Dir. Guka Omarova. Kazakhstan/ Russia/ France/ Germany. 2008. 87 mins.
A modern fairytale for the Third World, Guka Omarova’s second feature, plays, at least in spirit, as a sequel of her much awarded debut pictureSchizo. Though more whimsical, if such a word can apply to her straightforward, realistic type of cinema, it is as inspired a portrait of her country, Kazakhstan, as her first film.
Showing how a woman healer can defeat the Mafia, by using the magic strength she draws from her native soil, Native Dancer offers a different story but relies on the same type of wit and folk charm that worked so well for Omarova the first time around. Bound to be welcomed everywhere by film events and festivals, it could also turn into a niche hit on the art house circuit.
While Omarova’s intentions may be far-reaching and significant, the film’s main appeal lies in its immediate, unpretentious rendition of an unlikely story. Aidai (Omarbekova), an older woman, erect and energetic as if age has passed her by, works miracles for all the many people who queue, day in, day out, to ask for help. She discovers their stolen cattle, heals their incurable diseases, finds their missing relatives - there is very little she is not capable of, her authority and wisdom feared and respected. The piece of land on which she lives and plies her trade has been given to her by a grateful landowner and strong-arm man Batyr (Amankulov), whose sterile wife gave birth only with the help of Aidai’s charms.
But the Mafia, looking for new territories to call their own, have other plans, Assisted by the corrupt local police, they manage to chase her away from her land and to replace the mud huts where she and her people lived with a brand new gas station. It’s their first step towards erecting a casino on the location. When the station is burned down, the Mafia suspects Batyr is responsible for it, kidnaps his son and it is only with the help of Aidai, who had disappeared without a trace and is found again, that the boy is retrieved in the nick of time and at a high price.
Omarova, a documentarist at heart, shoots her story simply, without any unnecessary adornments. Working mostly with non-professionals, she draws out of them natural, spontaneous, unaffected performances, convincing even in awkward circumstances. Omarbekova, in particular, looks so masterfully in control of her part one never doubts she is capable of every supernatural trick she works on the screen, as illogical as it might seem to a Western mind.
An extension of the portrait of Kazakh life, as displayed in Schizo, Omarova ironically shows petty criminals replaced by organized crime, old beaten up cars replaced by new SUVs - but the chaotic train of life persists unchanged, despite the passing of time.
CTB Film Company
Les Petites Lumieres