I started IFFK 2013 with a splendidly crafted Kazakhstan movie called Harmony Lessons, the debut feature of Emir Baigazin. The film is set in a rural Khasakh school. It tells the story of the whole mankind and our current society through Aslam, a mild-mannered and brilliant boy with few words. He is the only boy who is out of the controlling domain of the school bully, Bolat. There are other protagonists as well, like Mirsain, who is newly arrived on the school from a city, and Akzhan, who unlike other girls in the class insists on wearing a headscarf as she believes it protects her God-given beauty from boys’ gaze.
Aslam has a scientific bent of mind and a concrete belief in rights and wrongs. The film opens with the scenes of Aslam slicing a goat into pieces. He asks his grandmother afterwards. “Can anybody survive without meat?” She replies, “Perhaps in heaven”.
Bolat, on the other hand, is a typical school bully. He has no regard for others. He spreads terror in the student’s hearts with merciless punishments and villainous manners. He and his friends make Aslam drink water from a cup that was used to wash the genitals of other students during a medical camp. Since then, Aslam vomits whenever he sees a cup. Bolat asks other students to isolate Aslam and warns of severe consequences if they maintain friendship with him.
Later we realize that Bolat is just a pawn in the hands of some bigger bullies outside the school, some of them are even religious fundamentalists.
The film meanders along for some time, sketching the character profiles of Aslam and Bolat. The teachers’ lecture provides some kind of verbal humor. The science teacher, while teaching different forms of energy, describes money as the life’s source of energy. His reasoning: “We need food for power. What gives us food? Money”.
This is in stark contrast with the deadpan seriousness of Aslam about the studies. When he solves a difficult physics problem, the teacher congratulates him and asks him to participate in local science competitions. Aslam curtly retorts: “Is physics a sport”.
In another instance, a scene showing Bolat’s acts of brutal violence is immediately followed by the lectures on Mahatma Gandhi.
The film gathers pace when Mirsain joins them. He is uncomfortable with Bolat’s bullying all along, but he gradually accepts it after an initial round of physical fight. But Aslam is kind of waging an ideological war, and he is more serious about it. We see Aslam making a crude gun, using two pipes and gown powder. One day, it happens: Somebody kills Bolat. Aslam and Mirsain are the prime suspects. Both deny the accusations. What follows is heartless interrogation from police officers, leading to the film’s powerful climax.
The highlight of the final sequences is the scene in which Aslam sitting on the side of a picturesque lake and Bolat and Mirsain calling him from the other bank. A goat navigates the lake smoothly. Aslam gets back to life.
Emir Baigazin has mostly used static shots, as if trying to establish that he is also just another viewer of the lives of his characters. The amateur actors produced some incredible performances. The film at times reminds you of William Golding’s The Lord of Flies, which also captures children’s cruelty and lets it reflect on the unjust society and the world at large.