The story behind the scenes of the new film from Kazakhstan, “Schizo,” is just as interesting as what's presented on screen. Co-written by Guka Omarova and Sergey Bodrov, “Schizo” features the impressive directorial debut of Omarova, who must have spent the last year touring the global festival circuit. World-premiering at the Certain Regard section of the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, the film then played at the Toronto, Vancouver, Karlovy Vary, and Tokyo film festivals, among others, winning numerous awards along the way.
An uncommonly moving feature about characters in desperate circumstances, “Schizo” offers both a unique coming-of-age story and an incredible debut performance by its leading actor, Olzhas Nusuppaev, who was discovered by the director in an orphanage in Kazakhstan. The story is rather simple. Fifteen-year-old Mustafa, nicknamed Schizo (Olzhas Nusuppaev), lives with his mother and her younger boyfriend, Sakura, in poverty in Southeastern Kazakhstan, a poor, windy area close to the Chinese border. To make ends meet, he is hired by Sakura to solicit fighters for illegal fistfights.
Schizo's life is radically changed, when a young man, who's mortally beaten in one of the fights, asks him to deliver his prize money to his girlfriend (Olga Landina) and young son (Kanagat Nurtay, also discovered in a Kazakhstan orphanage). Schizo takes the money to the woman, as promised, and falls in love with her. Lacking the time to experience growing pains of his own, he's forced into maturity, when he becomes the man of the house, at once burdened and blessed with the responsibility of supporting his new family, which he does with characteristic cunning and ruthlessness.
Though strong and rather accurate, the film's title might give the wrong impression that “Schizo” is a depressing tale set in a mental institution. Not at all. Asked in Cannes about the title, director Omarova said that it derives from the character's unpredictability and unexpected behavioral changes, rather than split personality or mentally illness, as is the more common connotation in the West. However, In the course of the story, we learn that Schizo is “slow” and troubled, causing a number of disruptions that have gotten him kicked out of school.
The brutal boxing matches serve literal as well as symbolic function in the film. “Schizo” could be seen as an allegory of the new life in Kazakhstan, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a country that's hanging between its devastating past, but has not found yet the road to modernity. As a native, Omarova has made a bleak but in moments also hauntingly beautiful film that captures life from the inside.
“Schizo” benefits from austere direction, stark imagery, magnificent performances, and a truly memorable portrait of a vulnerable and humane young man, who struggles for survival and miraculously blossom in the toxic soil of a devastated country, where ruins of Soviet-built technology could be seen.
Stylistically, “Schizo” could be described as film noir, one that conveys vividly and bleakly the expansive emptiness of the vast land. Considering that non-professionals play the main characters, the acting is first-rate, particularly by Nusuppaev, who seems to be a natural for the camera; he won Best Actor at the Tokyo and Morocco Film Festival. There's a hopeful note in Nusuppaev's real life: Acting has kept him away from drinking problems, and by the age of 18, he will be able to leave the orphanage and start a new independent existence.
Omarova made her acting debut at the age of 14 in Sergey Bodrov's first film, which he shot in Kazakhstan. Bodrov went on to direct “Prisoner of the Montains”, which was nominated for an Oscar in 1997. Omarova co-wrote with Bodrov the script for “Sisters,” which was directed by Bodrov's son, Sergey Bodrov Jr., who died tragically in 2002 while directing another film.
With “Schizo,” Omarova emerges as a talent to watch. The theatrical release of the film is a double cause for celebration: Few films are made in the new republic of Kazakhtan, and even fewer are directed by women.