The culturally rich SONG FROM THE SOUTHERN SEAS, from Kazakh director Marat Sarulu, has absolutely nothing to do with Kazakhstan’s most famous fictional character, Borat. And that’s a very good thing. While the movie has elements of humor, it is the divisive and tragic consequences of racism that are the focus here. As you sort through the rough and tumble among the ethnic diversities depicted—Kazakhs, Cossacks, Russians, Germans and Kyrgyz —it’s hard to imagine how the distrust and prejudice that has existed for millenniums will ever abate.
I saw this movie just after writing my blog about LAILA’S BIRTHDAY, the quietly gripping film that captures the numbing chaos of life in Palestine. However, the scope of the cultural conflicts in Palestine seems dwarfed when compared to the more than 131 nationalities residing in Kazakhstan. Perhaps the most potent conflict is presented in the film’s opening moments when a dark skinned child is born to fair-skinned Russian farmers, Ivan and Marja, who just happen to have dark-skinned Kazakh neighbors. Tensions arise immediately.
But this movie is not actually about the identity of the real father. While Ivan initially rejects his newborn son, Sasha, there is no question about the parents’ love for him. Rather, it is Marja’s family, Russian Cossacks, who taunt the couple about Marja’s alleged infidelity. In one of the film’s especially well orchestrated sequences, Marja’s boorish brother inquires about Sasha and then summarily dismisses him: “he’s really not one of us”.
Meanwhile, Sasha is unaware of the snub since he has run away to live among Kazakh horse herders just beyond the family farm. The film doesn’t reveal why he has left, but the notion of escape is presented as an option that cuts across generations and cultures. And little wonder. The sweeping majesty of the mountains that border the vast Great Steppe is undeniably alluring.
This yearning for escape, however, is not without cost and sacrifice. As Ivan’s grandfather explains in a moving story about their family history, when one chooses to live among people who are culturally different, more is at stake than the wrenching sense of loss by the family left behind. There can be unanticipated challenges, some of them insurmountable. Ivan’s great grandfather, Alexander, who fell in love with a Kazakh woman, had to convert to Islam before her family would accept him. This involved shaving his head, becoming circumcised and adopting a Muslim identity. Not to mention a horse contest with a rival suitor. But that’s the least of it.
In the sequence below, Alexander seeks protection for his family when he learns that the Czar, with the help of Cossack regiments, is committing massacres to combat the Kazakh revolt of 1916. In this Kazakh version of SOPHIE’S CHOICE, a decision must be made about the fate of Alexander’s children—who will be saved and who will perish. The decision is based on the appearance of the child’s race. The scene, directed with considerable restraint, is a cinematic punch in the gut. Here is Alexander’s plea for his children’s safety as the Russian armies advance.
As he concludes the family history, Ivan’s grandfather remarks: “…what holds life together is not force, Ivan, but love…”. The comment comes as a surprise in the context of a culturally violent history. But it resonates strongly with Ivan and you sense that he has come upon a turning point in his life.
While it is not long before we see Ivan and Marja running after one another in perceived animosity, they ultimately collapse in each other’s arms after exhausting themselves. This time, however, there are no consequential bruises or black eyes. What may look like domestic violence through the prism of a Eurocentric culture is more accurately an interaction that is farcical and slapstick. The physical engagement is no longer intended to harm; it is an expression of frustration among a people who have been raised accordingly. The director intends that you laugh when they’re done fighting and surprisingly you do.
Interwoven throughout the film are shadow puppets that comment indirectly on the film’s narrative. They tell the story of a young man’s search for peace. It is a wish to be freed from grief and painful memories. Life may be tough on Ivan’s farm, but he and Marja are resilient, affectionate in their way, and sometimes even joyous. And Ivan’s grandfather certainly knows what he’s talking about when he shares his life lessons on love and war.