By Giovanni Marchini Camia
The case of Darezhan Omirbaev reminds us that in cinema, the line between eminence and obscurity can be very fine indeed. Throughout his career, which is now in its fourth decade, the Kazakh filmmaker has received official approbation in the form of awards at Cannes and Locarno, as well as high praise from notable colleagues (Godard, Garrel) and critics (Kent Jones, Alexander Horwath). And yet his work remains all but undistributed, and even the arrival, following an interval of nine years, of not one but two new films—the feature Poet (2021) and the 30-minute Last Screening (2022)—within a space of months, elicited hardly any fanfare until the Viennale celebrated the occasion by dedicating the fourth issue of the lovely polyphonic journal Textur to Omirbaev’s oeuvre.
If Poet can be read as a comment on this state of affairs, though, Omirbaev himself is taking it in stride. As signalled from the very first shot, the protagonist, Didar, functions as a stand-in for the director, making Poet the latest in a series of semi-autobiographical portraits that comprises Kairat (1992), Cardiogram (1995), and The Road (2001). The film opens with the image of a postcard taped to a kitchen wall: a picture of a lone man on a waterfront during a storm, grasping a tall thin tree with both hands and fighting to keep it upright against the wind. The camera lingers on this image for a moment before panning over to the table and alighting on Didar’s hands, which are scribbling a poem on a sheet of paper. Recalling iconic images of similar trees in Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960) and Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (1986), the postcard thus suggests a symbolic equivalence between poetry and cinema, while also offering an illustration of the film’s subject—namely, the struggle of the artist against the forces that sway our world.
Poet underlines the permanence of this condition by alternating between two narrative timelines: one set in the present, and the other stretching from 1846 to 1974. Consistent with Omirbaev’s abiding interest in representing his characters’ subconscious, the latter timeline plays out in Didar’s imagination. At various moments, which introduce or conclude a shift back in time, he is seen reading a book about Makhambet Otemisuly, a Kazakh poet and resistance fighter who led a rebellion against Russian colonialism in the early 19th century. The fact that the same actor, Yerdos Kanayev, plays both Didar and Makhambet at once emphasizes the parallels between the two stories and pokes fun at Didar’s vanity—and, by extension, Omirbaev’s—for comparing himself to a national hero. When Makhambet is introduced in the first reverie/flashback, he has quit his revolutionary activities and retired to the steppe with his family. A group of the khan’s henchmen pay him a visit and pass along an offer to clean his slate; in exchange, he must write poems honouring the khan to be published in Russia, where there exists “a machine that puts words on paper.”
The arrival of modernity, which within a few decades will take the Kazakh people out of nomadism, is mirrored in the present-tense sections of the film by the ostentatious international brands and digital screens that stick out in an urban landscape still bearing the visible marks of the Communist era. Correspondingly, history repeats itself when Didar meets a member of the contemporary ruling class, a businessman who looks like, and might well be, a gangster. As if his entourage of black-clad men driving a black Mercedes and a black Cadillac SUV weren’t sufficient to convey that impression, he even quotes the most famous line from The Godfather (1972) when offering the cash-strapped poet an attractive sum of money to write a book about his family history.
Hackneyed catchphrases notwithstanding, Didar—unlike Makhambet, who spurned the khan’s wishes and paid with his life—is at liberty to refuse this offer, and spends the rest of the film deliberating with himself whether or not he should. In parallel to Didar’s vacillation, the secondary narrative chronicles the efforts by successive generations to keep Makhambet’s memory alive. After his body is exhumed from a secret grave, by which point Kazakhstan had become part of the USSR, his remains are unceremoniously passed along in a crate from home to home in the hope that the long-gestating plans for a mausoleum will eventually be realized.
Like much of the film, the businessman scene, with its caricatural touches played straight, is exquisitely comical. Although Omirbaev is an avowed Bressonian, and the actors in many of his films can be considered “models,” Didar’s impassivity is equally indebted to Buster Keaton in the way it serves as a mirror to societal injustice. Given the contemporary context, one could compare this use of deadpan to that of fellow Keaton disciple Elia Suleiman, except it doesn’t share any of the latter’s condescension. Whereas Suleiman’s humour relies on a mix of hyperbole and ridicule, here a precise economy of gestures—for example, the simple succession of cuts from the Mercedes, to Didar’s face, to the Cadillac, and back to his unchanging countenance—encapsulates the absurdity of the situation, giving eloquent and very funny expression to Didar’s feelings of inadequacy and simmering envy. Omirbaev thus manages to endow his criticism with immense empathy and not blunt its edge.
When, later, the narrative repeatedly departs into dream and scenes become more elaborate, Omirbaev maintains the same levelness of tone. Heartened (and flattered) by an official invitation to give a poetry reading in another city, Didar delays giving an answer to the businessman’s offer. After an overnight train ride and another night spent at the home of the head of the local cultural department (they didn’t have the budget for a hotel), Didar is brought to the surpassingly unimposing “Palace of Culture” to find that a single person has come to hear his poetry. The following day, he goes on a radio show where the host introduces him by talking about the increasing irrelevance of literature in the present era. Her speech spills over into the next scene, which shows Didar roaming an electronics store; eventually, that voiceover is replaced by the diegetic cacophony of the myriad devices on display, but it’s only when Didar plugs a pen drive into a computer and the previous scene of his interview starts playing on all the screens that we realize we’re watching a dream. And it’s only after the show host asks him, “What gives you strength against the tide?” and he’s prevented from answering by an alarm going off simultaneously in the radio station and the electronics store, that we realize the interview was also part of the dream.
Up until this sequence, which functions as Poet’s climax by staging a confrontation between art and capital that impels Didar to finally make his decision, the last chapter of the film is a transplanted but otherwise mostly faithful adaptation of Hermann Hesse’s 1913 autobiographical short story “Autorenabend.” The one major alteration is the lone woman attending the reading: whereas in the original a sparse crowd shows up and quickly dissipates upon realizing that Hesse isn’t going to entertain them with jokes, here Didar doesn’t get to read any of his poems. It’s the woman who stands up, a desolate figure in the middle of the large and empty auditorium, and gives a brief speech, thanking him for writing verses that gave her strength through her life’s hardest moments and “for being a poet in such a difficult age.”
Attesting to Omirbaev’s humanism, the fact that the woman struggles with a speech impediment isn’t used for laughs, but rather affirms the sincerity of her sentiment and renders it all the more affecting. She concludes by reciting one of Didar’s poems back to him, and the film then cuts to Didar being driven home while the woman’s voice continues on the soundtrack. Miraculously, she now speaks with perfect fluency, her tribute offering solace to the humbled poet along with a galvanizing demonstration of the transformative power of art.
Darezhan Omirbaev, Kazakhstan