by William J. Hammon Founder, ActuallyPaid.com
Stories about impressionable children coming to terms with the realities of the world around them are nothing new. What separates the best of them, however, comes down to two factors, I think. The first is to make sure that the young protagonist is treated with empathy without pandering or condescension. In essence, honor the kid’s feelings while respecting their budding intelligence. The second is to present the child as realistically as possible, even if the surrounding circumstances have fantastical elements. Never dismiss their imagination, but also don’t create a situation where they act in ways that everyday children wouldn’t.
By those two metrics, Shambala is a massive success. Based on the novella, “The White Ship,” the film was the official submission from the nation of Kyrgyzstan to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the International Feature Film category this year. It ultimately wasn’t nominated or even shortlisted, but at least in that latter sense, I think Academy voters might have missed an opportunity, as the film takes a very familiar concept and expands it to an epic visual while maintaining a minimalist framework.
Young Artur Amanaliev stars as the title character, a seven-year-old boy living in a secluded home deep in a forested area of rural Kyrgyzstan, along with his grandfather (Nasret Dubashev), step-grandmother (Djamilia Sydykbaeva), aunt Bekey (Taalaikan Abazova), and uncle Orozkul (Talant Apyev). Ever curious about the world around him, Shambala often gets into trouble for exploring just too much, evidenced by the opening scene where he loses his trousers in the river trying to catch a fish. Nevertheless, it’s clear his heart is in the right place.
Where that heart eventually goes comes down to his grandfather and uncle. Shambala’s father is not around, with the boy told that he’s sailing on a white ship working at sea (hence the novella’s title), but the true fate of both of his birth parents is left unknown, giving him a built-in sense of doubt and insecurity that can either be treated empathetically or exploited.
Instead, the task of molding his personality comes down to the other two patriarchal figures, both of whom begin the film with diametrically opposed visions. The grandfather is an old mystic and gamekeeper, who reveres nature and shares folklore about their family line being descended from a great protective spirit called the Mother Deer. He teaches Shambala respect for all living creatures and an adherence to tradition and ceremony. In one of the more poetic early scenes, he prays to a tree, asking permission to cut it down in order to build a yurt for young Shambala to live in, interpreting an immediate breeze as loving consent.
On the flip side, Orozkul is initially a modern pragmatist who feels it’s necessary to prioritize living in the 21st century. He works with outside traders and businessmen to introduce creature comforts into their lives, including satellite television, tractors, and cars. While their small clearing in the woods will never become an industrialized city, it’s clear that Orozkul wants to enjoy the outside world rather than live in isolation.
These worldviews are incompatible, but initially they aren’t in conflict, because they both have inherent value. And there’s a lovely thematic balance between the two, personified through Shambala’s wide-eyed enthusiasm for anything and everything. He lives for positive sensory overload, and takes to each new thing with a genuine aplomb that any of us can recognize in ourselves and the children in our lives.
Things come to a head, however, when Shambala discovers a totem of the Mother Deer deep in the woods, and has a vision of the proud deer itself in the distance. Initially scared, he summons both surrogate father figures to see what they should do about it. Grandfather is awed, and begins praying, seeing it as a blessing for the family. Orozkul, however, senses an economic opportunity, as antiquities sell very well, and the additional income could benefit everyone. In what he believes is a compromise, Orozkul places the statue in their front yard so that he can dig up the ground beneath it and look for profitable artifacts.
However, what Orozkul believes is a happy medium, the grandfather sees as blasphemy, and what began as two sides of the same coin guiding a young boy through his childhood turns into a proxy war with Shambala caught in the middle, each man’s insecurities coming to the fore (obsolescence for the grandfather, impotence for Orozkul, who blames Bekey for the lack of a child of their own). The question then becomes who Shambala will choose, and how much potential cruelty will come out in the process.
The presentation of the film is absolutely gorgeous, with stupendous camera work. There’s a joyous balance of sweeping, eye-popping wide shots of Kyrgyzstan’s natural beauty contrasted with more intimate scenes of the family that are largely taken from Shambala’s eye level. In addition, the sound design is near perfect, and when Shambala and others spy what they believe is the Mother Deer, the CGI rendering of the quasi-legendary beast is fairly convincing. Finally, there are some pretty brilliant creative decisions made when it comes to color and lighting in certain scenes that demonstrates the dichotomy of the situation quite well.
But really, none of this works if Shambala himself isn’t 100% believable, and thankfully, he is. Artur Amanaliev does an amazing job carrying the emotional and thematic weight of this story, showing us the wonder of a child with the caution and fear that comes with seeing the hard truths about the world for the first time. There are lovely, heartbreaking moments where he appeals to anything — logic, reason, gods, spirits, whatever — to resolve the conflict in his house and bring his father home safely. That’s a great distillation of the insecurities of maturing youth. It doesn’t matter what you believe, if anything, but you’re willing to trust in something if it results in a return to harmony, and Amanaliev’s performance translates that universal idea marvelously.
It’s always a pleasure to see the types of films that various nations around the world select as their best offering when they submit to the Oscars. Even if a movie doesn’t resonate, it’s incredible to get an insight into a nation’s collective thought process, to see their creative, artistic, and sometimes political values laid bare before us all. That’s why I see as many international submissions as I can each year. This is the first I’ve seen from Kyrgyzstan, and I can promise it won’t be the last, especially if this is the quality they’re capable of.
Shambala is being screened as part of this year’s Brooklyn Film Festival on Sunday, June 12th. Visit the festival website for details.