The White Ship (Белый пароход — Kyrgyzstan, 1975, Dir. Bolotbek Shamshirev) is based on the novel by Chinghiz Aitmatov.
This heart-wringing little movie gem works a similar palette as The Color of Paradise (رنگ خدا) from Iran — Nature, trees, birdsong, meaningful legends, sad end, and grownups too miserable to behold the fragile radiant children who flash into their lives and glimmer out again.
This scene by scene summary will give away the ending, in case there are teachers who want to show the film in class. The plot and dialogue are simple, but the visual narrative is appealing and deserves to be better known. The link given above leads to an online version that is mostly dubbed in Russian, so I am guessing at these bits of dialogue.
Nurgazy is a lovable little boy living on a remote game preserve with a small immediate family, their household animals, trees, some symbolically important inanimate objects, and the family’s perceptions of influential spiritual entities in various dimensions of space and time. Nurgazy is preparing to start school, a time to take his social skills learned at home and applying them with new people in The City. The theme is the tension between home traditions and modern ways. But as the story progresses, there are sharper tensions within both sides; some traditional ways are balanced, while others are harmful, and some modern notions are enlightened while others are simply heedless and greedy. Every member of the family needs to balance the energies within themselves, and find a place in the social network. Along the way, some but not others manage to also find the enchantment of everyday life when it knocks at the heart in revelations small and great.
Nurgazy is a catalyst for everyone’s personality, drawing out the best or worst in each of them. Their responses to him reminded me of a mousetrap game from my childhood, where a shiny steel marble starts out at one corner of a maze. The player has to tilt, shake, rattle and roll the marble home through obstacles of spirals and chutes and slides. Here the bright marble is Nurgazy, setting out radiant and excited on a week of adventures while his family mousetraps his actions, words, voice, and dreams. Childhood derailed is nothing new; it’s a sadly familiar theme in any culture. What adorns this film is the child’s insatiable appetite for bonding, and ability to draw on beautiful traditions from Kyrgyzstan which bear him up and save his spirit if not his life.
Part 1: The Amazing Brand-New Briefcase
The film opens with Grandfather Momun and Grandson Nurgazy sitting in the grass.
In the background an elderly man is chanting, probably in Kyrgyz but with repetitions of Allah ar Rahman ar Rahim — Allah the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful. A wall photograph of an elderly woman, a building which appears to be a shrine, and Nurgazy’s mention of a grave tell us that this is a memorial service.
After the service, the chanting mourner thanks Grandfather for joining him. “Goodbye, Momun. Thank you for traveling here, to remember my old woman with a good word. Her soul is grateful to you.”
“What else could I do?” Momun replies. “It’s my obligation.”
The point of the ceremony is lost on Nurgazy.
His attention span is short-circuited at first glimpse of all things white-flashed and moving. In this case it’s a view of The White Ship, a graceful serene vessel which forges its distant way to and fro all day long on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul. Next Nurgazy’s gaze is caught by a white butterfly. He pursues the butterfly through the shrine of tombs, but stops short in amazement at one adorned with colorful paintings. The film slips in to a child’s eye view, where the painted lion and eagle are frighteningly fierce and real, like the painted Kyrgyz hunter aiming a gun at a painted deer. But the deer in its beauty and grace leaves him gasping in admiration. He rushes back to Momun, wanting to know all about the deer, and why the shrines are topped with antlers.
“Because we are People of the Deer,” Momun tells him, with great pride.
The two head home on horseback.
Nurgazy pleads for Momun to take him out to the White Ship to visit Papa. The child’s father abandoned the family years ago, and Nurgazy is convinced that his missing parent must be a sailor on the Ship. Momun humors him, saying their horse can’t swim that far today and besides, Papa is too busy now to stop his work and visit with them.
Stopping by a peddlar’s caravan, Momun buys a little briefcase for the boy’s first day of school. Camera time slows to a silenced crawl as the briefcase floats down to the child’s hands, and his expression changes from frowning fear of the peddlar stranger to boundless joy at having a briefcase of his very own.
Back at home, the child runs shrieking with glad tidings to every member of his family one after the other, showing them all his amazing new possession.
Grandma Karyz snaps “Stop howling — a man’s trying to rest.”
The resting man is Uncle Orozkul in a mid-day hangover, too oblivious to notice the child at all.
Young Aunt Girdzhamal hushes Nurgazy and drives him away, frightened that he’ll wake up Orozkul.
Uncle Seidakhmat is playing his electrified guitar (thanks to his clever wire tapping from an overhead power line); he laughs at the briefcase, teasing that Momun was crazy to waste money on the cheap little trifle.
Nurgazy is crushed by Seidakhmat’s ridicule of Grandfather. Running away he apologizes to his new treasure: “Don’t listen to him, Briefcase; Seidakhmat is not telling the truth. My Grandfather is good and kind.” He takes Briefcase for a walk, stopping to admire and pet some white flowers. At last he finds his sympathetic listener in white Sun, dressed in a white cloud; he shouts the story of his new gift at the sky before curling up for a nap.
Part 2: The Higher Plane
Grandma is fuming about the briefcase (“I could have sewn him a school sack.”) and its 5 ruble price. The thought of money reminds her to fling at Momun the rebuke that their daughter never sends money home; the girl fled to the city, abandoning her son Nurgazy to be raised by the family. Momun attempts to defend their daughter, but withdraws in defeat as Grandma rales that Nurgazy costs them money to feed and clothe even without the expense of his new school accessory.
She calls Nurgazy home, takes his briefcase away from him, and orders him to stay put at the house and guard the white calf, keeping it out of mischief.
You’d think the family might know by now that paying attention is not Nurgazy’s main talent.
Within his first two seconds on guard duty, the child is distracted by the white hijab of Aunt Girdzhamal at the river. He leaps up to see what she is up to, and finds her scrubbing a pot with sand.
Nurgazy jumps in the water, then tells young Auntie Girdzhamal his secret plan: he is going to practice diving, turn himself into a fish, then swim far out into the Lake to be caught by Papa’s net. “The sailors will say ‘Look — it’s a Fish-Boy!’ but really it’s ME! it’s ME!”
Girdzhamal laughs. Since the grownups aren’t teaching this boy any manageable goals anyway, she laughs at his life plan. “Oh? And what are you going to say to your Papa then?”
Nurgazy hasn’t thought this far ahead; how would he know what sons say to their fathers? “Then I’ll say to Papa… I’ll say… ‘Papa, why don’t you come to see me? I miss you so badly…'” Nurgazy bursts into tears.
Girdzhamal, anxious to distract him, agrees to leave her work and come play. In a charming scene she pulls off her white head veil and becomes child-like herself, running up the mountain with her nephew. And because they’ve noticed Orozkul leaving for town on horseback, Nurgazy brings along Orozkul’s binoculars for the two of them to share.
But their play date is over all too soon. Through the lenses he sees that the white calf is eating Grandma’s laundry! Because the farmyard through the glasses looks close enough to touch, Nurgazy assumes that therefore the family dog can hear the boy shouting at him to go and drive away the calf. Too late! Grandma beats the calf with a stick, then screams at the hills cursing Nurgazy and Girdzhamal, who creep home again in fear of what will happen next.
Part 3: Who can I blame now?
Here comes Uncle Orozkul, home from his social calls, in a festive red shirt in sharp contrast to the whites and greens worn by the other characters.
Nurgazy begs his pardon for borrowing the binoculars, but Orozkul is too intoxicated to figure out what his nephew wants. Uncle can only look at the child and say “Am I worse than other people? Why can’t that boy be my own son coming to greet me?”
At dinner, the family has no opportunity to start eating their meal. Orozkul continues his lament at the table, one they probably know by heart:
1. My wife Bekei still hasn’t given me a son.
2. When I die, my name dies with me.
3. No one will even give me a proper and fitting burial.
4. If only I did have a son, I would raise him to be a true dzhigit (originally from Turkish, “young man”; in connotation, one with superb horsemanship and sword technique). Unlike me, he would not rot in this forsaken boondock with loser people like these. No! He would live in town! He would be respected and honored and feared by all! People would grovel and crawl to him begging favors!
5. Oh, this life this life.
Momun’s face lights up with a bright idea. “Listen to me, my son,” he tells Orozkul. “Why not pray to our Mother Antlered Doe to bring you a son of your very own?”
But Grandma snaps at her husband to stop raving about Mother Deer, and suggests instead (if I understood this right) that Orozkul bring Bekei to the holy city of Suleiman (?) to have her prayed over properly.
Orozkul meanwhile cycles through seven or so mood swings, from grief to sentimentality to hilarity to rage, and then throws the relatives out and begins beating his quiet tearful wife.
Nurgazy in horror turns to Grandfather to intervene. Momun tries to enter the house, begging and pleading “Beat me instead!” but Orozkul simply throws the old man back out the door.
Grandma takes out her upset on Nurgazy, ordering him to bed and forcefully grabbing away his friend Briefcase.
Nurgazy misses Briefcase. So he imagines his ethereal body as a pale transparent ghost, floating out of bed and tiptoeing invisibly past Grandma at her needlework. In a camera double exposure, Ghost Nurgazy sits with Briefcase to keep him company, afraid that his new friend will feel lonely.
“Don’t be upset that I’m not with you, Briefcase,” he apologizes. “Grandma is cursing me, and Uncle Orozkul has insulted Grandfather and beaten Aunt again. If only Mother Antlered Doe would come back! Ah, but you, Briefcase, don’t even know that Mother Doe is the protector of our nation!” With great pleasure, Nurgazy settles down to tell Briefcase the whole beautiful legend, just as he heard it told to him by Grandfather Momun over and over again….
Part 4: The Legend
In a dramatic lyrical scene, we see the family’s ancestors living on the River Enisei.
After burying their leader at an ornate funeral, the tribe is attacked and killed by a rival tribe. Everyone perishes, all except one infant rushed to the water’s edge by his dying mother. The baby’s cradle of furs floats away on the water.
A passing wise woman on shore watches the cradle with the crying infant.
Suddenly, a snow white Maral (European Red Deer) appears, and with its antlers tows the cradle gently to shore.
The wise woman warns the antlered doe that this child is a human being, that it will grow up and hunt the doe’s children.
“I could do nothing else,” says Mother Antlered Doe. “The child will grow up with my own; surely he could never kill one of his own brothers. I believe in the noble power of my milk, and my love, the love of a mother.” She takes the child away to a place with no evil people at all — the land of Issyk-Kul. There the child grows up, and takes a bride. And Mother Antlered Doe herself brings the pair a child, carrying the cradle on her own head.
This is why the Deer People pray to Mother to bring them children of their own.
But Nurgazy knows that all the maral deer have fled from the surrounding forest, because the human children grew up and became hunters, frightening Mother and all the deer away. He can only hope that some day, Mother will venture back again.
Part 5: Trucks!
In the morning Nurgazy rockets out of bed, armed with Briefcase, hat, bare feet, little shorts, and a sleeveless undershirt.
“And where are you going, Boss?” Grandma asks him. “That briefcase is not your toy. It cost money.” She takes it away again.
Nurgazy is upset at losing Briefcase again, and leaves weeping.
Then, he is distracted by a convoy of work trucks approaching over the field. Wildly excited, he runs to meet them.
In an appealing camera shot, we hear his tiny hollers of gladness as he jiggles along, a dancing dot of white in a great expanse of open land.
The drivers lean out with greetings:
“Hello, old man!”
“Good health, Little One!”
One young driver in a striped Navy shirt calls “How’s life, Little Brother?”
This salutation, or perhaps the driver’s sailor shirt, convinces Nurgazy that this is his long-lost father. He screams after the truck, begging it to stop. “Papa, don’t go, it’s ME! it’s ME!”
Failing to catch up, he finally flees for home in wild despair.
The driver, taken aback at being mistaken for the child’s father, circles back to talk to him.
Nurgazy is so distraught that the driver feels obliged to think fast of some way to console him. Realizing that this is Grandfather Momun’s grandson, he comes up with a creative solution. “Why, my father served with your Grandfather on the Front! That makes us BROTHERS! Give him greetings from Kulubek.”
Nurgazy is thrilled, and begs Nurgazy to come visit the family soon.
Part 6. Orozkul
Girdzhamal is playing with Nurgazy again.
To amuse him, she weaves him a crown of flowers, then offers to “show him a film.” She sings a lovely folk song, waving her white hijab overhead in a veil dance. Nurgazy grabs two sticks for antlers and chases her over the hills.
Uncle Orozkul appears on his horse. Stunned at the charm of Girdzhamal’s dance, Orozkul says “Now that’s the idea! To give everything for that is to give too little.” In wild and tipsy laughter he bursts out of the woods and grabs her, crying out “My golden one, I didn’t value you before, forgive me!” He starts singing and dancing a song himself with his horse whip swinging from his wrist, as Girdzhamal cringes and flees.
Back at home in his red shirt, Orozkul lectures everyone on the necessity of living in a cultured manner like people in town. He laments the old days, when in their woods before conservation laws there was plenty of forestry work felling trees. Now he is a lowly game warden ordered to protect the forest and its resources, but back then he was the boss of the work crews. He enjoys describing how before people would grovel and crawl to him begging for favors. To mark his past status he demands that the frightened women drink a toast with him.
Part 7. Kulubek
In a heavy rainstorm, Kulubek brakes his blue truck at sight of an elaborately painted white shrine built and inscribed for “OROZKUL, 1925- ”
Nurgazy comes screaming through the rain to greet Uncle Kulubek.
Kulubek grabs the child and rushes him to the shelter of the truck.
“Did Orozkul die?” he asks Nurgazy.
“No, he’s alive. But he says that since he has no son to do it, he’s prepared that tomb all for himself.”
Kulubek shakes his head at Orozkul’s level of pride, drives the child home, and gets permission from Grandfather and Grandmother to take Nurgazy out to a movie.
In town the sky clears, and the soundtrack music changes to an upbeat cosmopolitan tune. We see multi-story concrete buildings, women in short dresses or bell-bottom trouser suits with no head scarves. Happy Young Pioneer children on summer holiday salute as they sail past in a long convoy of buses with the poignant slogan warning drivers “Careful — Children.”
Nurgazy admires the wonderful sights of the city, then boasts to Kulubek that his Papa is a sailor on the White Ship.
“Oh yes, I’ve heard about your father,” Kulubek assures him, turning away to hide a very troubled look out to the water.
Part 8. Grandma Makes a Deal
Back at home, Orozkul has forced Girdzhamal into the bedroom and is trying to get her to smile at him.
Girdzhamal escapes when Grandma walks in.
Grandma sits down and laments to Orozkul that she has no one to bury her properly.
“You can depend on me,” Orozkul promises. “I’ll bury you to the envy of everyone.”
But Grandma points out that this may be difficult for him, as he himself does not have a strong family to depend on.
Orozkul reminds her bitterly, in case she has forgotten, that this is because he has no children.
“Do you want a new young wife?” Grandma offers. “My father had 2 or 3 wives, and no one said a bad word about it.” She suggests a discreet “marriage without documents,” and takes Bekei aside to let her know about the new arrangement.
Orozkul is pleased by this idea. “Maybe it is too soon to bury me,” he decides. “Orozkul will show them yet!”
But then a tremendous mountain thunderstorm terrifies the family.
Grandma begs God to forgive her sins, and Bekei blames the storm on Grandma and her scheming.
Part 9: School
Nurgazy misses Kulubek and wonders why he doesn’t come to visit.
Momun reprimands the boy sharply for getting his hopes up. Grandfather insists that Kulubek will never come back, and that’s the end of it.
Interesting; Grandfather is content to humor the boy’s constant wish to see Papa on the ship, or Mother Deer in the woods, while forbidding him to wish for a sensible young man who is in fact far more likely to return than either of Nurgazy’s parents. Perhaps Momun is simply reluctant to allow any more sources of potential heartache in the boy’s life. Or perhaps Kulubek’s consideration and good manners are a painful contrast to the family’s inept indifference.
On the first day of school Momun and Nurgazy are setting out for the schoolhouse on horseback.
But Orozkul makes plans to cut down and sell some trees (safe from the interference of the Game Warden, since he is the Warden himself). He wants help with the heavy labor of dragging the lumber. He is enraged that jolly Seidakhmat and his guitar are gallivanting in town, and that Momun has dared to leave the property just to take Nurgazy off to his first day of school.
When Momun returns, Orozkul forces him to push the trees on their chain while Orozkul rides ahead to drag them. “Because if I die working alone, who else will ever take your barren daughter?”
Orozkul refuses to let Momun leave to pick up Nurgazy at school. Momun works until he is dizzy and breathless, heartsick that when the school closes Nurgazy will be very frightened all alone in town.
Orozkul’s negligence and rage nearly get them both killed, and Momun muses that this poaching will end badly. Only the wonderful appearance of some maral deer consoles Momun. Orozkul curses the deer, beats the horse, and hits the old man. Only Momun’s dexterity and wisdom saves them all before he quits the job and heads for the school.
In town with its jolly soundtrack, heartbroken Nurgazy is sobbing outside the school. Having little or no experience with reliable adults who return to him, he assumes that Grandfather has abandoned him too. His pretty teacher tries in vain to console him and to get him back inside to wait.
Just then Kulubek, driving a truck full of singing workers, pulls over. Kulubek and the jolly workers sweep Nurgazy away to their working camp. Soon in Kulubek’s hut Nurgazy is safe and comfortable, and Kulubek plies him with two hearty sandwiches, one for each hand (the only moment in the film when an adult thinks to hand this child some food). Kulubek apologizes that his work schedule did not allow any visits to the house: “I thought of you and wanted to come see you. But I couldn’t come, though I prepared you a present.” He gives Nurgazy a new toy tank.
Nurgazy is stunned by this new toy, and only tentatively puts down a sandwich to begin engaging with it.
Then Grandfather Momun walks in. He coldly refuses Kulubek’s hospitality. Clearly suffering from loss of face at Kulubek’s assistance, he takes back his grandson and marches out without a word of thanks. Momun can bear beatings and threats himself at home, and can take his grandson back to watch and learn more of the same; but he finds the younger man’s intervention unbearable.
Kulubek is left alone, baffled and concerned, holding Nurgazy’s forgotten tank.
Part 10. Ending
When the two arrive home, both Orozkul and Grandma curse them both for taking time away from logging.
Nurgazy throws himself down weeping at the edge of the water.
Suddenly, three splendid maral appear to him.
Nurgazy is enthralled. He walks closer and closer, not noticing the cold water as it washes up over his ankles. He watches to his heart’s content until the deer finally walk away.
Nurgazy runs home in his wet clothes, shouting the good news about the deer to the family.
But Momun sits frightened by Orozkul’s threats, and Grandma fiercely tells the child that no one cares about his deer right now.
Nurgazy ends up in bed, shivering with a fever. He calls and calls for Momun, but the old man is off weeping in despair.
Next day Nurgazy is very ill, and can’t go to school.
An old friend of Orozkul’s comes to pick up the lumber, and notices the maral deer. “They’re not afraid of people. And look how fat they are.” Hm…
Kulubek stops by the school. The teacher tells him that Nurgazy’s family didn’t bring him that day. Kulubek turns away, deliberating on what to do.
Nurgazy in bed hears gunshots. He slips outside.
Momun is sitting in shock, staring at a cauldron of boiling water. He tries to rush the child back into the house. But Nurgazy sees Orozkul come carrying the antlered head of a maral.
“This is for your grandfather,” Orozkul boasts to the boy. “I’ll put these antlers up over his grave.” Orozkul slams an ax into the deer’s skull. To the child in his delirium, it appears that Orozkul is also chopping the cradle of their ancestor baby.
As night falls Nurgazy is left in bed alone; in his sleep he cries out for Kulubek to come in his truck and avenge the slaughter and desecration of Mother Antlered Doe.
Meanwhile, Orozkul force-feeds the family poached deer and alcohol. He roars with laughter at how comical it was, watching Momun groveling and begging him to spare the deer’s life. As a joke, Orozkul forced the old man to kill the deer instead, or else be driven from the house.
Nurgazy overhears him, and understands only that it was Momun who fired the shots that killed Mother. At this, Nurgazy struggles out of bed sobbing and wanders outside. Burning with fever he staggers down to the cool river. In the dark he falls under the water and lies there, dreaming of the white sun over Lake Issyk-Kul, and that Papa nets his Fish-Son and reels him in at last.
Naturalist John Muir wrote about his early life in The Story of My Boyhood and Youth. The boy makes the best of hard labor and privation with an unsympathetic father, and finally leaves home with a satchel of homemade thermometers and alarm clocks. His workmanship delights everyone who sees him, winning him a booth at the World’s Fair and entrance to University despite his parent’s dire predictions that he will fail:
[Father] tried to assure me that when I was fairly out in the wicked world making my own way I would soon learn that although I might have thought him a hard taskmaster at times, strangers were far harder.
On the contrary, I found no lack of kindness and sympathy.
Not all deprived young people make the leap of leaving family opinions behind and seeing themselves through the eyes of sensible sympathetic mentors. Nurgazy is too small to leave home, and has no practical tools but legends, magical thinking, and an empty briefcase that no one has thought to fill with books or lunch. Sinking underwater, he doesn’t see the approaching headlights or hear the truck engine as Kulubek comes speeding over the mountain to find him.