Schizo (2004)

Dir. by Guka Omarova

Omarova’s debut takes its title from a nickname given to the main character. Schizo (Olzhas Nusuppaev) is 15 years old and a bit slow; his classmates abuse him and exploit his gullibility. He is soon hired by his mother’s thug boyfriend (Eduard Tabyschev) to recruit unemployed laborers for illegal boxing matches. However, when the first man he recruits dies after the fight, Schizo is drawn into a new life. Like Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardennes’s La Promesse, Schizo tells the coming-of-age story of a young man who commits to helping a woman and her young child, first out of obligation and, later, out of love. As I told a friend after the screening, Schizo is the most heart-warming bare-knuckle boxing movie I’ve ever seen.

Told in minimalist style, with long takes, little nondiegetic sound, and a cast that includes several nonprofessional actors, Schizo is always compelling to watch, even if the story is, at times, too predictable. Fifteen minutes in, I was concerned that it would all collapse into either Of Mice and Men tragedy or Forrest Gump sentiment, so I was impressed with Omarova’s handling of Schizo, who, as it turns out, isn’t terribly slow after all and whose decisions constantly surprised me. I also really enjoyed Olga Landina’s performance as the young mother whom Schizo befriends. Like Natalie Press in My Summer of Love, Landina has a compelling face of a type that I see too seldom on the screen. Both actresses reminded me a bit of Badlands-era Sissy Spacek.

Schizo is not a film that I am anxious to revisit, but it does exemplify one aspect of the festival that I greatly enjoyed: the opportunity to encounter a new voice in cinema, and one from a place that I will likely never visit. A woman from Kazakhstan recently began attending my English as a Second Language course, and I was surprised to find this person whom I had assumed was Chinese speaking Russian. On several occasions during the screening of Schizo, when the narrative was losing hold of my interest, I just sat and studied the people who populate the film. Kazakhstan has been called the “crossroads of Europe and Asia,” and that history is written into its faces.