1 September 2015
When you’re watching a picture and it occasionally reminds you of Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson, Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala, Serhiy Paradjanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors AND does so with its own unique stylistic and narrative approach, then you know you’re watching something very special indeed. Yermek Tursunov’s Stranger (Zhat) has the kind of “thinking man’s” epic sweep one expects, but never really gets from many overblown extravaganzas touted as such. Tursunov, however, delivers the goods in spades by focusing upon the solitary life of Ilyas (Yerzhan Nurymbet, in an astonishingly hypnotic performance) from childhood through to his solitary death.
Probably the most fascinating aspect of Tursunov’s terrific film is that Ilyas’s life is charted against the backdrop of Totalitarian rule under the Soviet Union’s very own version of Hitler, the evil butcher Joseph Stalin. Beginning with the early days of farm collectivization (a polite way of saying slavery), through the various periods of forced-starvation genocides and purges, World War II, post-war “prosperity” and finally, Stalin’s death in 1953, Tursanov presents a sad portrait of a young man forced into a life of solitude by a reign of political terror which sees him orphaned as a boy when his father is secreted away by Stalinist goons for “collaboration”.
Luckily for Ilyas, when a local yokel steals his father’s horse to butcher and feed to the nearby village, the yearling is left behind and our young hero, having been taught wilderness survival tactics by his father, takes off with the young horse into the forests and mountains amidst the mighty Kazakh steppe. Adopting and raising a pack of orphaned wolves, he lives amongst them in a cave dwelling for most of his adult life, missing out on all the changes and strife in the greater world of his fellow countrymen.
Still, the pull of society is strong and amongst such genuine desires as making his unrequited love for a childhood sweetheart a reality and the very basic need for companionship, Ilyas is a man without a country, especially since he eschews the notions of Soviet politics and nationhood. The few locals who might want to be his friend, ultimately spurn him on the shaky moral ground of Ilyas’s disregard for the trappings as dictated by the evil Communist Party. For his part, Ilyas is completely left behind as the world becomes ever-modern.
Though Tursonov might feel the urgings of sentiment, he merely flirts with them. Even so, his film is replete with sequences so moving and powerful, that melodrama is not a requirement here. The number of memorable moments are incalculable, but so many of them are linked to the mighty work of actor Yerzhan Nurymbet and Tursonov’s natural desire to capture the deep pain in the eyes of his central character. Whether, Nurymbet looks longingly at the woman he loves but will never have as his wife or into the eyes of his beloved old horse with the tell-tale signs of cancer-imposed malnutrition forcing him to let the beast go off into the woods to meet his maker, Tursonov gives us a film that inspires deep emotion within us.
The film has been chosen by Kazakhstan as its official entry into the Foreign-Language Oscar sweepstakes. TIFF has long been a bell-weather for Oscar hopefuls, but with Stranger, this is one time I find myself in a film’s corner for such an accolade. This picture deserves to be seen and acclaimed by as wide an audience as possible.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5-Stars