Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 11, 2005


Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:57 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on March 11, 2005

After Mustafa, aka “Schizo,” is expelled from his Kazakhstan high school for fighting, his mother takes him to the local doctor who decides that the fifteen year old is suffering from “deviations” and prescribes unidentified medication that the boy takes in his characteristically affectless manner.

Director Guka Omarova is from Kazakhstan herself as is most of the nonprofessional cast, including Olzhas Nussuppaev who plays Schizo. Nussuppaev was discovered in a local orphanage. Despite his humble circumstances, he is the great-grandchild of a famous Kazakh writer jailed by Stalin in 1937.

Filmed on location in this newly “liberated” Soviet republic, it is an unstinting view of poverty and degradation. Since the former Soviet Union has adopted many of the characteristics of a Third World country, it is no surprise that a young director like Omarova would draw upon neorealist traditions to depict the struggle of young Schizo to stay afloat economically and spiritually. With its laconic style, deadpan humor and unconcealed hatred for class injustice, it will also remind you of the work of Finland’s Aki Kaurismaki.

Schizo has a job with his mom’s boyfriend recruiting barefisted fighters for illegal bouts run by local gangsters. Most of them are drawn from the ranks of unemployed coal miners who shape up each morning outside an abandoned pit. After one of them receives a terrible beating and lies dying on the locker room floor, he calls Schizo to his side and with his last breath directs him to bring the earnings to his girlfriend Zina (Olga Landina, a professional actor) and their young son Sanzhik (played by Kanagat Nurtay, also from a local orphanage).

Although he remains inexpressive, Schizo begins to fall in love with the widow who eventually returns her love. In the hovel she calls home, the two seek happiness with very low expectations about their future. She daydreams about moving to China where “there’s lots of money.” He lives for the moment, recruiting new fighters for the illegal game, including his uncle Jaken (Bakhytbek Baymukhanbetov.)

Jaken is a true product of the new Kazakhstan, making a living stealing electrical cable and drinking vodka at all times of the day. When Schizo observes Jaken and his partners stripping cable from nearby towers, he asks whether they risk electrocution. Not to worry, his uncle reassures him, there hasn’t been power in the area for many months. Although Jaken is getting old and has been weakened by chronic alcoholism, Schizo thinks that he has a good shot at winning the gangster chieftain’s Mercedes-Benz as a top prize. When Jaken was younger, he once fought off a dozen cops.

Although Jaken’s opponent outweighs him by at least fifty pounds and begins the match by throwing him about the ring, Jaken’s kickboxing skills finally prevail. Jaken and Schizo sell the gangster’s car immediately and Schizo returns to Zina with his share of the earnings. Eventually, the gangsters demand the return of the prize money even if it has been won fairly. The film’s climax revolves around Schizo’s struggle to hold on to the money.

In a very real sense, the Kazakh landscape functions as a major character in the film. Although desolate and foreboding, it has an otherworldly beauty that serves to accentuate the desperate struggle of the main characters to survive. Filmed on location near Lake Kapchagay, which is only 60 kilometers from Alma-Alta, one gets the sense of a natural terrain that has lost its ability to sustain life. One also gets the sense that the main characters will struggle on despite having that knowledge themselves. Ironically, Alma-Alta was where Leon Trotsky lived in internal exile in 1928. Stalin must have decided–quite accurately from the feeling conveyed by the film–that Alma-Alta was beyond the pale.

In the production notes for “Schizo,” director Omarova explains how she got the idea for the film:

“A few years ago in a cafe in Almaty [Alma-Alta] I happened upon a man seriously beaten up by life. He asked for permission to sit at my table. I was going to leave, so I nodded. On his tray he had a cup of tea, some sandwiches and a bottle of vodka. He asked me in Kazakh if I wanted to drink some vodka with him. I didn’t want to, so I got up to leave. All of a sudden he got in a bustle, drank the first shot and began to tell his life story. He said that he was a boxer who took part in illegal fights. He didn’t look like an operator. Swollen knuckles and mangled nose modestly completed his quite homely appearance. He was 23 year old. There was despair and exhaustion in his eyes. He told me that he was from the south where the cool Kazakh guys live. They were always flush and knew how to come out clean. But he was a different case. His mother and sisters stayed back in his village. It was the beginning of the 90’s and in Kazakhstan there was no work… absolutely none. Actually, there was the newly gained Independence, which to begin with was no small thing. But people like him, the millions, they needed work. And they were leaving for the big cities to find work. He looked in my eyes and I felt guilty. I hadn’t known anything about them, but at that moment I understood one thing… they never move back home. That’s how the story about boxing was born.”

full: http://www.picturethisent.com/pressroom/schizo/index.html

Although “Schizo” supposedly depicts the ruinous state of Kazakhstan in the early 1990s, it would be a mistake to think that things have changed that much for the better in the intervening years. Despite economic growth fueled by oil exports, the revenues have not filtered down to the masses. The country is much more like Nigeria than Venezuela in the way that private wealth and the public interest interact. Kazakhstan is ranked 78th in the world in terms of Human Development Indicators, according to the UN’s 2004 report. For comparison’s sake, Belarus is number 62 and Romania is number 69.

In addition to social inequality, Kazakhstan is also plagued by environmental despoliation. When Soviet planners decided to turn the Aral Sea into a water source for cotton production, they condemned Kazakhstan to suffer the consequences. Water diverted from Kazakhstan’s rivers to irrigate thirsty cotton fields produced unanticipated results. When the Aral Sea began to dry up, salt sand and dust from the exposed sea bottom blew across the region, causing intense respiratory problems. Pesticides and fertilizers used to feed for cotton production seeped into water and irrigation channels, poisoning food and drinking water. This led to the highest death and infant mortality rates in all the former Soviet Union. Almost all pregnant women are anemic.

Although “Schizo” does not refer specifically to any of these problems, it at least has the merit of looking at the country’s true conditions without flinching or applying cosmetics. That is all one can ask from a film nowadays. “Schizo” premieres in New York City on March 18th and in Los Angeles on March 25th. It is well worth seeing.

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