Kazakh Film at Archive

The films of director Sergei Dvortsevoy, showing at the Harvard Film Archive (HFA) on Nov. 4 and 5, offer insight into the daily lives of marginalized residents of Kazakhstan and other former Soviet countries. Those hoping to catch a glimpse of a real live Kazakh next weekend, however, are better off seeing Ali G’s “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.” Although Dvortsevoy was originally scheduled to appear for the screenings of his films, he won’t make it to the United States.

Brooke Holgerson, Editorial Assistant for the HFA, explains that “[Dvortsevoy] didn’t fill out all the [visa] paperwork in time, and he’s hard to get in touch with because he’s so far away, so it just didn’t work out.” He is currently in Kazakhstan working on his next project, but the films will be screened as planned. Holgerson further says, “It’s disappointing, but it should be really good anyway, and we’re still looking forward to it.”

The HFA screenings were initially proposed by Lucien G. Taylor, an assistant professor of Visual and Environmental Studies and of Anthropology who teaches courses in filmic anthropology. He had previously screened Dvortsevoy’s films for one of his classes.

These documentaries depict vignettes of the lives of those living in central Asia or Russia: from the shepherds of the steppes to the peasants outside St. Petersburg. Four of Dvortsevoy’s five films will be screened: “Paradise” and “Highway” on Saturday, Nov. 4; “Bread Day” and “In the Dark” on Nov. 5.

“Paradise,” a short film which was Dvortsevoy’s thesis project for film school, presents moments from the daily life of a family of nomadic shepherds in Kazakhstan. The camera tracks the individuals as they tend their livestock, prepare their food, and—in one case—run away from home. “Highway” takes place in the same country, and follows a family of circus performers who travel a 2,000 -mile dirt road in a dilapidated bus, performing in small villages along the way.

The other two films take place in Russia. “Bread Day” focuses on a town outside St. Petersburg that has been all but abandoned, with only a few pensioners left who every week must transport a railway car full of bread from a junction two hours away, pushing it home by hand and consequently contending with the disagreeable bread seller. “In the Dark,” the only one of the films that takes place in a city, depicts a blind man living in Moscow who spends his days weaving string bags to give away to passers-by.

All of the films are characterized by long, static shots—whether of an argument between brothers or an attempt to free a cow’s head from a jug—that allow events to unfold as they do in reality. The films largely resist attaching a narrative or an explicit meaning to their subjects, instead seeming to focus on the minute details briefly before moving to the next topic.

Dvortsevoy, who came to filmmaking after aviation engineering, tries to minimize his presence in his own films, instead giving a voice to the people scraping out an existence in the margins of post-Soviet society. His press statement about “Highway” sums up his philosophy of filmmaking: “I’ve come to understand that it’s silly to describe what is not possible to describe: the beauty and mystery of everyday life. One must see it only and feel.”

—Staff writer Elisabeth J. Bloomberg can be reached at