The Watchlist is Klassiki’s series of themed viewing recommendations drawing from the cinema of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. For the latest edition of Klassiki Picks, our series of curated watchlists personally selected for our subscribers by celebrated filmmakers, writers, and actors, we’re delighted to welcome Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw. Below, he introduces his selection of five under-appreciated films from Central Asian and the Caucasian auteurs.
Beshkempir (dir. Aktan Abdykalykov, 1998)
I’m delighted to have been asked by Klassiki to curate this small selection of filmmakers from Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. Some of these films found conventional distribution in the UK, but I came across all of them on the European festival circuit, and it’s great to see these gems resurface. Here, then, are my five selections, and I hope you enjoy them.
Beshkempir (dir. Aktan Abdykalykov)
My first choice is Beshkempir, or The Adopted Son, by the Kygryz director Aktan Abdykalykov (also known as Aktan Arym Kubat). It’s an immensely personal, human, gentle, and approachable film about his own childhood growing up in the remote village of Kuntu. The film unfolds to the sound of birdsong. It’s about his own feelings and memories about discovering at the age of 13 that he was adopted. The director casts his own son in the leading role. There’s something richly mysterious, I think, about the way the film starts in colour for the opening section about the baby’s adoption ritual – but then, after a flash forward to the same child now as an early teen, we switch to a stark black and white. It’s a minimal film about the raptness with which we, as children, see things, how we’re mesmerised by them, and the film has something of the coming-of-age tale in that it’s about the wild and crazy scrapes that teenagers get into as they roam around, and then find themselves entirely overwhelmed by feelings of love and sex. Perhaps tellingly, our young hero discovers he’s adopted during a film: movies are his wake-up call, his jolt into real identity.
Watch Beshkempir here.
Lost Killers (dir. Dito Tsintsadze)
The next film is Lost Killers, by the Georgian director Dito Tsintsadze: a film of grown-up uncertainty and disillusion but with a carnivalesque streak of surreality and broad black comedy, about the migrant experience in prosperous western Europe. It’s about five immigrants in the red-light district of Mannheim in Germany. A Vietnamese sex worker has a quasi-narcoleptic condition which means she falls deeply asleep after orgasm; she is tormented by the dream of avenging the death of her mother, which occurred long ago. She’s involved with a Haitian who wants to find someone to buy his kidney so that he can emigrate to Australia. A Croatian and a Georgian want to make a living as professional hitmen and are always chatting and bickering – the Georgian loves discoursing about his native land and the Croatian has a Portuguese girlfriend who might yet serve as bait for the businessman whom they’re supposed to whack. In this boozy, knockabout world, Tsintsadze reveals himself to be influenced by Emir Kusturica, or perhaps the Coen Brothers, or indeed Eldar Shengelaia, with whom he studied – but he’s very much his own figure.
Watch Lost Killers here.
Jamshed Usmonov in The Road (dir. Darezhan Omirbaev, 2001)
The Road (dir. Darezhan Omirbaev)
The anxieties of the artist and the filmmaker are behind The Road, by the Kazakh auteur Darezhan Omirbaev. It’s a self-referential, autobiographical film about a director, Kobessov, in which Omirbaev actually casts the Tajik filmmaker Jamshed Usmonov. This man has had great success in both his artistic career and his marriage, but he’s plagued by anxieties that his audiences will no longer want to see his films, and there is a farcical dream about them preferring a cheesy martial arts film that is wrongly threaded into the cinema’s projector. News that his mother is seriously ill sends him on a road trip to see her in his distant hometown, encouraged by his wife, which of course becomes an inward (or downward) journey – back into his past and into the innermost recesses of his mind. He experiences fantasies and visions and must make a reckoning with his past and present, perhaps much like Marcello Mastroianni in Fellini’s 8½, or the metafictional filmmakers of Abbas Kiarostami; a reckoning also with his lifelong modus operandi of avoiding reality or exploiting it by transforming it into art.
Watch The Road here.
Late Marriage (dir. Dover Kosashvili)
The Georgian director Dover Kosashvili’s film is set in Tel Aviv’s Georgian-Jewish community, and I think this is the most romantic, the sexiest, and possibly the saddest of the movies on my list. It stars the Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi, and his co-star is the beautiful and charismatic Ronit Elkabetz, who sadly died of cancer six years ago. It’s a little gem: funny, humane, sensual, and moving. Writer-director Kosashvili elicits lovely performances. Zaza is the ageing mama’s boy bullied into an arranged marriage with a suitable girl, and Judith is the beautiful, single mother divorcée whom Zaza secretly loves. A gorgeously sensual comedy turns dark when Zaza lacks the courage to stand up to his family, and Judith ends up devastated and humiliated. The final scene, in which Zaza has what amounts to a public and spectacular breakdown, is brilliantly managed. Kosashvili shows that this unhappiness and suppression of true feelings has been passed down inexorably from father to son, and yet Zaza’s parents and Zaza himself are shown compassionately, without condemnation. This is a pitch-perfect family tragicomedy.
Watch Late Marriage here.
Angel on the Right (dir. Jamshed Usmonov)
Finally, there’s Angel on the Right – this angel, of course, being the one on our shoulder who tells us to follow virtue, whereas the devil on the other shoulder urges the opposite. This film is by Jamshed Usmonov, the star of The Road, and there’s an interesting parallel in the stories. It’s also about a prodigal homecoming, not of a movie director but of a small-time thug and crook who also, weirdly, has some employment as a cinema projectionist. He comes back to the place of his birth when he hears that his old mother is dying; Usmonov, coincidentally, films in his own home village and uses his own relatives in acting roles. This thoroughly disreputable individual wants to accede to his mother’s wishes and make repairs to her house, including fitting a double door so that the coffin can be carried out with dignity – but all this is only so he can sell the house and make money when she dies. However, the question arises as to whether his mum is really sick, and what motives she has for luring him back to a place where he owes people money. It’s a garrulous, engaging film which refuses to make hard and fast moral judgements about mother or son.
Watch Angel on the Right here.
Klassiki Picks with Peter Bradshaw is available to subscribers from 12 October – 2 November.