At about the two-thirds mark of White Mountains (Belye gory), a poetic, multivocal, and altogether remarkable debut feature by Kyrgyz director Melis Ubukeev, it briefly abandons narrative in favor of (almost) purely visual filmmaking. Suffused with the gray light of night giving way to morning, the sequence in question comes across like a passage from Peter Hutton’s Skagafjördur (2004) as directed by Terrence Malick. Ubukeev and DP Kydyrzhan Kydyraliyev exquisitely capture the forbiddingly beautiful mountain ranges and cloud-covered rivers that surround a pair of teenagers as they recite poetic texts via voice-overs. Such a moment would be unique for any film, but it is rather astonishing for one that lasts barely over an hour and explores a variety of components of Kyrgyz national identity.
Winner of the First Prize at the 1965 Almaty Film Festival of Central Asian Republics, it is set in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution in 1917 that led to a civil war between the Bolsheviks and the Whites. Clearly siding with the Reds, the film features an adolescent Kyrgyz boy (Shaarbek Kobaganov) as its protagonist, who, in the opening sequence, is chased through the snow by a Russian White and a local leader on the suspicion that he might be on his way to join the enemy. At one point during this striking sequence, shot in a jittery, hand-held manner, the camera freely slides behind the protagonist on a steep slope. After being saved by a Red guard who advises him to educate himself in the city, the boy ends up at a remote yurta whose denizens appear to be mourning.
It turns out that many families in the region have suffered in the recent past. Although the film never makes it explicit (at least based on what one can glean from the available translated text), the Urkun and the Basmachi revolts of 1916 are likely the reasons behind the ongoing trauma close to home. Ubukeev (1935-1996), a key member of the Kyrgyz cinematic renaissance of the sixties, employs the character of a blind mother (Baken Kydykeyeva) as a metaphor for the hardships. She eventually overcomes her grief to allow her daughter to travel with the boy to the city, an act that may very well have had a contemporary resonance.
According to the great Kyrgyz author Chinghiz Aitmatov, “If other peoples/nations displayed their past culture and history in written art, the sculpture, architecture, theatre and literature, Kyrgyz people expressed their worldview, pride and dignity, battles and their hope for the future in epic genre.” Although he was referring to the Kyrgyz penchant for oral art due to their nomadic lifestyle, White Mountains, which was selected in 2006 by Kyrgyz cinematographers and film critics for the collection of the Central Asian Cinema compiled by Open Society Institute–Budapest and the Center of Central Asian Cinematography, can be seen as a vivid and epigrammatic version of a cinematic epic poem.