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In conversation: Olya Sova & Adilkhan Yerzhanov

On Kazakh crime drama 'A Dark, Dark Man'

a man in black with a gun
30 Mar 2021

New East Cinema curator, Olya Sova, talks to writer and director Adilkhan Yerzhanov about his film, A Dark, Dark Man, available to rent on Cinema On Demand 1–30 April.

The brilliant crime drama, set in rural Kazakhstan, follows an unprincipled detective who is compelled to expose deeply engrained corruption.

Olya Sova: I am a fan of your films. I am fascinated by their simplicity, their visuals and their deep emotional resonance. In some interviews you call A Dark, Dark Man a film noir. But there is also poetic realism, humour absurdity in the film. How would you define its genre? Is it a Kazakh noir?

Adilkhan Yerzhanov: If you judge it superficially (or, conversely, go in too deep), then it probably is a film noir. I think there is noir in some of its specific elements. We can say that noir is a genre in France, there’s noir in Hong Kong. There is to some extent Russian noir. But, I don’t know, this genre – Kazakh noir – doesn’t really exist. But I’ve always dreamed of it, and I’d love the genre steppe-noir to emerge in this country, so we can become the exporters of this particular genre.

OS: Speaking of Hollywood noir – it emerged from a backdrop of depression and war, after WWI and during WWII. What period do you think Kazakhstan is living through right now?

AY: Before the pandemic, I thought we were living through a kind of crisis, perhaps approaching a crossroads. But during the pandemic I realized that it was a common turning point for everyone, and this turning point, in a strange way, united all countries. And I realized that before the pandemic, before coronavirus, we were all living with pretty minor problems.

But now it’s clear that everyone – the whole world – has become the COVID generation. In Fight Club the characters say that they are the middle children of history, because they have neither their own world war, nor their own Great Depression, and they are deprived of everything, there is not even one big problem. It seems to me that our generation has received its own world war - this pandemic.

OS: It seems to me that your films are mostly about the nature of evil. And you study it through the prism of romanticism. What do you think?

AY: Yes. The heroes that are interesting to me most often appear in Romantic literature. The heroes of Byron, the early heroes of Goethe, the heroes of Lermontov... that is, characters who are kind of cursed by everyone. They may go against society, but they protest. It seems to me that in all Kazakh cinema, all New Wave cinema, and indeed all auteur cinema, maybe even in commercial cinema, you still find these same heroes of “realism”, who accept the conditions of society, who agree with them. Maybe they disagree internally, but they still live by these laws, these requirements. But my heroes, they might be condemned, and roughly speaking they are anti-heroes, like Bekzat from A Dark, Dark Man, but still, these are heroes who protest. Their arc is plotted out; it runs counter to society and the system. They can be anti-heroes, they can be anti-social, but they protest, and oppose something. So yes, I believe that the heroes are absolutely from the era of romanticism.

During the pandemic I realized that it was a common turning point for everyone, and this turning point, in a strange way, united all countries.

OS: One of the most powerful moments in the film for me was when Bekzat returns to the mayor with his arrest and starts reading the Miranda rights to him. And everyone laughs, including Bekzat. It’s frightening, this lawlessness. Situations like this seem easy not only in Kazakhstan, but everywhere: in America, in the UK, in Russia…

AY: Yes, it seems to me that with all the cynicism of the narrative, with all the cynicism of the protagonist, the thing that really makes filmmaking worth the effort is a sort of faith in something good, some kind of deep-rooted and hidden humanity, that we find in the hero. Despite the fact that Miranda rights sound absurd in the film, and this is ridiculous even for the main hero, there is still, somewhere, this quixotic feeling that there must be some kind of justice in the world, some kind of utopian ideal.

photo of adilkhan yerzhanov

OS: Tell us about the village of Karatas. Some of the audience won’t know that the Karatas is the setting of your films. How does this name translate from the Kazakh, and why is it so important to you?

AY: Well, this place doesn’t really exist. That’s why I use it everywhere, because we came up with this aul [desert settlement] back in my student days – it’s where the hero of one of my short films comes from. It’s a kind of utopia, a place that does not exist. Like William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, which I’m a fan of. It’s a place where it’s convenient to unfold the action. To give another example, Stephen King has the state of Maine, except there the state actually exists. There are two big problems for an author when they start composing something – the first problem is what to call the main character; the second is where to set the story. But when you have a fictional place, then at least half of the problem is no longer there.

OS: A question about your actors. You use the same actors from film to film. Is there an artistic principle behind this?

AY: I think it’s very difficult to find talented actors everywhere. Especially in the Kazakh market, which isn’t as big as the Russian or French market.  As such, actors that suit me are worth their weight in gold. So if I find actors I like working with, then I can’t just say goodbye when a project ends. I appreciate talented actors and want to collaborate with them as often as possible.

OS: Last question: what would you say personally to a British audience if you were introducing A Dark, Dark Man?

AY: I would say, first off, that I love British cinema, at the very least mentioning Carol Reed’s The Third Man. And since The Third Man is a film noir, to some extent my film is a homage to this great Orson Welles picture. I would like A Dark, Dark Man, to begin the history of Kazakh noir, just as The Third Man began the history of British noir.

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