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Kazakhstan's 'Harmony Lessons' Wins Over Tribeca Critics, Crowds

A still from the film "Harmony Lessons" by director Emir Baigazin shows the main character, Aslan, played by amateur actor Timur Aidarbekov.
Young Kazakh director Emir Baigazin continues to impress in the West, with reviewers at this week's Tribeca Film Festival describing his debut film, "Harmony Lessons," in glowing terms.

It also appears to be a hit with audiences. A festival representative told RFE/RL that the film "has been playing to very strong audience response and building strong word of mouth."

It's an unsettling portrait of a schoolboy's suffering and angst at the hands of a school bully, who is himself an instrument of more powerful forces of evil at work in society, and his methodical pursuit of revenge.

WATCH: A scene from "Harmony Lessons" with English subtitles:

"The Village Voice's" Stephanie Zacharek included it in her festival preview "Tribeca Lives! Ten Films To See At A Fest That's All Grown Up."

The parallels with the workings of Kazakhstan's heavy-handed political leadership don't appear to have been lost on Western viewers.

Online reviewer Christopher Bourne at calls the Kazakh- and Russian-language feature "a brilliantly directed tale of school and state cruelty straight outta Kazakhstan."

He calls the opening scene -- a playful romp that coolly turns more clinical -- "a clear signal to the viewer that this will not be some innocuous, exoticizing look at a culture distant to Westerners, but will delve into much darker areas."

A village school and the surrounding area in rural Kazakhstan is the backdrop for the brutal Darwinism, of both the social variety and that found in nature, depicted in Emir Baigazin's astonishing debut feature "Harmony Lessons," whose extraordinary accomplishments in visual, thematic, and psychological terms belie the fact that this is his first feature. Baigazin has created a viscerally potent portrait of the concentric cycles of cruelty, violence, and ultimately murder that characterize the lives of everyone in the harsh, economically depressed village of his film's setting.

He notes that the film was cast with amateurs, from the long-suffering main character Aslan (Timur Aidarbekov) through the ranks of the classmates that populate the drama and highlight the diversity of Kazakh society, from a big-city transplant who pines for the "Happylon" mall in Almaty to the devout Muslim girl who persists in wearing her head scarf despite the teacher's admonitions.

The debut feature film from Kazakh director Emir Baigazin, seen here at the 63rd Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin in February, comes at the age of 29.
The debut feature film from Kazakh director Emir Baigazin, seen here at the 63rd Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin in February, comes at the age of 29.

One festival reviewer, Frederic Boyer, even compares the 28-year-old Baigazin's celluloid touch to that of Robert Bresson, a giant of French cinema who had a similar penchant for using amateur actors, and "the best parts of Japanese film noir."

"Harmony Lessons" was also well received in February at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it took home an "Outstanding Artistic Contribution" award.

-- Andy Heil

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