In a discussion following the screening of several student shorts in 2008, Adilkhan Yerzhanov defined the goals for the new generation of filmmakers in Kazakhstan: “All we can do in our situation is not to make auteur cinema, but create a new laboratory or experimental genre [...]. We are searching for a genre and the right language to establish our niche between giants: between India, Europe and Hollywood” (in Knox-Voina, 199-200). This generation of young filmmakers includes also Serik Abishev, Emir Baigaizin, and Talgat Bektursynov, who represent contemporary Kazakh cinema with new aesthetic, stylistic and ideological values. In addition to finding their place between the West and the East, another task of young Kazakh filmmakers is to rediscover the special connections to the traditions of the New Wave. Like their predecessors from the Kazakh New Wave in the 1980s, they try to establish their own cinematic techniques and their relationship to film genre, while constructing a new “re-imagined” space of Kazakhstan.
Unlike the older and more experienced generation of Kazakh filmmakers, young directors do not necessarily base their cinematic stories on the history of the region, its customs and values, and are not specifically interested in the search for a new national identity. Rather, they experiment with form, style, and narrative structure, attempting to intertwine past and present, tradition and innovation, the real and the imaginary, the comic and the horrific. Consequently, Yerzhanov’s films can be understood as experiments with genre and exercises in developing a unique cinematic language by mixing various stylistic and narrative elements and incorporating visual citations, thus establishing the techniques of the Kazakh New “New” Wave.
Film critics have tried to pinpoint the genre of Yerzhanov’s film The Owners, defining it as “a deadpan tragicomedy,” “an absurd drama,” “a black comedy,” “a blackly comic drama,” and “a bleakly funny drama.” However, Peter Rollberg’s definition of the director’s previous film, The Constructors (Stroiteli, 2013), as “an existential social drama” with comic elements might be the most productive category for The Owners. As in Yerzhanov’s other films, including his debut full-length feature film, The Realtor (Rieltor, 2011), the ultimate failure of multiple attempts to establish ties to the land or property as part of the existentialist myth of Sisyphus,are at the narrative center of The Owners.
The Owners can be viewed as a remake of The Constructors that narrates the story of young Kazakhs in their attempts to survive, despite finding themselves in surreal situations and encountering absurd characters throughout the film. The main characters of the 2013 film are two teenage brothers, Rauf and Yerbolat, and their younger sister Aliya, who, after their mother’s stroke and loss of the apartment, are forced to travel to the provinces to claim ownership of their mother’s land and build a house in exchange for an apartment from the government. In The Owners, the three siblings-orphans—John, Yerbol, and Aliya—also leave the city after their mother’s death to claim a plot of land and a house in a small mountain village. Upon their arrival in the village, their neighbor notifies them that he has been living in this house with his family for ten years after renovating it; supported by corrupt policemen and village residents, he beats up the brothers, and finally manipulates them into signing the deed over to him. Yerbol manages to “reconstruct” a domestic space for him and his sister in the old car that John purchases by installments, but only temporarily, and finally loses this “home” along with his family.
Among the suturing narrative elements that connect the two films are Aliya’s illness, the elder brother’s arrest, the corruption of the local authorities, and Yerbolat/Yerbol’s attempts to find a solution legally and illegally. Like in The Constructors, the young protagonists in The Owners have to survive in the cruel world of the ineffective government (represented in the faceless, but suited up, government official at the local court office), corrupt policemen and bureaucrats, and greedy neighbors. John, Yerbol, and Aliya move their modest possessions into a small white house, inherited from their mother. From the very beginning, the director hints at the impossibility of the fulfillment of this little constructed family’s dream about living together “happily ever after.”
The film opens with a shot of a child’s drawing of a house and the three siblings. The drawing is lying on the road, dirty and crinkled, symbolizing the future crash of the siblings’ desire to keep roots in this village. This image also sets the boundaries between the bright, colorful imaginary world, represented in Aliya’s drawings and hallucinations, and the bleak, grey reality. When the young people arrive at the house in the next scene, they discover that it is not in the best condition: the walls are cracked, the windows have gaps, and the roof needs repairs. Yerzhanov emphasizes the depressing conditions, in which John, Yerbol, and Aliya have to live, by making the scenes inside the house dark and claustrophobic. During the fight between the siblings and the locals for the right to own the old house, the building visually deteriorates: the windows are smashed, the door is destroyed, and the walls are covered in dirt. With each destructive act by the local residents and the representatives of the state, the siblings’ life becomes increasingly miserable and unbearable. One of the only positive forces in the film is the orphans’ desire to protect, help, console, and entertain each other. Yerbol sings, dances, and performs a scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s criminal drama The Godfather for Aliya, tries to free John from jail, and finally takes revenge on the locals for all the misfortunes and grief that they have caused his family. This special familial unity is represented in Aliya’s drawing of their family on the window of the house. The shattered glass in the final scene concludes the tragic story of the siblings’ life together.
Yerzhanov’s artistic experimentations with light and shadows begin in his early black-and-white and monochromic films and develop further in The Owners, which is made in full color. With the help of the director of photography Yerkinbek Ptyraliyev, Yerzhanov creates the surreal world of the Kazakh provinces, alternating semi-artificial bright lighting and soft, dimmed lighting, and contrasting grey tones and shadows inside the house, in the police station, in the jail, and in the city court with the bright, fairytale-like scenes outside the village.
Trying to polish his artistic vision and cinematic language, Yerzhanov experiments with color as well. The viewer notices the predominance of the primary colors yellow and red throughout the film, which create a special atmosphere of happiness and peace on the one hand, and danger and death on the other; they are important for the overall meaning of the film. The director’s obsession with the color yellow can be traced back to The Realtor, where he alternates black-and-white and yellow monochromic shots. Aliya’s drawing in the opening scene is in yellow, and both Yerbol and his sister wear yellow clothes throughout the film. They represent the most optimistic characters, at least in the first half of the film. Yellow symbolizes sunshine, happiness, optimism, and hope—everything that the young characters crave for. Yerbol’s desire to keep his small family happy leads to his attempts to paint the interior of the house, and later the outside of the car, yellow. The only person who expresses compassion for Yerbol is the girl who works in the scrap-yard. He associates her with the leftover of kindness in humanity, and she sporadically appears on the screen, wearing a bright yellow shawl and carrying a cheerful yellow umbrella, both in the real-life and dream-like scenes. The color red is associated with blood, danger and death, and appears on the screen in the form of the greedy neighbor’s face, the brothers’ bleeding faces after the fight, a sweater of the little boy, who eye-witnesses the destruction of the family, and the red walls of the house interior in the last scenes of the film. The red walls and the blood on Yerbol’s face and clothes conclusively turn his symbolic yellow shirt into orange. However, in the closing scene, Yerzhanov offers more or less optimistic ending: the boy in the red sweater plants the siblings’ house plant (the yellow sunflowers) in the field in front of their lost house.
Finally, in an ironic gesture, Yerzhanov not only manipulates his viewers through his unique visual style, but also plays a game of intertextuality with them. The caricatured figures of doctors and policemen transfer from Kira Muratova’s and Renata Litvinova’s absurdist films. Moreover, Yerzhanov adopts Muratova’s and Litvinova’s preoccupation with death and develops it as the sub-theme of The Owners—a new element that separates this film from The Constructors. The villagers’ performance of their grotesque dance can be compared to the street entertainment by the provincial characters from Federico Fellini’s films. The birthday party scene with ridiculous toasts and performances almost doubles a family celebration in Sergei Solov'ev’s film House Under the Starry Sky (Dom pod zvezdnym nebom, 1991). This scene is also a distorted copy of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” where dishonest, greedy and violent villagers and policemen substitute the twelve apostles. The final scene with the neighbor boy planting the sunflowers—the leftover of the little constructed family—is an ironic reference to the final shot of Luc Besson’s Léon: The Professional (1994). These intertextual references function as the director’s ironic commentary on the contemporary Kazakh cinema’s search for a new national identity. This search ultimately fails, because, as The Owners suggests, the individual rights and freedoms are not valued in the newly reimagined country, and the state, instead of protecting its citizens, manipulates and ultimately betrays them.
Despite the somewhat confusing narrative (the audience does not have all the information about the characters and their background and history), unconventional genre, minimalist diegetic and non-diegetic music, and perplexing visual style, Yerzhanov manages to make a film that has received international recognition and introduced Kazakh cinema to a global audience. The premiere took place at Cannes in May 2014, where it received highly positive evaluations from international film critics. Since then, The Owners has traveled to various international festivals and competed at the Edinburgh IFF.