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Offbeat 'Harmony Lessons' an edgy contender at Berlin festival

February 14, 2013|By Susan Stone
  • Kazakh director Emir Baigazin at the premiere of his movie "Harmony Lessons" during the 63rd Berlin International Film Festival.
Kazakh director Emir Baigazin at the premiere of his movie "Harmony…

BERLIN -- Bullying, school violence, and police torture drama -- or quirky coming-of-age picture? Emir Baigazin‘s “Harmony Lessons” is both. It’s also the first Kazakh film to make it into the Berlinale’s competition section, and marks the feature film debut of Baigazin, who wrote, directed and edited.

Set in a rural village on the plains of Kazakhstan, the film explores some very wrong rites of passage. Stoic 13-year-old Aslan (Timur Aidarbekov) is the butt of a crude practical joke that sullies both his reputation and state of mind. The now friendless teen becomes obsessed with cleanliness and order, and starts to painstakingly plot his revenge on head bully Bolat (Aslan Anarbayev). When new boy Mirsayin (Mukhtar Andassov) joins the class after moving from the city, with his carefully styled hair, his iPhone and his pre-paid amusement park ticket, he too becomes a victim after befriending Aslan.

Oddball touches like Aslan’s torture chamber for cockroaches, including a tiny electric chair, and a sheep with fancy footwork, add a bit of lightness to sometimes heavy moments, including both child cruelty and cruel children. The film is not for the squeamish -- bugs aren’t the only animals to meet a brutal end, and Aslan’s sweet elderly grandmother is a skilled butcher.

In their tidy navy blue school uniforms, the boys who make up wise guy Bolat’s army of flunkies look and act like miniature gangsters. Bolat takes what he wants, be it new sneakers or lunch money, but he’s shown to also be a cog in a corrupt system. A pair of tough twins from the senior class, and an outsider claiming to collect for a prison fund, are the ones really running the show.  In this corrupt world, disinterested teachers turn a blind eye to the extortion and abuse.  When the aggressive police turn up to investigate a crime, one complains, “I should have kept my job as a history teacher.”

“The film talks about how the idea is born to kill another person,” Baigazin told the media at the Berlin Film Festival, citing survival as his hero’s main motivation for violence.   “I don’t see the meaning of life as a dichotomy between good and evil. I think there’s just experience,” he noted. The director was also put on the spot for his depiction of criminality and prison torture.  “Violence is an inescapable part of our life, and we all know it is,” said Baigazin, explaining that his depiction was truthful.  “The way they treat criminals is a violent way, and that’s the only language criminals understand.”

Baigazin’s youthful cast is made up of non-professional actors scouted at various schools; standout main star Aidarbekov is an orphan who was discovered in a children’s home.

“Harmony Lessons” was a Kazakh-German-French co-production, with about 50% of funding coming from national sources.  Films Distribution of Paris is handling international rights. In 2012, the project was awarded a Work-In-Progress prize from the Sarajevo International Film Festival and received support from the Berlinale’s World Cinema Fund. Baigazin was also a participant in the Berlinale’s Talent Campus training program in 2008.

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