Stranger marks director Yermak Tursonov’s third film from his native country Kazakhstan to be submitted to the Oscars, his 2009 title Kelin was the last shortlisted. Set in the 1930s Kazakhstan, the film about a villager, Iliyas, who defies Soviet society and escapes for a life in the wilderness, hits a number of touchstones impacting the country today, particularly as it lives in check of Russia.
After his father dies brutally following his arrest by Russian authorities, Ilyas decides to live with a pack of wolves and refuses to serve in the military during World War II, or to take much part in society at all.
Rich in uranium, as well as U.S. oil investments, Kazakhstan lives in sphere where there is concern that Russia may invade in any moment, much like it invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin stoked Kazakhstan’s fears last year when he gave the country’s leader a double-edged compliment: Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev “has performed a unique feat…He has created a state on a territory where there was never a state.”
If there’s a scene in Stranger which underscores the divide between the two countries, it’s when Iliyas takes in a drunk Russian woman in his cave and sobers her up. Absent minded, she lets his sheep out their pen, and winds up stealing his money. Tursonov said at the Awardsline screening last night, that Stranger “wasn’t a political film”, however, for the scene hit a nerve with the Kazakhstan natives in the audience. Reflecting on Iliyas generosity in that scene, the director said that is part of Kazakhstan tradition to treat guests with the utmost respect.
Political allegories aside, Tursonov’s primary inspiration for the film was a villager from his childhood.
Said the director, “I was born in a small village in the mountains, and when I was little, an amazing man lived in my village—He was alone all the time, and we were very afraid of him. Adults called him Jima Han. I was very afraid of him. It’s a very unusual situation because in Kazakh tradition, we all live together—one village—and everybody’s like a relative.”
He adds, “The name of the film is Zhat—‘Zhat’ is not exactly ‘stranger.’ He is an outsider, he is another. So this Jima Han—he was a thief and lived in the mountains in a small cave. When the Second World War began, he didn’t go, and this was an unusual situation too, because he was like a traitor.”
For Tursunov, the film is very much a meditation on the evolution of his home country toward modernity and a certain loss of culture and tradition. Speaking of Kazakhstan in the middle of the last century, Tursunov commented, “We lost our traditional life, because we are nomads. When the communist party came to our step, we had to get off our horses and change our traditional life.”
In Tursunov’s opinion, this cultural shift continues today, and is reflected in the country’s cinema, as much as anything else. Says Tursunov, “About seventy or eighty years ago, we forgot everything. And now the situation continues. We’ve had independence close to 25 years. Now we are trying to remember our history, we try to remember our traditions, but its very difficult, because the world changed.”
Indeed, Tursunov is a classicist, a traditionalist with great reverence for the art form and cinematic history. He lists his cinematic influences as Martin Scorsese, Akira Kurosawa, Bernando Bertolucci and Oliver Stone. With sweepings vistas and its intense wilderness action scenes, critics have compared Stranger to such films as Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson and Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood.
Given his classical methodology and education in Moscow, it only makes sense that the film, featuring many scenes in dense snow, was shot in real weather conditions: “I don’t like computer graphics. I think the main effect in cinema is the human face, and in this film, everything is real.” This included many of the figures in the background and in crowd shots, who were not professional actors, but rather locals from these villages. The filming took place, on and off, over the course of three months, as the crew waited for ideal conditions.
For Tursunov, a return to the Oscar conversation means a lot, though he acknowledges the intense competition, particularly this year. “This is like a lottery, yes? But for my country, this is important. Nobody before [from Kazakhstan] has participated in the Oscars three times—nobody has gone to the shortlist or the nomination. I represent my country. And I would be a liar if I didn’t say it’s important for me, too.”