50 Countries Project #9: Kairat (Kazakhstan)

If there’s a problem common to many contemporary arthouse films – particularly those screened in the main competition sections of major festivals – it’s a sense of airlessness; a tendency towards overly careful construction and logical shot progression that can render the most otherwise well-made film disappointingly familiar and schematic. In contrast, Darezhan Omirbaev’s Kairat (1992) is a film of non-sequiturs: one in which casual observations are pursued to no obvious narrative end, and the boundary between reality and dreams is uncertain. This is a profoundly liberating approach, and a welcome antidote to 21st century cinema’s more conservative tendencies.

Kairat‘s titular character is a shy young man who has moved from the provinces to the city of Almaty, where he completes his studies in the hope of gaining work as a bus driver. The dilapidated, all-male student dorm he lives in is mostly populated by introverts; their quietude only interrupted by the resident macho, who demands reparations for trivial slights. Their contact with women seems to be mostly limited to gazing at the pin-ups on their bedroom wall; but Kairat soon falls in love with a girl that he meets at a bus stop.

A relationship develops, but it mostly seems to be happening in his head. In one sequence, the two share a moment of furtive affection while watching an erotic film at the cinema; in another, he sees her pregnant at a piano recital. There’s a wonderfully subdued surrealism to these scenes; enough for them to feel convincingly dreamlike but not clearly signposted as such. Other sequences, such as one in which the protagonist finds himself stuck at the top of a ferris wheel, come close to the cine-poetry of Andrei Tarkovsky.

Darezhan Omirbaev is not, to my knowledge, a particularly high-profile filmmaker (although his most recent work, the Dostoevsky-inspired Student (2012), premiered at Cannes to positive reviews). If this early work is anything to go by, he deserves far more recognition. Of the films I’ve seen so far as part of this project, Kairat is my favourite by far.

You can read more about my 50 countries project (and see the list of films and countries) here.

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