Kyrgyzstan-Germany, 2005, 85 min, Director/Script: Ernest Abdyshaparov. With Kumondor Abylov, Askat, Sulaimanov, Tabyldy Aktakov. NFT 2, Tuesday 4 pm
We are in the fourteenth year after the Soviet Union disintegrated and released its socialist republics into a sudden and unexpected independence. The five Central Asian republics were probably the least prepared: the economic malaise that followed the withdrawal of Moscow's subsidies, and more deeply, the ideological vacuum that arose, left the five -Stans in the Soviet backwaters stranded on a potholed road to an uncertain future.
Hardly anywhere else has this been more tangible than in "Saratan", a Kyrgyz-German co-production screened at the 49th London Film Festival.
In a vivid and most comical manner, this film is a happy-sad snapshot of life in a country whose average citizen is struggling with a sheer insurmountable number of difficulties.
It's early in the morning and an alarm clock breaks the silence in an average Kyrgyz village afoot the mighty Tien Shan. The Mullah has overslept (again) and hastens to the mosque for the Morning Prayer. No one seems to show any interest for such early-morning devotion, though.
The lonely warden on the main square delegates the non-existent rush-hour traffic. His boss, the local police officer, once again wakes up in the bed of a married woman whose husband works away from the village.
Fourteen years into independence, there are several things that just don't seem to work in this small Kyrgyz village: agriculture is defunct, people are poor and lack a perspective for a better future. A few rich have benefited to the disadvantage of the average villager. Employment is virtually non-existent and the little money earned is all to often spent on vodka.
However, the film is anything else than sad. Director Ernest Abdyshaparov says that "without doubt, only humour and self-mockery are capable of conceiving and understanding the whole power of the sad daily life images; a humour that is at work beyond the mere laughter, as it derives directly from the absurdity of the situation."
Abdyshaparov brilliantly illustrates that religion does not really emerge as a new form identity after the demise of the Communist system. Islam, although formally the religion of the Kyrgyz, has never had a profound grip on this nomadic people, even before the Soviets banned religion into the private domain.
The cattle thief and his family speak an Islamic prayer fused with nomadic gestures when slaughtering a stolen lamb; the Mullah has a hard time garnering people's attention, whereas the female shaman has her doors run in by the sick whom she heals with pagan rituals; the vagabond Jehovah's Witness missionary finds a receptive listener in the Communist die-hard when both share a prison cell. Welcome to Kyrgyzstan.
More than 40 characters form a dazzling puzzle of relationships; like in a grand theatre play, there are drunkards, thieves, philanderers, hypocrites, adulterers. The hero, however, is the Kyrgyz people - that despite a steep and uphill track finds ways to cope with the hopelessness.
Abdyshaparov and the fabulous cast make this movie a fun and satiric starter to understanding post-Soviet reality on the ground in one of the more blurry corners of the former empire.
As the mayor says: "Before Russia separated from us and declared independence, our world was at least in some kind of order."
Now, the only thing that's certain in Kyrgyzstan is that nothing is for certain anymore.