2008 CIFF: Native Dancer (Baksy, 2008)

Director: Gulshat Omarova

2008 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Yesterday, I watched two screeners that ended up dealing with a similar theme. Distant Tremors, by Belgian director Manuel Pouette, addressed the pull of tribal religion and superstition on a young Senegalese man who wants nothing more than to emigrate to France and leave his village ways behind.The film had an eerie mixture of colonial cruelty and the abiding mystery of tribal customs, but failed to add up to much more than atmosphere. The better of the two was Native Dancer, which depicts the resurgence of shamanism among the Islamic residents of a corner of Kazahkstan that previously was militantly atheistic under Soviet communist rule.

Baksy%202The mountains that separate Kazahkstan from China form a brilliant backdrop for the patch of barren, brown earth on the side of a highway where Aidai (Neisipkul Omarbekova), a powerful baksy (shaman), helps people in need. Our first encounter with Aidai is as she is trying to help an old woman walk free of her crutches. Men who volunteer their services to Aidai grab a black sheep from a pen, slit its throat, and let its blood drip all over the ailing woman. Aidai tells the woman to rub the blood over every part of her body as Aidai mutters some incantations. She tells the woman to stand up and walk; her family try to give her her crutches, but Aidai waves them away. “Get up and walk,” she admonishes her patient. The old woman stands and moves forward on unsteady legs that manage to support her.

Aidai is consulted to cure everything from defiant daughters to drunken brothers. She also has the power of second sight, which she uses to help people find what has gone lost. When a woman comes to her to ask where the family cow has gone, Aidai sees it in a barn with two men who have stolen it. When another woman asks where her missing husband is, Aidai says to stop searching—he’s been killed by a hit-and-run driver. When she wails about how she and her children will survive, Aidai tells her he left money in a hidden strong box.

One day, Batyr (Farkhad Amankulov), a successful businessman, drives up to Aidai’s ramshackle compound with his young son Asan (Almat Ayanov). Batyr credits Aidai with helping him and his now-dead wife conceive Asan and, in gratitude has given Aidai the land on which her clinic rests. Tied up in the back of Batyr’s SUV is his ne’er-do-well cousin, whom he wants Aidai to cure. Aidai throws the cousin into a hole, covers it with bamboo bars, and tells him he can come out when she says so.

Batyr is summoned by a good friend to meet with a young, arrogant gangster named Arman (Nurlan Alimzhanov) who wants Aidai’s land so he can develop it for his own profit. Batyr resists, but with the help of some unscrupulous police and city officials, Arman forces Aidai off the land—in point of fact, she flies into a rage, spins furiously in a circle, and drops dead on the spot.

Baksy%204Arman demolishes her clinic, and builds a gas station and restaurant/ night club. Batyr’s friend invites him to the grand opening, where he gets into a fight with Arman. That night, Arman’s businesses burn to the ground. Arman, sure Batyr set the fire, demands monetary restitution. Batyr believes Aidai’s spirit caused the fire, but says to his friend, “Tell him. I’m tired of explaining things to him,” and gets up to leave. Rude words are exchanged, and before long, Batyr is selling everything he owns to ransom his kidnapped son from Arman and his thugs.

Native Dancer is an odd film—half magic realism and half gangster caper, with a large dash of comedy thrown in by Batyr’s feckless cousin. Director Omarova, in her second outing, makes great use of the spreading landscape that suggested to me the powerful New Mexico terrain. It’s not hard to believe in magic on lands such as these. In addition, Omarova populates her film with locals, including real faith healer Omarbekova as the fictional Aidai. I’m sure it’s nothing to residents of former Soviet bloc countries to hear handsome, Asian-featured Kazakhs speaking Russian, but for me, it was an incongruous, but delightful treat.

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The juxtaposition of Lexus SUVs and mud huts, mixed drinks and sheep’s blood, high heels and cloth mocassins throws the disconnect between Aidai’s world and Arman’s into high contrast. The film accepts some of Aidai’s magic—her second sight—as authentic, but firmly plants her in the real world as well. When we reach the final scene in which Aidai tends to Asan, it’s as easy to believe her grandmotherly affection has as much to do with curing him as her incantations and the bird she draws on his back with blood.

I was enchanted by the adorable Ayanov as Asan. In one scene, Omarova shows him standing on a curb, his backpack at his feet, waiting for his father to pick him up from his kickboxing class. Her medium-long shot dwarfs him in this cityscape, making him look both very cute and very vulnerable. On Aidai’s plain, he always appears larger, surrounded by the human activity of Aidai’s patients and volunteer workers.

Farkhad Amankulov has the weary fierceness of Beat Takashi when he’s cursing Arman out or chasing down his son’s kidnappers. But his gentle side also emerges whenever he and Asan are together, and his basic respect for people deserving of it marks him as a plainly sympathetic, and somewhat naïve character. Aidai knew how to get over on Arman better than he did. But that’s why she’s a “witch,” the term her adoptive family always uses for her.

Omarova doesn’t quite achieve a strong, cohesive tone, which made this film less compelling for me than it could have been. But she handles her professional and nonprofessional actors extremely well, and I believed in the lives she put up on the screen even if the gangster section felt a little forced and clichéd. Still and all, Native Dancer is an assured work from a talented, up-and-coming director. l

Film trailer

  • Daniel spoke:
    17th/10/2008 to 4:57 pm

    Fascinating – this is definitely the kind of film only seen at internationally-focused festivals.
    Great job on keeping up on all of these, Marilyn. You’ve given me some good ones to put on the mental radar for future viewings, like Sita and Let The Right One In.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    18th/10/2008 to 8:13 am

    Glad I’m helping. I’m going to fall behind immediately, however, and not write up the unsatisfying Distant Tremors, as I promised, in favor of Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. The festival has started in earnest, and there’s no way I’ll be able to write up everything.

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