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TRIBECA 2024

Review: Bikechess

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- Kazakh director Assel Aushakimova's blend of satire and social realism paints a stark yet subtly comical portrait of life under an oppressive regime

Review: Bikechess

Kazakh director Assel Aushakimova has won the Best International Narrative Feature Award at the Tribeca Film Festival with her sophomore feature, Bikechess (see the news). The dramedy centres on Dina (Saltanat Nauruz), a 35-year-old journalist employed by a state television station who leads a lacklustre personal life. The film's title refers to an emerging sport that amalgamates chess and fitness biking, a subject she covers as the government's latest innovation for the Kazakh populace. The peculiar news item is merely the beginning in a sequence of mundane events that Dina is tasked with presenting in a favourable light, essentially generating government propaganda. Despite the absurdity of this task, Dina continues her professional duties, motivated by the promise of a coveted government position. Meanwhile, Dina's sister Zhanna (Assel Abdimavlenova), a queer activist, faces frequent persecution from state authorities due to her views, which are deemed radical by local standards.

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Aushakimova's tragicomedy aligns with the style of Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s satires and dramedies, though Bikechess adopts a milder tone, concentrating on the everyday absurdities within Kazakhstan's societal and political environment. The film explores themes of censorship, state control and personal integrity under an oppressive regime, and also examines the passive conformity and the compromises individuals make in order to survive within such a system. Aushakimova navigates these themes with a subtlety that finely balances the film on the edge between social drama and social satire.

The straightforward plot tracks Dina as she moves from one news story to the next, accompanied by her cameraman (Shyngys Beibituly), who dutifully produces favourable PR for the state, masquerading as news—regardless of the ridiculousness of the subject matter. This ranges from claims by Kazakh scientists that the country is the cradle of civilisation, to a useless police contact campaign that garners no public interest. The writer-director disclosed that all the bizarre reports featured in her film are based on actual news items, emphasising that she did not exercise artistic licence in Bikechess for hyperbolic effect. Instead, she crafted a near documentary-like social realist portrait.

Aidar Ospanov's minimalist cinematography enhances the film's naturalistic feel, while Aushakimova maintains a purely observational mode, focusing on the protagonist Dina during her work assignments. Dina interacts with no high-ranking officials, the state is instead depicted through encounters with inept policemen and an elderly, lecherous professor who is supposed to stoke national pride through made-up claims. On one occasion, when a governor is scheduled to speak, the event descends into a farcical Waiting for Godot-like ordeal. A a subservient cog within the unseen state machinery, Dina is essentially an anti-hero driven by undisclosed careerist ambition, while her sister refuses to compromise in her personal life and lives authentically, despite facing oppression. Although the majority of the film concentrates on Dina, Zhanna’s episodic presence provides the dramatic arc of Bikechess.

Bikechess is a dry, minimalist, and deadpan tragicomedy, structured episodically. Each segment might seem poised to launch into a comedic sketch, yet it is the prolonged exposition, driven by slow-burning observation, that transforms the entire sequence of meaningless events and campaigns into a punchline—revealing them as mere government propaganda purportedly aimed at serving the public. Aushakimova merges this portrayal with a critique of a life under a repressive regime, run not by the competent but by the vain, and thus paints a broader social critique that transcends Kazakhstan. 

Bikechess was produced by Kazakhstan's Alma Pictures, France's Les Films d'Antoine and Norway's Maipo Films.

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