Tribeca Film Festival 2024, Part Two — Absurdism Kazakh-style and British Masters

By David D’Arcy 

Two standouts at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival: Bikechess and Made in England: The Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

Saltanat Nauruz as a hardworking reporter in a scene from Bikechess. Photo: Tribeca Film

The winner of the best International narrative feature prize at the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival was Bikechess, a film with a title that doesn’t tell you much, from a country, Kazakhstan, that sends its few movies to the obscure ciné-nerd sections of European film festivals.

The title of this fictional film comes from a game in which chess is played from the seat of an exercise bicycle. As a woman from the Kazakh Chess Federation explains to bored reporters, “chess is not only an intellectual game. By state decree, chess is a test of physical strength. Who knew? Let’s not forget that the chess player Bobby Fisher thought that he was a professional athlete. No one accused him  of being normal.

Explicated in deadpan by the official, that chess conceit plays like Buñuel in Central Asia, setting up a journey into the everyday absurdity of life in a former Soviet republic. Writer/director Assel Aushakimova tells the story through the character of Dina (Saltanat Nauruz), a TV reporter who wades through layers of the ridiculous to get what she presents on air. The script’s emotionless wit evokes a Godardian deadpan, hints of Fellini can be glimpsed as we watch ordinary people improvise emotions for Dina’s news reports, and moments of orchestrated political performances might have been inspired by Yorgos Lanthimos. Bikechess dramatizes the weirdness of a closed system: news is concocted for the appetite of a complacent media, which repackages the fabrications and throws them back at a gullible public. It puts a journalistic twist on the irreality of magic realism, but that term is too harmless for where this film takes us. For much of the year, Kazakhstan has a hot dry climate, and Aushakimova has baked a sense of numb futility into her film.

Hardworking Dina (Saltanat Nauruz) is pursued for sex (without much success) by men she meets through work, like her married cameraman. She takes her job seriously and she worries about protecting her sister, Zhanna, a politically active lesbian. In one scene, we watch the latter organize a demonstration in front of a statue of Lenin. The goal is to “destigmatize menstruation” by attaching sanitary pads smeared with red paint outside their clothing. The action was Intended to be provocative, and it was — the protesters were attacked. Yet it is the demonstrators, rather than those who attack them, who are arrested.

Like those episodes, the politics of Bikechess can hit you hard. But most of the time, the torpid politics on display are as slow as a chess game. Authority is concentrated in the state, so Dina has to attend lectures where a “scientist” named Mels (for Marx Engels Lenin Stalin) peddles a theory that intelligent life began in Kazakhstan. After his lecture, he won’t stop attempting to woo her. While avoiding his phone calls, Dina watches police set up a table on a sidewalk to answer questions from citizens, which the few passersby ignore. Desperate for a story, she has her compliant taxi driver pose as an inquiring citizen.

On a barren hillside out of town, she and her ever-aroused cameraman wait for the local governor, who’s a no-show for a ceremony of tree-planting. Live rabbits have been imported for the sake of atmosphere.

Out of this drab context, Aushakimova has created a slo-mo environment (or reproduced one, if this is a representation of azakh ennui) in which everything has been decelerated to meet the demands of a self-serving regime. A repeated satiric motif: Dina is rushed off to cover an event where the subject is always late. At one point, Dina reveals to a colleague that her goal is to get a job as a press spokesman for a government ministry.

Perhaps it’s that very ambition that leads her to abruptly end a sexual interlude with her cameraman when a call comes in. “The apartment has already been paid,” he protests, as she heads out. “Call someone,” she tells him, “you can invite your wife.”

Saltanat Nauruz handles her lines with effortless nonchalance as this picaresque film moves from one inane scene to the next. Maybe it’s the film’s low budget — or Aushakimova’s decision not to overload the movie’s scenes with absurdity — that keep this restrained comedy from exploding into a farce.

Quirkiness aside, a brutal corrupt regime, accompanied by some charming ineptitude, is still just another brutal corrupt regime. In the coming year some will get a chance to take in how this film of modest means and enviable ambition makes that point. By that time, the brave Aukashimova may be making her next film abroad in France or Norway, her producing partners on Bikechess.

The subjects of the documentary Made in England: Emeric Pessburger is on the left, Michael Powell is on the right. Photo: Tribeca Film

Another rare discovery at Tribeca (unless you were at the Berlin International Film Festival) was Made in England: The Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, directed by Dan Hinton and narrated onscreen by Martin Scorsese.

Scorsese has admired Powell (1905-1990) and Pressburger (1902-1988)) since childhood. Thelma Schoonmaker, his editor since Raging Bull, is Powell’s widow.

Stuck at home as a child, the asthmatic Scorsese watched British films in faded black-and-white on TV. US studios wouldn’t release their films to television. By the time he saw these and other movies on the big screen, he was enthralled. With Pressburger, an exiled Jew from Hungary and Germany who wrote the scripts, Powell ranged through different styles — bracing moral films like 49th Parallel(1941), where Nazi survivors of a submarine attack roam the landscape; A Canterbury Tale (1944), a reflection on all things British; The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), a comic and romantic reflection on all things British; magical tales of desire (among nuns) like Black Narcissus (1947), plus The Red Shoes (1948), and the much underrated Tales of Hoffman (1951), an adaptation of the Offenbach opera that feels like a spectacle of special effects before there were special effects.

Amid lots of praise for Powell and Pressburger, Scorsese stresses that their films were subversive within the commercial system. Subversive, that is, until studio heads turned against them, postwar audiences migrated to dark dramas, and Powell diverged from his partner in refusing to make the compromises that were demanded. Peeping Tom (1960), a chilling film about the macabre side of looking, made by Powell alone, landed the worst reviews this side of Ishtar. It’s a classic now.

Unlike many of the entries in Tribeca, Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger won’t disappear. The documentary opens in New York on July 12, followed by screenings in Los Angeles and then a national rollout.

David D’Arcy lives in New York. For years, he was a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel. He writes about art for many publications, including the Art Newspaper. He produced and co-wrote the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a Nazi-looted painting found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts