Kyrgyzstan’s Aktan Arym Kubat confronts home truths in This Is What I Remember

Aktan Arym Kubat in This Is What I Remember (2022)

Aktan Arym Kubat – better known to Anglophone audiences by his birth name of Aktan Abdykalykov – is by some distance the most feted auteur of modern Kyrgyzstan, films helping to define post-Soviet Kyrgyz cinema thanks to their wins at Europe’s high table in Locarno, Cannes, and Berlin. His latest feature, This Is What I Remember, feels like the culmination of the now decades-long project that he began in the mid-90s to marry autobiographical storytelling to a reckoning with his nation’s contemporary history.

The film, screening in competition at this year’s goEast Film Festival, stars Arym Kubat himself as Zarlyk, an elderly Kyrgyz man suffering from total memory loss, missing presumed dead in Russia for 23 years. Brought back to his home village to convalesce by his adult child Kubat (Mirlan Abdykalykov, the director’s own son), his presence sends ripples through an insular community that he no longer recognises. Much of the narrative tension derives from Zarlyk’s ex-wife Umsunai (Taalaikan Abazova) and her gangsterish new husband Jaichy (Nazym Mendebairov), neither of whom quite knows how to react to the missing man’s miraculous resurrection.

Arym Kubat has long made a habit of casting his own family, and of returning to the provincial Kyrgyz settings of his youth. Mirlan Abdykalykov played the lead role across a trilogy of autobiographical films that recounted the director’s early life as an adopted orphan in the village of Kuntu, where he still resides, and which serves as the inspiration for the setting of his latest feature. In this sense, This Is What I Remember is just the latest piece of a cinematic puzzle that the director has been methodically assembling for thirty years. We spoke to the director at goEast Film Festival in Wiesbaden, Germany, about putting himself onscreen, and his fears for the future of his homeland.

Taalaikan Abazova in This Is What I Remember (dir. Aktan Arym Kubat, 2022)

Could you talk about your decision to cast both yourself and your son Mirlan in this film? It seems less autobiographical than your earlier films, in which you have both previously appeared.

I’ve made two film trilogies. The first, in which my son starred, was concerned with my childhood, youth, and fatherhood [The Swing (1993), Beshkempir (1998), and The Chimp (2001)]. It was entirely accidental that it was my son, though. We needed a young boy, and we thought, what’s the difference if it’s my son or not? We don’t need to pay him! After the first film it was clear to me that I could work with him. I made those three films about myself. After that, I shot another trilogy. [The first film] was The Light Thief, in which I myself appeared – and again, that was completely coincidental. Usually when you write a screenplay, you have the image of actor in your mind, and we just couldn’t find the right person. My cinematographer suggested that I should do some camera tests. After all, directors are also actors, in a way – especially when you’re working with children, because if you try and explain things to them, they don’t understand, so you need to show them. That’s how they noticed that I was capable of acting. And once I started shooting myself, it was clear to me that I would continue to do so.

That’s how I made my second film trilogy: The Light Thief, Centaur, This Is What I Remember. These films are also autobiographical, though the protagonists are not so similar to me: in the first film, he’s an electrician, in the second, he’s a projectionist, in the third, he’s a man who’s lost his memory. But through these characters, I’m telling a story about things that I’ve experienced, what concerns me in life. This Is What I Remember is also autobiographical, in the sense that the experiences, the despair [in it], are mine. In this film, I tried to bring all my other films together. It’s like the completion of the other six films. And given that my character is brought home by his son, it was obvious that [Mirlan] should play that part. Plus, I don’t particularly like professional actors.

Through this figure of the man without memory I wanted to tell a story about the inhabitants of my village, and, if you like, about Kyrgyzstan: they are the ones who’ve lost their memory. He is like a messiah, someone who appears and forces everyone to think, to relive things

Were the other actors also non-professionals, in that case?

Some of them are professionals – the ones who’ve already appeared in my other films. The actor who plays Umsunai, my character’s wife [Taalaikan Abazova], is a professional who’s been in three of my films. But she’s very organic when she works with me, she doesn’t come across like a theatrical actor. The gangster [Nazym Mendebairov], he’s an actor, because I needed a certain “type”. His mother is an actor. All the others are non-professionals. The wife of the son [Elnura Osmonalieva] is a director, not a professional actor. Zarlyk’s disabled friend is played by one of my schoolmates, who is himself disabled; an actor wouldn’t know how to move like him. I like it when actors live their roles rather than play them.


Why did you choose to play a man with no memory and no words, who does not speak? Is there a metaphorical aspect to those choices?

Through this figure of the man without memory I wanted to tell a story about the inhabitants of my village, and, if you like, about Kyrgyzstan: they are the ones who’ve lost their memory. [Zarlyk] is like a messiah, someone who appears and forces everyone to think, to relive things. Through him, I could talk about family, about the land, about ecology, about the mafia. In recent times, our country has gone through a process of Islamisation. Our official religion is Islam, but we’ve always maintained an organic mix of our traditional beliefs and Islam, faith and tradition were very closely related – and now there is the threat that Islamists could damage that culture with their proclamations about what is and isn’t allowed. Personally, I have this fear that I might lose my language, my culture, my traditions. We gained independence from the Soviet Union more than 30 years ago, and now it seems that we’re losing our freedom once again. We say that the Soviet Union prevented us from developing our own language and culture, and now the same is happening again with Islam. We should remember that we’re a small nation prone to manipulation by larger states, [and with this film] I wanted to say that we should make sure to preserve our roots. If we have strong roots, we won’t lose our independence to anyone. That’s the underlying thought behind the film. 

Aktan Arym Kubat in This Is What I Remember (2022)

I wanted to ask about the style. One of the things I found most striking about the film were the long Steadicam shots. It felt like it was important not to cut very often, to allow the characters to speak for themselves.

By training, I’m an artist; I became a director entirely by accident. I didn’t study it. My attention is on nature, on the details – for me it’s all important, not just the actors but the atmosphere. From the start, it was our decision to shoot every scene in a single shot. Before that, I filmed in a more traditional way – master, medium, close-up. But here I wanted to give the impression that we were capturing reality, the life that was unfolding. For me, [I thought it would be] difficult, because these weren’t [professional] actors. But I was surprised by how organically they took to it. We had no problems. When the group was on set, there was a very dutiful relationship to what we were doing, very sincere. Once they see that I love the film, then they don’t think, they live. The camera could move one way or another and they were ready. So, once I started shooting, I couldn’t stop! The original cut was three hours long, but I thought that that was directorial over-ambition and that I needed to cut and clean it up.

So, it was all in the script from the start. For example: we rehearsed the fire scene for two or three days, and we knew we could manage three takes. But the first take was best because it felt spontaneous, people were really scared of the fire, no one knew what to do even though we’d practiced it.

I have this fear that I might lose my language, my culture, my traditions. We gained independence from the Soviet Union more than 30 years ago, and now it seems that we’re losing our freedom once again

You filmed during Covid – did that make life easier or harder? What was the process like?

My producers are mostly from the West, so I shoot with Western funds. But this film was made without European funds. Usually, you have to wait for so long, five, seven, nine years while they raise the money. I didn’t want to wait, so I just went to the [Kyrgyz national] film studio and said: “give me what you can, and I’ll make a film with that amount.” They liked the script and so they agreed. It’s not always like that, but I figured that I had earned that kind of relationship. I prefer not to rely on government money in general.

Then the pandemic happened, and we were shut down for a year while everything was in place to shoot. In one sense it was good that we had to wait, because I was able to rethink the film, it became quite different. Now I had this inner fear, fear for what was happening in the world. We weren’t prepared for this threat. While we were shut down, I was approached by Japanese, French, German, Dutch investors… After I stopped, suddenly money started to arrive! The problems we had were with post-production. The post-production for my films is done in the West. Covid made that more difficult: everyone had to get vaccines, PCR tests, and so on. So, there were difficulties, but I think it helped: it allowed us to make the film differently. Every cloud has a silver lining, as they say.

Watch This Is What I Remember on Klassiki until 18 May as part of our partnership with goEast Film Festival.