Coming of age meets tradition: “Bauryna Salu” at the 2024 goEast Festival of Central and Eastern European Film5 min read

 In Central Asia, Review, Reviews
With his painfully touching coming-of-age drama Bauryna Salu, Kazakh director Ashkat Kuchinchirekov has made an impressive feature film debut. The film tells the story of 12-year-old Yersultan, who grows up with his grandmother and, after her death, returns to his parents and younger sibling, with whom he has no ties. The film saw immediate success at the 24th edition of the goEast Film Festival, where it recently had its German premiere.

The title of the film, “Bauryna Salu,” refers to an old nomadic tribal tradition, according to which the eldest son is given to relatives who raise him after birth. Throughout his film, Kuchinchirekov applies vehement social criticism of this very tradition, using Yersultan’s experience as a moving example to describe what it triggers in the children affected. The director, who himself grew up with his grandparents due to the tradition, also processes his own childhood experiences.

A warm summer

From the very first shot, the film lets the viewer participate in the hardship of Yersultan’s life. The 12-year-old boy does hard physical work in a salt mine to earn some money while living with his grandmother in a modest mud house in the village. Even away from the mine, his life is characterised by work in the fields or at his grandmother’s house.

Yersultan loves his grandmother dearly, but he often thinks about his parents, especially at night, whom he only knows from a photograph. He stands in front of the mirror every evening with the same photo and looks at the extent to which his facial features resemble those of the people depicted.

Despite the family circumstances and the conditions of his everyday existence, Yersultan’s life seems happy, and when he goes swimming in the summer or fights with his friend Damir, he seems to live a carefree childhood. Kuchinchirekov succeeds in capturing these moments with quiet and slow shots, portraying Kazakh village life in warm and earthy colours.

However, Yersultan’s life takes a painful turn when his grandmother dies. The boy, faced with the loss of the most important person in his life, struggles with his grief while at the same time taking a step towards growing up. As the only close relative of the deceased, he has important tasks at the funeral, such as inspecting the inside of his grandmother’s dug grave.

… and a cold winter

The film time-jumps into winter; Yersultan has ‘returned’ to his family. Together with his younger brother Yerkyn, he has to support his father with hard work on the farm. Yersultan has no ties to his immediate family, but he still tries to build a relationship with his parents, especially his father. However, his father prefers the company of Yerkyn, and sees his eldest son as being unable to complete the required tasks satisfactorily. Yet these are activities that Yersultan never learned to do away from his parents’ farm. Horse riding, which is important in Kazakhstan and which Yersultan yearns to learn, plays a particularly symbolic role.

Yersultan also doesn’t find any connection at school. Every day he experiences violence from his classmates, who bully the reserved newcomer. The classmates and their targeted blows provide a counterpoint to Damir and the friendly scuffle in which Yersultan was so happy to take part. He skips school more and more often, which leads to new conflicts with his father.

Eventually, the father tries to improve his relationship with his son by buying Yersultan a horse so that he can learn to ride. However, he completely fails in this attempt because he ignores the boy’s fear of the wildly galloping, half-tamed animal. “I’m going to fall down,” says Yersultan, to which the father laughs and replies that everyone does that the first time. Since Yersultan refuses to mount the horse, he has to walk home as punishment.

The eternal fighting at school ends with Yersultan hitting a classmate in the head with a stone after another attack, almost killing the boy. When his father finds out about this, he beats his son because he has violated the family’s honour. Yersultan tells his father to hit him harder because the father doesn’t love him and that he gave Yersultan away. He accuses his father of never having visited him whilst Yersultan was saving money from his work at the salt mine so that he could see his parents. The father, who becomes aware of his own mistakes after taking a cigarette in the fresh air, tries to give his son some love and affection. But Yersultan defends himself and doesn’t accept the father’s rapprochement. The relationship between father and son seems irreversibly destroyed.

An impressive portrait

With Bauryna Salu, Ashkat Kuchinchirekov has created a sensitive film that reveals to the viewer the deepest feelings of the main character, allowing them to feel his personal conflicts. The director underlines the deep cut that the death of his grandmother and the return to his parents leaves in Yersultan’s life by comparing both phases in the protagonist’s life on an equal footing via long, documentary-like images. The colours and moods emphasise the fictional and set the earthy, warm tones of summer in conscious contrast to the icy blue of winter.

Bauryna Salu is an impressive portrait of Kazakh rural life, whose lifestyles and traditions Kuchinchirekov depicts with respect, while at the same time capturing the barren beauty of the landscape and people. This in particular shows that the film is primarily aimed at a Western audience. Although Bauryna Salu has a clear message to Kazakh viewers with its criticism of tribal tradition, the film cannot capture the audience here with its slow images of village life, which is well known in the country. Similar to Ädilhan Erjanov’s films, Bauryna Salu is likely to score points with European festival audiences without leaving any significant traces in its own country.

The fact that Kuchinchirekov was right in his decision to stay true to his own line is shown by the award Bauryna Salu received during the recent GoEast Film Festival. The festival’s media partner 3sat selected the film for purchase, noting: “The quiet and powerful feature film debut “Bauryna Salu” by Ashkat Kuchinchirekov offers authentic insights into a foreign world and its life and work practices in its painfully touching examination of the tribal tradition of the same name in Kazakhstan.”

This review was originally published  in German on 6 May 2024 by our partner publication

Feature Image: Bauryna Salu 
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