in Kazakhstan. The authorities spent a lot of money and effort to send students from Kazakhstan to Moscow, about one hundred, without any result. There was no hope for Kazakh cinema. And just after the Soviet Union’s crash, up to twelve young Kazakh filmmakers made fantastic films. These films were presented all over the world. It was the Kazakh New Wave. It is not possible now when Kazakhstan has a lot of money.
Rail: I know there has been a rise in media censoring and suppression in Kazakhstan. Do you think this extends to cinema? Do you or other contemporary filmmakers worry about censorship?
Shinarbaev: We have a legacy of censorship coming from the Soviet Union. We use to feel that every step should be checked. Self-censorship is inside of us. What’s important is that Kazakhstan is a former Soviet country. You are living in a society where you can be punished for any word. I’m close with some Iranian directors like Mohsen Makhmalbaf and I talk a lot about this situation and its similarities with Iran. When I started my career as a director, I was immediately banned by Soviet censorship. Goskino proclaimed that this guy—me—would never make a film. My first ban was My Sister Lucy, my first film and my first script by Anatoli Kim. When we presented this script to Goskino, they said no, never. I was so angry and I said to myself, okay, I’ll wait until you disappear. It happened; the Soviet Union crashed and I could make this film. I’m quite experienced with censorship.
Authority here is very sensitive when somebody makes films about poverty and the hard conditions of life in Kazakhstan. That’s why I wouldn’t dare present The Place on the Tricorne because I thought it wouldn’t be useful. This film isn’t about how difficult life is in Kazakhstan; it’s about the difficulty of existence, nothing more. That’s why I’m not trying to persuade spectators and authorities here in Kazakhstan.
TANNER TAFELSKI is a writer based in New York. His work has appeared in Cineaste, Film Comment, Hyperallergic, and elsewhere.