On its penultimate day, the Competition presented the strongest contender for the Golden Bear yet. Extraordinarily, it is the feature debut of a virtually unknown 28-year-old, and the only Kazakh film in the festival. Harmony Lessons is a bona fide tour de force that may well turn writer/director Emir Baigazin into the next art-house sensation.
An early scene would seem to herald a realist portrait of the hardships of life in rural Kazakhstan: a 13-year-old boy named Aslan kills, skins, and guts a sheep in front of the secluded hut he inhabits with his grandmother. Instead, the film develops into a keen exploration of the nature and consequences of abuse from the victim’s perspective. Much like Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In, Harmony Lessons addresses the psychological dimension of school bullying through the character of a sensitive, introverted outcast. On every other level, it is entirely unique, employing a remarkably subtle use of surrealism and allegory to delve deeply into the deteriorating psyche of its protagonist. Surprisingly—and refreshingly—the result is not unremittingly bleak, and the comical flourishes, rather than clash with the somber subject matter, only serve to enrich it.
Aslan attends a school where all the pupils wear uniforms of slick black suits and white shirts, giving them the look of Tarantino-esque film gangsters. Indeed, a racketeering ring thrives there, run by a gang led by Aslan’s classmate Bolat, who extorts money from all the male students and passes it on to the school’s seniors. While Aslan seems to be the only one not forced to pay, Bolat decrees that no one may speak to him. Aslan’s resulting isolation takes a heavy toll on his mental state. He becomes manically obsessive about his cleanliness and starts torturing cockroaches through increasingly elaborate contraptions. The figure of Bolat becomes the object (and ultimately the target) of Aslan’s hatred and aggression.
Striking without being ostentatious, the film’s eloquent imagery reveals a rigorous level of forethought, and feeds the impression of slight unreality. The painstakingly composed photography renders the school’s sterile, inhospitable interiors as microcosms through which to consider the systems of power and corruption that engender injustice. The few panoramic shots elicit a transcendental power from the sprawl of nature. The impressive cast of teenagers, all of them nonprofessionals, create characters that are in turn endearing and repulsive, funny and tragic, appealing and terrifying, and never short of compelling.
Harmony Lessons was partly funded by the Berlinale’s own World Cinema Fund, which seeks to foster the production and distribution of films from regions lacking well-established film infrastructures. A victory of one of the festival’s top prizes would therefore not only provide a great and much-deserved boost to the emergent career of a gifted artist, but also contribute to the Fund’s continued exposure and encourage support of such talent in the future.