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BERLINALE 2013 Competition, Germany / France / Kazakhstan

Harmony Lessons, or the frozen face of discipline


- Kazakh director Emir Baigazinis competing in Berlin with a soberly sublime and elegantly terrifying film

Harmony Lessons, or the frozen face of discipline

European cinema (represented in this case by the German companies The Post Republic and Rohfilm, together with the parisien outfit Arizona Productions and the French sales company Films Distribution) owes its wide diversity to the fact that it regularly helps companies in their infancy and novice directors such as Kazakh filmmaker Emir Baigazin, even though the latter is nothing of a beginner except in terms of his official status: Harmony Lessons [+see also:
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, the film he is presenting in competition in Berlin, is a perfectly mastered work, of remarkable intelligence and execution, which should not leave the jury indifferent. 

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The beauty of his images (composition and colours), impressive from the very first scenes, is reflected in the calm face of his young protagonist, Aslan, a solitary and silent boy who hides in a meticulous world composed of insects, which he subjects almost scientifically to his experiments, and repeated ablutions meant to wash away the bullying of his school mates who have made him a pariah. The liquid element is omnipresent here, not only because of its purifying nature (Aslan also compulsively drinks entire jugs of fresh water), but also because it evokes contamination and evil, like urine in jars, vomit, and also blood which, from the beginning, gushes forth from the impassive hand of the little hero, slitting the throat of a sheep.  

The film’s esthetic aspects serve, as they should, to reinforce an impeccably articulated message about the discipline imposed on Aslan, as on the other children. Uniforms, rulers mercilessly whipping everything that is out of place, lessons delivered by teachers like robots: everything is intended to contain the human being, to prepare children for a society that will not do them any favours (no more than the local police during its interrogations, regardless of the age of its suspects). The lessons are, in fact, eminently practical: pupils are taught that energy and money are part of the same cycle, they are trained in manual labour in workshops, taught how weapons actually work... 

It is therefore not surprising that Aslan’s school is like a microcosm in which all the dynamics of Khazak society can be found: little mafiosi-like chiefs, who impose their tithes and atavisms on all the other children (in order to help their incarcerated elders as many of them, they say, will also soon be behind bars), religion, individuals who make themselves invisible in order to survive, since they could not really prevail in the Darwinian sense of the word...  

Harmony Lessons depicts a universe of terrifying coldness and harshness, a world in which the only smile seen on child’s face is a cruel grin. Childhood is only a ghost that we imagine in our dreams. 

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(Translated from French)

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