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Mariam: the true story of a Kazakh woman’s self-discovery after her husband’s sudden disappearance

5 October 2020

Mariam, directed by Sharipa Urazbayeva, will be screened on 14 October as part of The Calvert Journal Film Festival: 7 Days of New East Cinema Online. Check out the programme and get your free tickets here.

For her debut feature film, writer-director Sharipa Urazbayeva asked lead actress Meruert Sabbusinova to play herself. The pair had met a year earlier on a television show, where Sabbusinova was being interviewed about the sudden disappearance of her husband. “One day, he left with his brother to go to town, and he never came back. Five days later, the brother’s body was found in the steppe. But there is still no trace of the husband,” Urazbayeva explains. She decided to make a film about it — and decided that Sabbusinova herself would be the best person to play the role: “She wouldn’t need to act, because it was her life, her home, and her own children who starred in the movie.”

The power of Urazbayeva’s film lies in the subtle evolution of Mariam’s character as she claims her place as the head of the family. It both brings together the internal voyage of a woman coming to grips with profoundly transformative events, and the social realities of a remote Kazakh village life. Released in 2019, its authenticity struck a chord with audiences: following the international success of the film, Sabbusinova scooped an award for best actress at the Kazan International Film Festival earlier this month, fulfilling a childhood dream of becoming an actress.

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In the film, Mariam’s subtle strength surfaces in unexpected ways: here in a reflection, there in a close-up. This understated quality of her character is complemented by Urazbayeva’s framing: stills showing the relentless waiting and expectation of her husband Serikbay’s return; long shots showing the slow rhythm of everyday life in the Kazakh steppe; moments where Mariam’s feelings unravel on her face. But despite the austerity of the surroundings, Mariam’s fate does not inspire pity or sorrow. The film focuses on scenes of intimacy in the family’s day-to-day life, where hardship only reveals itself in occasional shadows. “People always remember the positive things,” Urazbayeva explains, “and I wanted to show that.”

Mariam bathes her toddler and sings him to sleep, then proceeds to wash her own hair and prepares herself for bed — all on her own. It is through these seemingly banal tasks that we get a sense of the gaping hole of Serikbay’s absence. But when her husband returns, things are not so simple. Mariam fears having to reimburse the state for the money she was given as a widow, so she asks him to hide. The tension peaks when Serikbay protests, and Mariam replies: “Now you are dead.” The scene is abruptly interrupted by a shot of an ant silently floundering on the windowsill, embodying the struggle that is unraveling but cannot be voiced.

As well as telling the Sabbusinov family’s story, the film is a depiction of life in contemporary Kazakhstan. The exchanges between Mariam and the authorities give the sense of an absent state. When Mariam first reports her husband’s disappearance, the officer in charge challenges her decision: “If he left only yesterday, why don’t you wait? Maybe he is visiting someone?” When she insists that something is wrong, he replies: “We’ll wait for two or three days, then we’ll start to search.” When working on the television show where she met Sabbusinova, Urazbayeva came across several people living in similar conditions, who also share stories of relatives disappearing. While many try to blame supernatural causes, the most likely explanation lies with Kazakhstan’s modern slave market. “There are few reports on the news, and I’ve only heard stories, but it’s too frequent to completely ignore this,” Urazbayeva explains.

While the international reception of the film has been positive, Kazakh reactions have challenged Urabayeva’s choice of topic. To portray a woman acquiring independence is not a popular decision in a country where domestic violence remains common and victims still have little recourse to justice. “People have asked me why I’m ruining traditional family culture. In Kazakhstan, people are not ready for this kind of feminism,” Urabayeva says. Nevertheless, during the Vesoul Film Festival in France, Urazbayeva received a phone call from Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who promised to help Sabbusinova’s family by providing state-sponsored accommodation. But perhaps the most joyful note to end on is Urazbayeva’s description of Sabbusinova: “Meruert used to be told that she looked like an old woman. Now, she takes care of herself and stands strong on her own.”

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