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The Land Where Winds Stood Still (Zhel Toqtaghan Zher)

A Kazakh mother made homeless by Soviet policy must protect her two sons in the harsh environment of the steppes – from the Critics’ Picks Competition at the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival


An historical, period, survival movie. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, Soviet forced collectivisation polices, intended to have a levelling effect, instead forced Kazakh peasants off the land and led to the famine of the early 1930s. People were reduced to eating livestock essential for agricultural production, not to mention each other.

In a barren steppe landscape loosely reminiscent of the Spaghetti Western, mother Jupar and her two pre-teenage sons Jolan and Boshay must survive mounted gunmen, starvation, extreme weather, wolves, and hungry fellow human beings. Jupar carries a concealed knife within her clothing and will stop at nothing to protect her kids in one of the most powerful expressions of motherhood ever to grace the screen.

Their seeming nomadic existence is however not without purpose; she has to get them to the eponymous Land, the village where she was born, and safety. Yet the dangers they face on the way are legion. Employing a slow-paced narrative, director Amirkulov emphasises the unforgiving twin natures of both landscape and climate, along with the collapse of any viable social order. We witness flashbacks of Soviet officials explaining collectivisation and promising prosperity for all, but shouts of protests from disenfranchised Kazakhs are ignored.

In her progress through harsh country, Jupar finds an old man she knows trapped in a well which he’s fallen into, but having extricated him – and effectively saved his life – she’ll offer him no further help, concerned perhaps that he might not treat her as well as she’s treated him.

The family later stop at the house of an old woman who feeds them gruel, but when it makes them ill, they accuse her of trying to poison them (it’s not clear whether this is in fact the case, except that the food has made them ill).

This mistrust of fellow human beings even extends into the family unit, poisoning the most primal of relationships. The younger boy becomes ill, yet Jupar has no time for the luxury of emotional breakdown and carries on. As she does so, her older son accuses her of poisoning his younger brother. His growing hatred of her does nothing to stem her desire to protect him until they reach their destination.

Like the inescapable environment in which it plays out, the film is inhospitably bleak and harsh, all the more so as it proceeds towards its end (where there is an unexpected note of hope). It’s a tough watch, and so it should be: the Kazakh victims of the Soviet genocide of the 1930s deserve no less. A heartbreaking yet extraordinary film.

The Land Where Winds Stood Still just premiered at the Critics’ Picks Section of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.

By Jeremy Clarke - 18-11-2023

Jeremy Clarke has been writing about movies in various UK print publications since the late 1980s as well as online in recent years. He’s excited by movies which provoke audiences, upset convent...

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