Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Light Thief: A Kyrgyz Film and I Don't Know

(The post has 2 screen shots which don't appear to exist on my hard drive, so when it mentions those just picture some poor villager being assaulted by Big Money, okay?



Went to the local indie theatre for the only February show that really appealed to me based solely upon a two-sentence summary and the picture. Full on spoilers do follow, so ye be warned!

Directed by [and starring] Aktan Arym Kubat, this film is 80 minutes of dramatic discontiguity. The film opens with the titular act of Light Theft, where our titular character the Light Thief [affectionately called "Mr Light"] is caught stealing electricity for his fellow villagers who cannot pay for it [on account of their being poor villagers who don't appear to hold actual jobs? Seriously, I never saw any farms or anything]. The businessman in the opening sequence [who we'll never see again] is upset obviously, and Mr Light loses his job as the town electrician. He then gets it back for reasons I don't quite understand, perhaps the least among them being that in this small town in Kyrgyzstan he is the only electrician.

{Screenshot1}

"Mr Light", played by the director, is presented as the beloved town figure. HOW CONVENIENT

The rest of the story proceeds as if none of this had ever happened; it's almost like this opening scene was written to give us a cutesy title for an otherwise dark and bizarre film about exploiting poor villages caught between the hammer of post-Soviet revolutions against corrupt governments, and the anvil of Chinese and Russian businesses trying to exploit what natural resources exist in the rural areas. Alternatively, you can just call it Ret-con and pretend that Xorneto had a twin brother that didn't steal electricity, and thus never lost his job.

As the screenshot might tell you, the film is entirely in Kyrgyz with English subtitles although gratefully the translations do not suffer from syntax difficulties or bizarre double entendres that everyone laughs about-- they may still be there, but they are at the least not crucial to your enjoyment of the film.

The rest of the film follows the "subplot" of a prodigal son named Bekzat returning as a successful businessman. He visits the village elders and asks them to let in Chinese investors and, as the film draws to an end, that they sell their rural innocence out. The current mayor resists these efforts thankfully, and Mr Light (the town's only electrician as explained above) who is quite useful in the organization of the proposed wind farms, resists the cultural corruption to the end of the film.

{Screenshot 2}

The mayor of the town refuses to let Bekzat buy the land the village owns. One or two scenes later, he's dead.

It's never explained fully, but mid-film the idealistic mayor dies, a funeral dinner is held, and the opportunistic Bekzat puts in his own guy as mayor [well, he "suggests" it, but really?]. Somehow the timing makes this all seem like the old mayor, who looks healthy enough here, must have been assassinated-- the method of death is never explained, but no one is suspicious.

This again makes me worry over the town members, who are too trusting to assume ill of it. They welcome Bekzat to their funeral dinner, and he gives a fair eulogy that slips quite subtly into a vote of confidence in the malleable town drunk for mayor.

Bekzat is almost archetypal in his role as the Greasy Businessman, and cast against the innocent characters of the town it's... well, it's like watching a wolf in a pen with sheep and the result is more uncomfortable than anything.

Now, I said this was a "subplot" because while this is the only really consistent plot thread, against the dark and dingy theme of selling the village's soul for modern society, the foreground of the film shows the beauty of rural Kyrgyzstan, complimenting the charming naïvité of the local population. The Light Thief's best friend is a drunk (who is chosen by Bekzat as the best candidate for mayor) who pre-government doesn't seem to do anything productive beyond own a horse, and there's a charming relationship between our Mr Light and a local boy who clearly admires him. Near the end of the film the boy climbs a tree (and gets stuck) in what has to be construed as a mimicry of the electrician's climbing poles, and Mr Light without a second thought abandons his electrical job for Bekzat to run and help out the boy. The boy says he was trying to see what was beyond the mountains, and the two share a moment that is touchingly depressing as we realize that the boy may be another youth destined to leave the village in the hopes of finding a new life somewhere else.

Now, the whole "plot" begins because Mr Light has a "toy" windmill that he dreams will be a model for powering the village one day. Mr Bekzat notices it and asks if the electrician will let the Chinese investors fund the creation of a whole farm that will power the whole valley; "You have beautiful dreams", he tells Mr Light. The electrician agrees-- this is what he's wanted to do, isn't it? But as it becomes apparent that this investment comes at a cultural cost he's unwilling to let others pay, he refuses at the last moment; naturally, Bekzat is not amused and he has Mr Light removed quite violently.

The film closes with Mr Light's windmill powering a single lightbulb. Presumably, the deal will go through at the cost of the town's integrity. The rural charm will disappear, but perhaps the youth will stay rather than leaving for Russia and China. The film was intriguing, and at the very least it makes me want to visit Kyrgyzstan -- the country looks lovely, political revolutions aside.

Thematically, I'm not sure what we are to take out of this. Mr Light and the former Mayor are to applauded for their resistance to corruption, but they lost in the end. Is that all we can hope for? Is innocence doomed to be corrupted?

The film is depressing, but it's worth seeing as an eccentricity. If you can visit Kyrgyzstan or just watch a nice documentary on it you'd probably get a better experience, though, and then you can just read "Heart of Darkness" and get the thematic significance of corrupting less influential cultures.