Visually arresting and psychologically engrossing, Harmony Lessons (Uroki Garmonii) is a commanding feature debut from Kazakh filmmaker Emir Baigazin, who with a clear and ambitious vision unearths harsh truths through harsh metaphoric imagery and austere storytelling.
Deep in a stark, isolated rural village in Kazakhstan thirteen-year-old Aslan lives with his grandmother. The scientifically-inclined boy is highly intelligent and observant, but also withdrawn and sickly. His grandmother thinks he may be cursed and he silently endures the torment he faces at school, which comes under the orders of Bolat- a henchman who through intimidation and violence collects money from his classmates for the senior gang leaders, who then funnel the cash to those behind bars.
All the while, the gifted and skillful boy is devising a plan for retribution.
Timur Aidarbekov is exceptional as Aslan. With very few words spoken throughout the film, Aidarbekov makes Aslan’s loneliness of mind, spirit and company completely palpable. At the same time, his performance is provocative—we can see his mind at work and we have a sense of his depth of perception and feeling, however internalized. Aslan Anarbayev is also impressive as Bolat, conveying both the false confidence, as well as the fears, anxieties and insecurities that bullies tend to carry, very naturally.
The sophisticated execution of Aidarbekov’s performance correlates with the directing style and cinematography of Harmony Lessons. Emir Baigazin wrote, directed and edited this debut feature, and at 29 years of age, has been able create a picture that is grave and sobering, but in the most expressive and compelling ways.
Baigazin’s cinematic revelations come through slowly and with meticulous attention to detail. The storytelling is visual poetry, and words are used only when needed. The symbolism in the film is a demonstration of more than one teenager’s anguish—it’s a map through the topography of a culture and society in a very complicated part of the world. And, on yet another level it speaks to humanity as a whole.
The French and German production, received a Special Jury Mention in the Best New Director category at the Tribeca Film Festival this week, and a well-deserved one. With Harmony Lessons, Emir Baigazin proves that he is filmmaker with purpose and with a vision. The subject, the plot, the setting are grim, from start to finish. It is not an easy film to sit through, but once you’ve seen it, there is so much that sits with you.