Ermek Tursunov's 'Shal' (The Old Man)
Ermek Tursunov's 'Shal' (The Old Man)

The Old Man, Kazakhstan's Submission for the Academy Award Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. U.S. : None Yet. International Sales Agent: Kazakhfilm Studios

To adapt an already existing material for other media requires capturing the essence of the selected piece and fitting it within the restrictions of the new format. This practice is utterly common, perhaps even inherent, in the film industry nowadays. This translation ,usually from a written work into audiovisual impressions, in the form of a cinematic work, attempts to preserve the story with all its subplots and characters. Therefore, there is not a real transformation of the piece, but rather an expensive, dramatic and graphic interpretation with another point of view. Although adapted for the screen in several occasions before, Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Old Man and the Sea had not experienced a genuine reinvention. In his latest exceptional work The Old Man (Shal) director Ermek Tursunov does not attempt to just recreate this classic tale, but he reworks it to transmute it into an authentically Kazakh story that takes its pivotal themes from the American author’s writing.

Hardheaded and inflexible elderly man Kasym (Erbulat Toguzakov) is a shepherd living in small town whose livelihood is the unforgiving steppe that surrounds the area. An avid soccer fan, he baptizes his sheep with the names of famous players like Garrincha or Maradona, and enjoys watching matches in a shabby T.V. This, coincidentally, is also his only use for contemporary technology. Kasym’s household consists of his widowed son’s wife and his grandson, the cheeky Erali who he nicknames “Shaitan-bek” (mischievous child). More interested in his video games, the boy pays little attention to his elder’s archaic wisdom, a typical case of tradition vs. modernity. Nevertheless, Kasym believes his old-fashioned practices have helped him and his people survive for centuries, and though he wants something better for Erali, he wishes he would join in his activities. In spite of being rough around the edges, the old man is kindhearted and won’t hesitate to help others. Thus, when his neighbor begs him to take his sheep out into the wild to pasture while he spends time with his family, Kasym is unable to refuse.

The Old Man

Noticeably worn out by age and the labor-intense lifestyle, the man ventures into the icy plains with the herd of sheep and his precious horse “Eagle” and equally seasoned beast that has accompanied him in many adventures. In the untamed territory at the same time, a group of heavily armed arrogant hunters seek to kill wolves despite Kasym’s warning that it is a bad time because female wolves have just given birth. It doesn’t take long for the veteran survivor to realize he is lost. His memory has betrayed him and he must now fight to stay alive. As the rescue mission lead by his young grandson is underway, Kasym finds himself in a duel with Mother Nature and simultaneously with his own internal demons.

Harnessing an instinctive humanity in a deeply passionate role, Erbulat Toguzakov, a non-professional actor, plays the emotionally rugged, yet physically fragile old man with charm and an inspiring desperation to overcome his situation. Embodying the conflicting plight of mankind, which forces the species to struggle between an untamed state and the civilized standards, Kasym is coerced by the environment to return to his basic savage urges. He must renounce to the little comfort he knows and become one with his enemy. The ferocious wolves that haunt him are a token of this duality, in which his nemesis is also his incentive to fight for salvation. Humorous at times, increasingly exhausted, but always honorable, his perseverance is admirable, and made plausible by a stunning performance.

There is an alluring primeval atmosphere that coats the inhospitable terrain and which is explicit in the film’s rustic vistas and ethereal dream sequences. Therefore, the setting becomes as crucial as the protagonist himself. Its intriguing presence takes on a semi-religious quality to which Kasym testifies by stating that his God is in the steppe. Through the brutality of his experience he observes first hand the fragility of life and its miraculous cycle. Tursunov captures the spirit of the Kazakh people and their land with compassionate dignity. The Old Man is a riveting homage that stands out on its own merits, and transmits an animalistic mysticism worthy of a legendary odyssey from a distant land.

Read more about all the 76 Best Foreign Language Film Submission for the 2014 Academy Awards