Watching


The old man and the wolves

In the modern feature films of Kazakhstan, one can clearly see a trend for depicting the general Turk culture codes, among which rises a mythological, totem heroine, a she-wolf.

Turk peoples have a myth of the origin of the people: according to the legend, in the ancient times, there lived a tribe which was once attacked by cruel enemies. Only one boy survived the attack, but the enemies cut off his hands and feet. The boy was rescued by a she-wolf. She nursed him with her milk, and some time later, she became his wife. The wolf gave birth to ten sons, from which all the Turk tribes now originate.

Turk nomads lived in harmony with Mother Nature. They observed the unwritten law and did not violate the borderline between the world of men and the world of animals.

In the modern Kazakh cinema, the character of a wolf as a mythological figure is shown in the Ermek Tursunov film Shal (2012). Shal, shot after the story by Ernest Hemingway “The Old Man and the Sea”, is based on a conflict between the Wolf and the Shal (‘shal’ is translated from the Kazakh language as ‘old man’). The filmmaker has borrowed only the main motif from Hemingway’s story — persistent struggle, juxtaposition between the Man and the Nature. In fact, Shal is not made after the story. Rather, it is inspired by Hemingway’s books and is a tribute to the great American author.



An old man gets caught in a snowstorm together with his herd of sheep. Lost in the winter steppe, he encounters the Wolf. The Wolf, who has declared a war to poachers for having murdered her pups, is now taking revenge on all people, including Shal. Poachers hunt wolves in a barbarous way, killing even pups. They cross the borderline between hunting and murder. The Wolf, heading her pack, hunts Shal and slaughters most of his sheep. Shal is desperately defending his sheep and kills several wolves in bloodshed. In the final one-to-one fight, Shal, having humped himself, is roaring and showing his canine teeth, like a mature wolf. We can see the blow-up of Shal’s face. His bloodshot eyes remind one of the eyes of a fierce wolf, which is prepared to fight for his life in a final battle. The camera blows up the eyes of Shal and the eyes of the Wolf. Who will win? Yet, the Wolf turns back and retreats. She feels that she is facing a genuine Man Wolf, who, just like herself, is desperately defending his sheep and especially the newly born lamb. The Wolf recognizes the right of the Man to defend himself, his family and his property. Finally the disturbed balance between the world of wolves and the world of men regains equilibrium, and peace and harmony are regained. The cruel battle ends in armistice.

As we see, the heroine of the Turk myth, the Wolf, shown in Shal, is higher than the notion of a predator. The Wolf is a mother guarding her pups from the death brought by the Man. The Wolf has the right to defend her offspring, and her cruelty is understandable. The Wolf is simultaneously a symbol of a loving mother and of a courageous warrior. As a warrior, she recognizes her enemy’s strength and bravery. As a mother, she lets him go, if he defends not only himself but also his children and his property, as the mercy of the Wolf is, broadly considered, the mercy of the Mother Nature. Having crossed the borderline of the animal kingdom, the Man is duly punished.

Translated from the Russian by Tatyana Padve
© Baubek Nogerbek

Baubek Nogerbek


Baubek Nogerbek is a cinema critic, holding a PhD in arts. From 2004 to 2008, he was the editor of the department Cinema, Music and Theatre of the Shahar-Kultura magazine, the publishing editor of the Kinoman magazine, and a columnist of the Capital-kz business weekly writing on culture. Since 2009, he has worked as a lecturer of the cinema history and theory chair of the Kazakh National Academy of Arts Named after T.K. Zhurgenov, in 2015, he became an associate professor.

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