Kazakh director Emir Baigazin’s feature debut Harmony Lessons takes place in a rural school beset by an organized gang of bullies led by the brutal Bolat. Aslan, a glum outsider with a penchant for torturing roaches, strikes up a friendship with a new student, with surprising effects on the school’s authoritarian microcosm. FILM COMMENT spoke with the 29-year-old Baigazin at the Tribeca Film Festival about bullying, reading up on the Sex Pistols, and the film’s stringent cinematography (which won the film a Silver Bear at Berlin).

Harmony Lessons

I hope that the school in the movie does not come from personal experience, but in any case, the bond between Aslan and the transfer student from the city makes me wonder: are you a city kid, or from the country?

I’m a mixture, because I was born in the village, and then we moved into a bigger settlement, which wasn’t even the central settlement—it was a kind of district settlement. I lived there until I was 16 years old. Then we moved into Aktyubinsk, which is a big town but still a provincial town in Kazakhstan. And then I moved into the capital, Almaty. Many of my friends in Almaty did not know about where I lived before. They were surprised: even living in those very, very deep provincial areas I knew who the Sex Pistols were. It doesn’t depend on where you’re born.

It’s easier now with the Internet.

In 1994, there wasn’t a lot of Internet. We had a lot of different newspapers, covering the whole cultural world. People from our regions read a lot. These were newspapers during the wave of new democracy and glasnost, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. So even if they didn’t have technology, they still had some access to information.

Is the organized bullying depicted in the film a common phenomenon, or has it been intensified for the film?

I would say that the situation exists in poor regions more. When I was growing up and going to school, the same age as the characters in the movie, we had it even in our school. It coincided with the time the Soviet Union collapsed. Crime was very, very severe.

Darezhan Omirbaev and other Kazakh filmmakers have brought some attention to the country’s cinema. When you were starting out making films, did you draw inspiration from them or more from foreign directors?

You can see a lot of movies now in Kazakhstan, and on the Internet you can download and see whatever you want. I respect and know a lot of big names in cinema, but I get my inspiration more from the fine arts—from paintings rather than any directors in particular.

Harmony Lessons

Which ones?

When we worked on Harmony Lessons, I talked with my cinematographer about the paintings of Edvard Munch. And we basically were looking at Edvard Munch’s paintings and listening to Bach’s music. So that served as our inspiration mostly.

I didn’t immediately think of Edvard Munch, or at least what many people associate with Munch, in terms of lighting and color.

When I make comparisons to Munch, I mean that my movie and the paintings of Munch have more air—they are not so populated. Take for example Bosch or Bruegel, where we can see a lot of little details. The lines in Munch’s paintings are usually more continuous, and in my movie you can see they are more continuous, rather than saturated with details.

How did you find Aslan?

We found him on the very first day of casting. When the characters are all settled in my mind already, cooked well [so to speak], it’s easier to find an actor because I know what I’m looking for. They are very brave boys, the people in the movie. They know these situations. The boy who plays Aslan has had a really hard life: he’s an orphan, he grew up on the streets, and he lived through some brutal things.

Harmony Lessons

Was it difficult for him or the others to be acting out these grim scenarios?

The initiative of making the scenes of torture and violence so realistic came from the actors. They didn’t want it to look like fake fights, or something staged. And they actually offered to go further. If it’s brutal, then it’s brutal.

Where did you get the idea of Aslan torturing roaches in that elaborate way?

I don’t remember, I think I got this from the concentration of working. There is an expression in Russian language like “roaches in your head,” bugs in your head.

What does that mean? Crazy?

It means like we all have these little parasites in our thoughts. But I realized that connection much later. The initial idea of the roaches was that Aslan is always fighting off [illness], and the roaches are transmitters of bacteria. So he fights with them. And the biggest roach is Bolat.