Stranger focuses on one boy’s meditative search for the meaning of life.
Like many countries formerly under communist rule, transitioning towards a modernised society has not been universally embraced in Kazakhstan.
Writer-director Yermek Tursunov, whose films have (twice) been put forward as his country’s Oscar submission, addresses this delicate issue with Stranger (Zhat), which had its world premiere at Toronto and makes its Kazakh Premiere at the Eurasia Film Festival.
Once again selected as the country’s official entry for next year’s Academy Awards, Stranger focuses on one boy’s meditative search for the meaning of life, set during a time when ancestral tradition was being pitted against Soviet industrialisaton.
What made you want to explore this subject?
This subject is very important to Kazakhstan. It was a time in the 1930s and 1940s, when Soviets were implementing collective farming and leaving many villages to starve. For the nomadic people, it meant deeply rooted traditions were being stripped away, such as cooking breads and meat dishes or making clothes out of fur, silks and wool.
Can you describe the symbolism of the mountains and the village?
When the Soviets began inflicting Kazakhstan with the early stages of the industrial revolution, there was a brutish situation where townspeople started turning their backs on each other. In this film, a nine-year-old boy’s father is taken by such anarchists, leaving him to fend for himself. Instead of falling into the hands of the townspeople, he takes to the mountains where he learns to rely on himself and nature.
There is a religious undertone here, where Ilyas could be compared to Jesus or Buddha - figures that set themselves against cultural norms and traditions, and as a result, are reprimanded because of it. The harshness of the landscape is representative of a human’s fighting spirit - noted in the film when Ilyas’ father’s last words to him are: “Be human. Be strong.”
You shot primarily in the mountains with one boy and wild animals. What were the challenges?
We shot at the top of the Tian Shan mountains outside of Almaty for one month, a location so high that we had to take a helicopter to get to there. We camped at night, where temperatures would go below freezing and during the day become very warm. In addition to working with a young actor, we had horses, wolves and wild goats to contend with.
We had trainers on set who advised us on how to work respectfully with the animals. Sometimes the horses would get so tired in the day, they would just stop and go to sleep. Wolves are very sensitive and wise creatures, so sometimes we had to give them a minimal dose of tranquillisers to help calm them down. The goats never wanted to do what we needed them to do.
What are your views of Russia and Kazakhstan today?
We have had 24 years of independence from Russia. It is clear, however, they are still in our pockets, like our big brother. With Russia currently having financial struggles, this affects us as well. We are a struggling nation, and we have issues with political freedom in the press along with high inflation.
The bulk of the country’s money comes from the two main cities while the remaining 70% of the population struggles immensely. We still have a long way to go before we have a stable, democratic government. I try not to say too much, otherwise my films will not get screened. Already I can not ask for money from the government, I must rely on my business investor.