Longing; longing for home. Fuelled by nostalgia and feelings of safety and the familiar it is one of those primordial emotions responsible for changes in the wellbeing of those caught in its embrace. The desire to make the arduous journey back to one’s homeland to reinstate a sense of belonging or identity is one of the greatest harbingers of change, one felt all too real by those forcibly uprooted from their communities and stripped off their national flesh. They carry home in their hearts – it’s what keeps them alive – and hopes of one day returning shelters from the despairs running amok in the chaos surrounding them. For native Kazakhs, removed from their country either in the brutal heyday of Stalinism or caught amidst the proxy war between the Soviets and Afghani rebels in a war which fissured the first cracks in the USSR’s iron mentality, their treatment upon their return has been far from blessed and met instead with hostility and rejection.
It is against this backdrop of a newly independent Central Asia, free from the tyrannical grasp of a dying world, where Returnee opens our eyes to a world often forgotten by the West, to a struggle seldom understood by the hustle and bustle of Western societies. Far removed from this vision, Sabit Kurmanbekov’s fourth film is a meditative tapestry imbued with the hope of all those who long for the firm foundations of home.
Traversing the vast yet vivid emptiness of Afghanistan through Tajikistan and finally Kazakhstan, Kurmanbekov’s tenderly-paced feature follows Saparkul (Dulyga Akmolda) – a muezzin from Kunduz Province who fought alongside the mujahedeen – and his family migrate back to their homeland and struggle to acclimatise to the new sensibilities of the post-Soviet nation; sensibilities made only more polarising by previous loyalties during the war and citizenship status. In tow with Saparkul are his wife Zeinep (Bayan Kazhnabieva), his daughter Mariamn (Dinara Dairova), mute since an interaction with a landmine, and his ailing father, whose dreams of the paradise of a home country, seemingly to be laid to rest under the Kazakh ground, become the source of conflict later in the film. Less of a structured narrative Returnee is told through a series of simple yet highly evocative set pieces: traversing the old and restrictive lands to new, becoming acquainted with their new home, the death and burial of the grandfatherly figure, the restoration of the local mosque – all shot with the pristine attention-to-detail one would expect from an Abbas Kiarostami film.
Deeply rooted in the simple passages of life – of birth, life, death, and rebirth – the details of the film’s story is best left untouched, to not be sullied by the revealing hooks of any one writer; it reveals itself under each and every brushstroke responsible for its creation, interwoven with its introspective silence and naked expression, surrounding its audience with an all-too-human devotion. No, it’s carefully arranged moments are best left only for the eyes and soul residing within the vessel, as it is a glowering feast for the senses, embracing its audience in a warmth contrasted by the domineering winter pervading across not only the screen but in the family’s reception by the locals. Its strength burns underneath their union, in their resilience against all that comes their way – the saddening realisation of their alienation in what is their ancestral home – and in their hope of a better tomorrow. Brought to life by powerful performances, led by the quiet determination of Akmolda as Saparkul, their journey is weathered into their faces, told more by the emotions surfacing from deep within and interactions with one another than the words uttered from their mouths.
What is made very clear across the film’s runtime is the importance of roots, the magnetism between the self and the nation. It is transcendental of religion, of old alliances and frictions. The longing for what Moses spent forty years traversing the desert for is felt with a trembling kiss of the snowy ground, the fond remembrance of the taste of beshbarmak (Kazakhstan’s national dish), the negation of military restrictions during the burial of a family member, the acceptance of those who fought on the opposing side. These are all moments the film lovingly lingers on and whilst these are embodied by Saparkul’s father, poignantly portrayed by Esim Segizbayev, they are not always reciprocated by the family: Zeinep (a minimalist yet deeply moving performance by Kazhnabieva) struggles to feel the paradisiacal essence of the country spoken of by her father-in-law; even Mariam (wonderfully brought to life by Dairova) is forced to witness the xenophobic beating Saparkul endures. But still they stand together – this is their land and must persevere. Towering above the films sentimentality in terms of national pride is the score, a beautiful motif of traditional music weaves in and out of the film’s visual poetry and a hummed rendition of the national anthem blesses the landscape and her characters, elevating Returnee’s already-breath-taking meditations to profoundly uplifting climes.
It is best stated Returnee is a visual film, reliant more on the actors’ embodiment of emotion and facial expression as opposed to dialogue but what makes this film truly remarkable is its embrace of the spaciousness of the land within Mars Oumarov’s gorgeous cinematography. The marriage of the two is reminiscent to that experienced in the films of Kim-Ji-woon, or in Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring (2003); here, the landscape is captured in all the glorious hues of its greys, browns, and whites, coming alive with tones so exquisite you could almost touch them. Panning shots frame the sparseness and ultimate emptiness of the region, only serving to enhance the feeling of alienation of the family and the isolation from the rest of the world. Despite this there is a certain intimacy to be found, one reflected by the close-knit unity of Saparkul and his family, inviting the viewer into the long-overlooked world.
Marvelling in its simplicity and majestic visuals, Kurmanbekov’s film has done particularly well on the festival circuit since its premier at the Fajr International Film Festival in 2017 where it won Best Asian Film. It also (almost predictably) won the Grand Prix at the 13th Eurasian International Film Festival and picked up Best Actor for Akmolda’s evocative performance at the Kazan International Muslim Film Festival. A pro-Kazakhstan film deserving of all its accolades, Returnee aims to instill a new affection for its national pride for those longing to come home. It is a powerful and visually stunning labour of love reliant on some of the more basic of human emotions and needs to drive its narrative. In an age where migration from the lands beyond the reach of the West has become a staggering global narrative, ravaged by war and terror, it serves as an important film for all those who dream of the simplicity of a life in the places they call home.
Returnee is showing on July 7 at the Close-Up Cinema, London as part of the Aperture: Asia & Pacific Film Festival.