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Biopic of one of Kazakhstan's greatest poets is imbued with sadness, lyricism and stunning imagery - live from the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival


The year is 1973, and an unknown writer, translator and poet called Mukagali Makatayev (Aslanbek Zhanbalayev) abandons the Moscow Institute of Arts and Letters in favour of his native Kazakhstan, then part of the Soviet Union. The 42-year-old was very passionate about freedom and the Kazakh language, which put him at loggerheads with the oppressive communist regime. He had a profound antipathy towards Leonid Brezhnev, his sentiment poetically illustrated in the movie through the burning of a poster.

His devotion to his native tongue was such that he spent much of his time translating literary works from other languages. At one point he recites Dante Alighieri in Kazakh at the Institute (which he translated from Italian himself) in order to demonstrate to other scholars that his language is complex and melodic, and deserved more attention. He was also a fan of Russian poets Alexander Pushkin and Sergei Yesenin, and very fond of Shakespeare’s oeuvre.

Mukagali’s most famous poem Raimbek, Raimbek was deemed too subversive for the USSR, and its publication was promptly prohibited. His less controversial earlier works saved him from a prison sentence. But this relative freedom did not stop the highly sensitive man from wholeheartedly embracing sadness, and hitting the bottle. His physique was tall and bulky, his demeanour extremely kind and soft-spoken. Some sort of gentle giant. A frail and vulnerable human being.

The fourth feature film by Bolat Kalymbetov, also native to Kazakhstan, is an honest and intense labour of love. Credit must also go to cinematographer Yedige Nessipbekov. Every frame is gingerly crafted. The intricate and elegant imagery is a fitting tribute to a poet that received virtually no recognition whilst living. Most of the action takes place in Autumn. It often rains, the sky dark and sombre – perhaps symbolic of Mukagali’s own twilight. Mukagali’s funeral scene is both breathtaking and heartbreaking, with a procession of umbrellas filmed from above at night (the emotional antipode of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, rom 1964). The film ends with a note of brightness and hope: child Mukagali earns a goat in exchange for his first poem. Life and death complement each other. Mukagali is finally set free.

The poet’s death came very early at the age of just 45, in the year of 1976. This year (2021) would have been his 90th birthday (exactly twice the number of years he lived). Sadly he never lived to see an independent Kazakhstan.

Mukagali is showing in Competition at the 25th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.

By Victor Fraga - 20-11-2021

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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