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.
Harmony Lessons focuses on Aslan (Timur Aidarbekov), a 13-year old boy who lives with his grandmother in a farmhouse on the steppes. We are introduced to Aslan in a deceptively humorous way: he is chasing a sheep in the front yard of his house. But when he catches it, the tone changes very quickly, as he slaughters, guts, and removes the skin from the sheep under the watchful eye of his grandmother, and under the merciless gaze of Baigazin's unflinching camera eye. This is 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.
Aslan makes what is presumably a lengthy trek daily to his school, where he is subjected to bullying, mostly at the hands of Bolat (Aslan Anarbayev), the school's resident thug/gangster, who shakes down the other students for money on a regular basis, and rules with a Stalinesque iron fist. However, it is soon revealed that Bolat is but one rung on the totem pole of a yakuza-like structure of gangsterism that extends to the local jail, where the shakedown operation presumably originates.
Oddly, Aslan seems to be the only student in the school not forced to pay Bolat. However, he is subjected to an even worse fate at Bolat's hands. After Bolat engineers a very cruel and humiliating practical joke against Aslan during a school physical, he ostracizes Aslan from the rest of the students, forbidding them from speaking to him. This pushes Aslan further into isolation and psychological trauma, which Aslan reacts to by being obsessed with personal cleanliness - washing multiple times daily and discarding his clothes after wearing them once - and turning his scientifically-inclined mind to experimenting on and torturing small animals, including cockroaches and lizards.
The film tantalizingly raises the possibility of Aslan's situation being leavened through a sense of solidarity with others who find themselves being treated as outcasts at the school. Madi (Omar Adilov), another bullied student, attempts to befriend Aslan; Aslan himself seems interested in Akzhan (Anelya Adilbekova), a strikingly beautiful girl who is a devout Muslim who refuses to wear the school uniform, insisting on wearing her headscarf to school despite her teacher's objections. Aslan's closest ally is Mirsayin (Mukhtar Andassov), a boy new to the school sent there from the city. He regales Aslan with stories of life in the city, which is much more exciting and colorful than the drab village surroundings; Aslan is especially intrigued by Mirsayan's rapturous descriptions of "Happylon," an amusement arcade mall in Almaty that represents ultimate freedom from the world's cruelty. Mirsayin stands up to Bolat, defending Aslan, and directly challenges Bolat by fighting him. However, none of this is enough to prevent Aslan from planning revenge against Bolat, the consequences of which propel the film's final sections, which fully reveal the cruel power structure of state and police authority that curtail any possibility of real escape from its far-reaching clutches.
Harmony Lessons is a beautifully designed and directed film, whose rigorously composed fixed-take compositions and symbolically allusive geometric patterns are as compelling as the narrative itself. Baigazin elicits wonderfully naturalistic performances from his cast of nonprofessionals, especially Timur Aidarbekov, who was found in an Almaty orphanage, and who is the mysterious, unsettling, yet undeniably charismatic heart of this remarkable film. Baigazin sometimes bears down a bit too hard on the symbols and thematic elements, especially with the direct lessons on Darwin given by one of the school teachers. Nevertheless, Harmony Lessons is filled with stylistic riches and sharp psychological acuity, and despite its somber subject matter, is not without a sense of humor. Director Emir Baigazin has undeniably announced himself as a filmmaker well worth following.
Harmony Lessons has two more screenings at Tribeca, on April 22 at 7pm and April 25 at 2:30pm. For more information, visit the Tribeca Film Festival's website.