This interview was conducted on August 6th, 2022, in the lobby of Ibis Hotel Locarno, in English and Russian, and simultaneously translated by Yuliya Kim, whom we would like to thank. Gabriel Linhares Falcão talked with Darezhan Omirbayev about his last two movies, the feature film “Poet” (2021), which screened in Brazil at the Festival Olhar de Cinema, and the short “Last Screening” (2022) which had its world premiere in Locarno, providing the occasion for this interview. Besides talking about the new releases, we wanted to listen to him not only as a director, but to get to know more of his cinephile side, his work as a teacher, and his work with movie critique and mathematics before he started making pictures.
Gabriel Linhares Falcão: You stopped making films for almost ten years, and now, luckily, you’re back with two new ones. What have you done during those years?
Darezhan Omirbayev: It was personal, because first it was my mother who died, and then my wife died. So, I was in a life crisis, and I could not make any films. But, all these years I continued to work in the film school and to teach young filmmakers.
GLF: I’m sorry about what happened to your family. I’d like to ask if the experience of teaching has changed your approach to films. How are your classes?
DO: I teach film history, which is very important. My students are film critics and directors. It didn’t change anything in the shootings. It is a kind of work that you can do in between the films, so you can live.
GLF: The Brazilian cinephiles were happy that “Poet” was showed online at Olhar de Cinema. In this film, a poet cannot live off of his poetry. And in the new film that you’re showing here in Locarno, “Last Screening”, you are dealing with a young aspiring artist. Both present very pessimistic views, but on the other hand, they still seem to consider the possibility of survival in spite of such circumstances.
DO: We were very happy to show “Poet” in Brazil. We can look at it globally and we can talk about creativity. To solve every problem, we have to do something creative, and every society needs it in some level. For example, this is a story that happened to a friend of mine:
In a construction site, a lot of people needed to do their reports to be accepted to work. There was a woman that was taking these reports and there was my friend, who was the last one in line, and there were a lot of flies. The woman said “I am so tired of these flies”. And my friend noticed this and got out, crossed the road and went to a bazar to buy a mosquito net for the window. So, he came back with this thing and gave it to her at the same time as these reports, and she signed them immediately. So, you have to be creative, in order to solve problems. When there is no creativity like this, all there is left is our culture of living, our tolerance, and there is no creativity in this, only our civilization and culture. Based only on culture, we cannot create anything and we cannot go far. Only with creativity, which follows art, we can go further.
GLF: In your films, dreams and movie theaters open doors to escape reality. In “Last Screening”, you make a comparison between the movie theater screen and the multiple screens present in our daily lives. Your work always seemed very material, and this one makes a dialogue with the virtual world, somehow. Could you comment on this change?
DO: Dreams give a key to the inner world of a person and I think modern art also has to help people, to be this key to their inner personality. People have these little screens with them just because they live more in this computerized world now. It is a fact and is nice to shoot it. I’m not judging the internet and the telephone, we have to live with it, and I know that I cannot resist or be against it.
GLF: You talked about modern art, dreams and cinema. Are you interested in surrealism, both as a movement and in theories? Is there an impact of this art in your films?
DO: Yes, I really adore “Un Chien Andalou” (Luis Buñuel, 1929). My works have a lot of dreams in them and some of them are almost entirely made as dreams. [Andrei] Tarkovsky also showed me I can show someone’s dream in a film.
GLF: We know very little about your cinephilia and the references you have.
DO: First of all, it’s [Robert] Bresson. I have all his films and books. He was the one who demonstrated that cinema is not theater, but a totally different art and he explained, at least to me, that it is best to show real people than to show people acting. They might be professional or non-professional actors, but anyway you shoot a person. If the actor is interesting to me because of his personality, then I work with his personality, but it doesn’t have anything to do with his acting experience.
GLF: What was like for you to be a cinephile in Kazakhstan? Were there struggles to see different films when you were a student, an aspiring filmmaker?
DO: I was born in a little village and there was only one cinema theater. Once there was a film set in Brazil, “The Sandpit Generals” (1971), that all the Soviet Union watched. We mostly watched soviet films, but there were films from the United States, India, France, Iran, Brazil, Japan and some other countries. Nowadays you cannot find any films from Iran, Japan and these other places.
I don’t know about Brazil, but in Kazakhstan I don’t have a lot of cinephiles who watch my films. Kazakh people mostly watched Bollywood, but now they watch Hollywood and sometimes they watch Kazakh comedies.
GLF: What is your relationship to film criticism? I’ve read that you used to be a film critic and that you also published texts on film theory.
DO: Before shooting my first film, I worked for two years as a film critic. Before that, I was a mathematician. I think I know pretty well the history of cinema. The texts I used to publish must probably be in some journals, but you’d have to find it in some library in Kazakhstan, because it’s very old. I made my degree work on [Pier Paolo] Pasolini, about his text “Cinema of Poetry”.
GLF: Did you elaborate many ideas as a film critic that you would put in action as a filmmaker?
DO: As [Michelangelo] Antonioni once said, “An actor shouldn’t be too smart, because if he is, then he’d turn into a film director”. For film critics, if you dig in too deep, you risk to become a film director, as [Jean-Luc] Godard and [François] Truffaut. I guess I dug too deep, so I ended up as a director.
GLF: You majored in Mathematics in the University. Is this implied in the way you create your films? Does this influence your editing and shooting?
DO: I believe mathematics gives a person a modern point of view. Mathematical theories will never get old and it is a beauty in science. Cinema is also a modern art and, mostly, an urban art. Somehow, I see a connection between the two. The language of cinema is made by different images, but when you put it together, sometimes it gives you a beautiful solution, and sometimes it reminds me of solving some mathematical problem or getting some architectural solution. To shoot a film, there is always a goal that you have to reach – for example, to show the pain, to show the heat, to show the happiness. In mathematics you always have to solve a problem and I see that there is a parallel between this and when you find how to direct a scene and how to show the pain, heat or another emotion, you have a feeling that you have solved a mathematical theorem or something.
GLF: This is what reminds me of the cinema of Bresson, precisely.
DO: Godard also has it. To shoot a scene you have to find a directorial solution. When I was young, I read a thing by Antonioni in which he said that once he wrote a scene in which a worker man was beating his wife at home, and then he showed this to a real worker, who said that he wouldn’t do this. He said he would beat his wife in the street. Then Antonioni understood that it was probably better to rewrite the character. He thought that maybe an office clerk who pretended to be a good husband could beat his wife at home. But a macho worker could do it outside so everyone could see it.
So, the director has to have an idea and to know how to develop it in every scene. In comparison, for example, to kinetics, you can be bad in counting, but if you know how to solve it or know the direction to solving it – if you have an understanding of how to shoot a scene, you will do it even if the actors are not good actors or if the others aspects of filmmaking aren’t perfect, you can do a good scene anyway if you know the direction, where you want to go. For example, in “Poet”, one of my directorial ideas was that the only girl who attended the author’s reading was a girl who had a stuttering problem and that says a lot about the girl.
There is a scene of murder in “Student” (2012) and to show it I shot a little flower that was below the window of a car, which was reacting on the lighting and was opening and closing. In “Last Screening”, we needed to show the main character moving in a bus, and there was a question of how could we show it, and I thought it would be interesting to show the little screens of passengers on the road.
GLF: “Last Screening” looks like a film letter. Who are you addressing this letter to?
DO: To the cinephiles of all the world, and to the cinephiles in Brazil.