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Every artist creates for a response, but discussing some films seems pointless, unless sharing one’s critique with those that have seen it. With Kazakh director Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s Herd Immunity (Karjaimmuunsus), you don’t want to know too much about it beforehand. It’s a film to experience blind, because whatever information you glean, it still has the uniqueness to surprise its audience.
Yerzhanov has crafted an absurdist crime-comedy set in the corrupt town of Karatas, that will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those seduced by its charm, it’s a difficult film to forget. The story centres on local detective Selkeu (Daniyar Al Shinov) who adores bribes and supports the local criminal network, but his real dream is to choreograph a dance routine, funded by Bola, the local gangster. When Gurbeken (Erzhan Dzhamankulov) a military official turns up to expose the corruption, Selkeu finds himself at risk of being exposed.
Selkeu and his partner, ex-officer Zhamzhysh (Nurbek Mukushev) are as absurd as they are corrupt, and yet the director positions his audience to identify with them. The town is a moral vacuum that we are sucked into, as Yerzhanov feeds off our anti-authority feelings, or perhaps we just know the town’s soul is forever lost, a haven for corruption.
In Herd Immunity, we see the director and his cast not only exploit cinemas moral playground, but discover their inner child. The absurdity performances are enabled by Yerzhanov’s cinematography and approach to the story. The film should be contextualised as a bridge between childhood and adulthood – the silliness of a childlike imagination, set to an adult narrative involving themes of corruption and politics.
The film wears its heart on its sleeve, particularly with its references to French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville, who infused his films with a coolness. Yerzhanov not only acknowledges Melville, he exaggerates beyond what Melville ever dared to do with a charismatic air.
Herd Immunity is its own film, reinvigorating the gangster picture with its established tropes and traditions. More recently, Jordanian director Bassel Ghandour’s The Alleys (2021), used a change of cultural setting to his native country, to breathe fresh life into the gangster and crime story, in his thriller about the themes of control and its consequences. The two, although different in tone form a complementary double feature, showing how the artists voice can bring to bear an individualism or uniqueness on a genre.
Heavily leaning towards comedy, the director even laces the tragedy of the piece with a comical dimension. To appreciate Herd Immunity, one should look at it as a single string in the directors bow. Accompanying it to this year’s Tallinn Black Nights, the director also presents the biographical drama Mukagali(2021), about the Kazakh poet Mukagali Makataev, that takes on a more serious tone. Together they showcase Yerzhanov’s nuanced approach to storytelling.
Herd Immunity plays in the Official Competition section of the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, running from 12-28th November.