Herstory – History of Civilization

Adi Iskandar lucks out in watching Zhannat Alshanova’s latest film.

In looking through the list of films made available online at the Locarno Film Festival, I gravitated towards those from Malaysia, with a select number from Southeast Asia. Having sated my appetite for home cooked food, I felt a little more comfortable in spreading my wings to fly beyond regional boundaries, taking a gander at what our friends in other countries might be up to.

For some reason, I gravitated towards ‘History of Civilization’ by Zhannat Alshanova. It is a Kazakhstani film set in Almaty, the country’s largest city. We follow the story of Indira (Akmaral Zykayeva), a young woman working as a university lecturer. However, for reasons not particularly known to us, she made a decision to leave for London. As she packs up to move on, this is where we come in. However, in the final leg of this process, things are cast into doubt, as, according to the official synopsis, “she dares to explore what she will leave behind.”

What is it that she will part ways with? On the surface, there is a sense of camaraderie and community she has established with her students. She seems like a popular lecturer, one who connects well with those under her tutelage. In particular, there is a special connection with Ruslan (Aidar Alimbayev), who is particularly disappointed to find out she is leaving them behind. Migration is never easy not just for those departing, but also for those who stay.

It is also in this context that other, more social issues are raised. One of her students confirms that Indira studied at a public university in the country: “What about keeping ‘brains’ in the country that financed your education?” Those of a Malaysian persuasion would find this a familiar discussion, as such brain drains have unfortunately become commonplace. Perhaps that is of no surprise, given the socio-economic and historical contexts, as well as Singapore being right on our doorstep; crane your neck a little further, and you’ll find Malaysians setting up shop in Australia as well.

This makes me wonder whether similar scenes unfold in places like Kazakhstan as well. Given the history of Central Asia, you won’t be surprised to know that Russian is lingua franca there (and of this film). However, I am surprised that a brief Internet search suggests the language to be more widely-spoken in Kazakhstan than Kazakh itself. Indira is moving to London (mirroring a part of the director’s journey as well), but apart from Western Europe, could places like Russia be seen as the Singapore or Australia for Malaysia?

In addition to such pull factors, we also get an idea of the push. Packing up her things from her office, she comes across an older male colleague in the parking lot. In conversation, he discovers that she is moving on to further her studies in England. “Those modern women,” he notes as he helps to place the things in her car, “always studying.” He does say some nice things about her, wishing her luck and such, but the tone is as salacious as the language is intended to be supportive.

Perhaps this, then, is a reminder of the socialisation at play here, with those deemed to be on the ‘outside’ (i.e. women of a certain age without children of their own) subtly (or, in this case, overtly) pressured to enter the mainstream (by starting their own family, for instance). Indira’s tired reaction suggests this to be an expression too familiar, an air she needed to get away from lest she chokes from that yoke of toxic patriarchy.

Perhaps that is too deep a dive, but rising to the surface after that, ‘History of Civilization’ is simply a proper film. There are, of course, more technical terms we can use to better explain that, but these are all rivers running to the sea that is the cinematic quality of this film. The minutes flew by without me noticing, leaving me wanting to find out more. In fact, it felt like a series of scenes from a feature film, a format it could have been expanded into with some satisfaction.

In that sense, this film is a fine addition to a cinema I am not as aware of. Some years ago, films like ‘The Gift to Stalin’ came to prominence, the opening film to the 2008 Busan Film Festival which sold out in less than two minutes. ‘History of Civilization’ deserves to be thrown into that mix somewhere, bookending what must be a cinema worthy of greater attention. In that regard, Zhannat’s efforts may well be the tinder spark to light the fire of interest within, at least for me. Perhaps it will do the same for you.

The film was selected in competition at the 2020 Locarno Film Festival.

Featured image credit: Dom J/Pexels

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