The Song of the Tree
The Song of the Tree is the outrageously beautiful, perfectly executed debut feature from Kyrgyz director Aibek Daiyrbekov. A musical set among nomads in the 18th century and filmed against the backdrop of the Tian Shan mountains, it tells a traditional story of love and rivalry without ever putting a foot wrong.
Unlike its protagonist, Esen (Omurbek Izrailov): a young man, daughter of the widow Dariika (Taalaykan Abazova) in love with Begimai (Saltanat Bakaeva), the daughter of his chief, Bazarbai (Temirlan Smanbekov). To have any chance of convincing her father to accept his suit, he has to prove himself as a jigit by feats of horsemanship. However, he is frustrated by his rival Oguz (Jurduzbek Kaseivov), who trips his horse during a game of kökbörü (goat-carcass polo), losing him the match. In revenge, he steals a dish of uchu, mare’s meat, which Oguz is preparing for a wedding and feeds it to his dog, leading to his banishment. To keep up appearances at the wedding, Oguz (following Bazarbai’s orders) cuts down a sacred tree that stands above the village, an act of sacrilege that brings famine and misfortune on the community.
It is a story about exile and return, good leadership, love of the land and competing religious and generational views. The characters follow clear trajectories: Esen and Begimai from disobedience to responsibility, Bazarbai from pride to humility, finally discovering what a leader must give to protect his people. This clarity and simplicity allows the emotions to be expressed with power but never to excess, through elegant songs and music that blend traditional Kyrgyz styles with Hollywood vernacular: apparently, Les Mis was an influence. The landscape of Kyrgyzstan, its wide plains, mountains and scudding clouds, is a constant presence throughout, and not just as an incredibly beautiful setting: snows, woods and deserts all play their part in shaping the characters’ lives. Particularly worthy of mention is the incredible real stunt in which a horse and rider fall off a cliff.
In a similar way, while the makers of this film clearly want to showcase as much of Kyrgyz nomad life as they can – alongside sports like kökbörü, kuroch and quail-fighting, we see yurt-building, felt-making, wedding preparations, shyrdak carpets – these are all shown to be part of a culture that informs the actions and reactions of characters on the deepest level. And this culture is not just a rigid system of rules but a set of sometimes contradictory principles and attitudes with which, against which and within which the characters define themselves. The actors round out their roles perfectly; Oguz is comprehensively evil, not over the top, Dariika’s sorrow the more affecting for the calmness of its portrayal. Daiyrbekov’s script confidently combines traditional stories and historical incidents with a clear filmic vision; while never seeming bound to his sources, he nevertheless gives convincing and living portrayal to a literature little shown on any screen.
Seeing this film, one wonders why. The traditional narrative of Central Asia, the dastan, with its love of landscape, sense of place, strong male and female characters and knack for plot, seems ideal for film treatment. But it was only marginally acceptable in the Soviet period, often being seen as feudal, subversive or nationalistic, while the “Red Western” tended to cast Turkic peoples as either villains or stereotypes. Meanwhile, in the West, the attitude to nomad life has often been more ethnographic in bent, as in Ulrike Ottinger’s excellent but flawed Johanna d’Arc de Mongolie.
The great thing about The Song of the Tree is that it has been made principally for itself, for its own enjoyment, presenting a historical period and a way of life without resorting to caricature or didacticism. The tagline – “Paid with blood – sung with love” seems particularly appropriate: every part of this film is made with love.
Amazing is man, lighting flame from a sparkle
Striving to see his future fate
By looking back into old, ancient days
The times that long since passed.