The Fall of Otrar

[Гибель Отрара]

Kazakhstan, 1991. 165 min. Sepia tinted black-and-white with occasional color.
In Kazakh, Mongolian, and Mandarin with English subtitles.
Directed: Ardak Amirkulov.
Written: Svetlana Karmalita and Aleksei German.
Camera: Saparbek Koichumanov, with assistance from Aubakira Suleeva.
Art direction: Umirzak Shmanov and Aleksandr Rorokin.
Music: Kuat Shil'debaev.
With: Bolot Beishenaliev, Dogdurbek Kydyraliev, Tungyshbai Dzhamankulov, Sabira Ataeva, Kasim Zhakibaev.
Awards: FIPRESSI Prize (Locarno, 1991)

The film is set in Central Asia in the early 13th century, when the region was united as a loose coalition of city fortresses and ruled by Shah Mukkhamed, the emir of the ancient and powerful Muslim state of Khorezm (Khwarazm), which had recently gained independence from the Arabs and Turks in the west–that is, in Baghdad. Mukkhamed's obsession with Western dangers to his empire blinds him to the more pressing threat from the east: Genghis Khan and the Mongol army, which conquered Khorezm in 1221. While all of the major cities of Khorezm (Bukhara, Taraz, etc.) fell to the Mongols within a matter of days, the city of Otrar managed to hold out for almost six months before finally surrendering.

Otrar is divided into two parts. The first part focuses on Unzhukhan, a member of the nomadic tribe of Kipchaks, who was sent seven years ago by Kairhkhan, the ruler of Otrar, to work alongside of the Mongols as a scout and to spy on them. Unzhu returns to Otrar in order to warn Mukkhamed and Kairkhan that Genghis Khan is about to turn his armies away from China and invade Khorezm. His warnings, however, about Genghis Khan's spies in the city (Russian merchants) and invasion plans, are ignored, and Unzhu, who calls himself "The Arrow of Allah," is subjected to a series of tortures and tests to break his spirit and ascertain his allegiance. Over Kairkhan's carefully crafted objections, Mukkhamed decides to send his armies against Baghdad.

The second part of the film occurs after Mukkhamed's army has been destroyed in the Baghdad campaign, leaving Khorezm vulnerable to Genghis Khan's armies. The focus in this part shifts to Kairkhan, who must undertake a defense of Otrar against the ever-growing onslaught of the Mongol armies, which manage to cut off and isolate the city. Despite Unzhu's heroic assistance, Kairkhan is unable to break the siege and the city eventually falls. Kairkhan's execution is both brutal and honorific: Genghis Khan orders that his face be turned into a mask of pure silver.

Amirkulov shot Kairkhan's death as a tribute to Andrei Tarkovskii's film Andrei Rublev (1966), quoting at once two famous sequences in the film: the Mongols' execution of a deacon by pouring molten lead down his throat; and the casting of the enormous church bell, the scene that closes the film. Otrar is filled with many other visual citations, ranging from Akira Kurosawa's samurai films–especially The Red Beard (1965) and Kagemusha (1980)–to Sergeo Leone's spaghetti Westerns.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Amirkulov's historical epic is his consistent avoidance of broad, sweeping, external shots so characteristic of the genre. The film is ruled by its claustrophobia: the long interior shots of cramped cells and living quarters, narrow corridors and passageways between buildings, interiors of tents and the closeness of bodies around campfires. Even when the action moves into the emir's huge reception hall or the streets of the city, Amirkulov relies primarily on tightly cropped compositions and mid-range to close-up shots to block out everything that deflects from the increase in dramatic tension.

In a similar way, most of the film is dominated by darkness and shadows. Many of the film's interior shots are illuminated by candles and torchlight, which cast elaborate patterns of gray tones across everything on the screen. Even when the sun serves as the source of illumination, its intense brightness is blinding, further deepening the darkness that threatens to overcome the film images, just as Genghis Khan is threatening to extinguish the civilization of Khorezm.

The original screenplay for The Fall of Otrar was written in Russian by film director Aleksei German and his wife, Svetlana Karmalita, in the mid-1980s, when all but one of German's films had been shelved in the former Soviet Union. The screenplay was published in the film journal Iskusstvo kino: 1 (1990): 138-163 and 2 (1990): 129-162.

Ardak Amirkulov

Ardak Amirkulov (left) with
artistic director Umirzak Shmanov

Ardak Amirkulov was born in 1955 and graduated from the Philology Department of Kazakh State University. In 1981 he enrolled in the director courses at Kazakhfil'm Studios. His short film The Hunter was his diploma film. In 1984 he was accepted into Sergei Solov'ev's master class at the State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK). Amirkulov's second short film, Tactical War Games on Broken Terrain, was his graduation film. He served as the director of Kazakhfil'm Studios from 1994 until 1997. From 1997-2001 Amirkulov ran a master class for directors of feature films at the Kazakh Academy of Arts named for T. Zhurgenov.

1981 The Hunter (short)
1986 Tactical War Games on Broken Terrain (short)
1991 The Fall of Otrar
1995 Abai
1998 1997. Rustem's Notes

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