A Film a Week - Herd Immunity / Onbagandar

 previously published on Asian Movie Pulse

In the past 20 months, we have all learned what an expression “herd immunity” means for the reasons well known. The Covid-19 pandemic has come even to the most remote places of the world, like the village of Karatas in Southern Kazakhstan which serves as the location and the source of inspiration (usually in the form of a metaphor for a hotbed of corruption) for most of the work by a Kazakh filmmaker Adilkhan Yerzhanov. Oddly, this not Yerzhanov’s first “epidemic rodeo”, as some could remember “The Plague in Karatas Village” (2016), but “Herd Immunity” still comes at the right time. Like Yerzhanov’s previous film, “Ulbolsyn”, “Herd Immunity” premiered at Black Nights Film Festival where we had the chance to see it.

Our unlikely hero is Selkeu (Yerzhanov’s regular Daniyar Alshinov), one of the two Karatas sheriffs, the other being an ex-police officer Zhamzhysh (Nurbek Mukushev). Selkeu is from somewhere abroad (which is known from the recurring joke that the locals urge him to speak Russian, since his Kazakh language skills are poor) and lives there practically as a homeless person, but it does not prevent him to be a master (or at least an adept) negotiator when it comes to keeping the peace between the locals themselves and with the outside world for which he keeps scheming and extorting money, usually to no tangible success.

However, the trouble comes from the outside world, both in the form of the pandemic and in the form of the real representatives of the law from the city, including Selkeu’s ex-wife Turiya (Assel Sadvakassova of “Ulbolsyn” fame) and her new husband, a high-ranking police official Gurbeken (Yerzhan Zhamankylov) who come to town on the order to apprehend the local barn owner who apparently refuses to go to isolation. For that, they need Selkeu’s help and they are ready even to pull their strings and arrange a transfer for him to the city. But that minor incident is just an introduction to the larger sting operation whose target is a local mobster and aspiring dance stage director Bula (played by a real-life filmmaker Bolat Kalymbetov) and the question is for how long would Selkeu be able to scheme his way to keep everybody satisfied and his mere existence sustainable.

Herd Immunity” operates in the same world as other Yerzhanov’s films, not just on the terms of location, but also regarding the details of the power structures in which the locals might be silly and stupid, but they are still powerful because the “system” they created is resistant to the interventions by the clueless outsiders, no matter how much power they are supposed to hold officially. Yerzhanov also manages to squeeze a tribute to his favourite filmmaker, Jean-Pierre Melvile, whom he quoted abundantly in his previous work, by keeping the poster for “Le cercle rouge” at the centre of one pretty long take for seemingly no reason.

The new thing, however, is the genre framework of a political satire that theoretically holds no brakes. Within the mentioned genre framework, some sorts of theatrics in acting are acceptable and work especially well in Yerzhanov’s playful directing style that usually relies on long, wide-angle takes from fixed position. The sense of directorial coding in which static shots stand for “business as usual” scheming and the camera movements signal some kind of emotional movement as Selkeu experiences some second thoughts also serve the purpose pretty well.

However, some of the subplots in the film go nowhere pretty fast and some of the moments and details are there seemingly only for the sake of the emphasis on the weirdness of the situation. The end result does not have much to do with the pandemic situation itself (which is not necessarily a bad thing), as it remains within the borders of a comedy/satire about a small town mentality that we have already seen times before, even among the ranks of Yerzhanov’s own work. It might not be as heart-felt as last year’s comedy “Yellow Cat”, as striking as the feminist thriller “Ubolsyn” and as intriguing as Yerzhanov’s earlier works, but “Herd Immunity” is still an interesting and worthy watch.

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