UROKI GARMONII (Harmony Lessons)

Judging from this debut feature, Kazakh newcomer Emir Baigazin is one to follow: for a first film, Harmony Lessons is strikingly accomplished, with a perfectly tuned control of form and style if not yet of function in its intriguingly chilly take on the subject of school bullying. What begins as a perfectly standard tale of pranks and shunning of rural high-schooler Aslan (Timur Aidarbekov) slowly becomes something more surreal and equivocal, as the quietly intense boy finds himself ostracized and joins forces with city-bred newcomer Bolat (Aslan Anarbayev) while the situation escalates implacably.

     The ever-encroaching persecution of Aslan and Bolat by a well-ordained bullying structure that relies on fear and agression could actually be read as a skewed comment about totalitarian or loosely democratic regimes (the proximity of Russia can't help but raise a few flags). But we may be jumping ahead of ourselves and Harmony Lessons (the irony of the title is almost sickening) can also be seen as a coldly entomological approach to the inner workings of an alienated kid living inside his own world since there's nothing remotely enticing outside. As the story develops, though, as Aslan's experiences become progressively more cruel and extreme, it's worth asking whether any of this is actually real or exists merely inside the kid's head. Mr. Baigazin, however, is so formalist a filmmaker that the ambiguity is never fully resolved and you leave Harmony Lessons asking what exactly this is all about. And therein does the director, also doubling as screenwriter and editor, fall into the customary traps of the debut feature - form over function, stylization over scripting, the need to take the approach all the way to its logical endpoint.

     That Harmony Lessons, despite underwritten and overlong, is still so striking is a testament to Mr. Baigazin's talent; that you can't really engage with its qualities beyond cold admiration is a testament to his inexperience. But a second feature is certainly worth waiting for.

Cast: Timur Aidarbekov, Aslan Anarbayev, Mukhtar Andassov
Director, screenwriter, editor: Emir Baigazin
Cinematographer: Aziz Zhambakiyev  (colour, widescreen)
Designer: Yuliya Levitskaya
Costumes: Ulan Nugumanov
Producer: Anna Katchko (JCS Kazakhfilm, The Post Republic Halle, Rohfilm, Arizona Productions, Adibul Studio)
Kazakhstan/Germany/France, 2013, 114 minutes

Screened: Lisbon & Estoril Film Festival 2013 advance screener, Lisbon, November 5th 2013


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