Arts & Events

Gems from the Global Film Initiative-- The Light Thief: A Small Gem from Kyrgyzstan

Reviewed by Gar Smith
Saturday June 16, 2012 - 03:31:00 PM

In 2010, Kyrgyzstan saw one of its films nominated for an Academy Award—a first for the small, landlocked Asian country. The Light Thief (now available on DVD from the Global Film Institute—see contact info below) is a soulful little film that captures critical moments in the lives of villagers in a small, wind-raked community at the feet of the Alai Mountains. 

I find it impossible to resist sharing this sentence from a review of the film that appeared in the London Observer: "A touching, pawkily amusing example of that fairly rare genre, the satirical tragedy." 

As the story begins, a national election is pending and passions are flaring with a new political order pressing to make inroads in the hinterlands. Svet-Ake, a modest town electrician, popularly known as "Mr. Light," is soon to become the story's lightning rod (in one case, literally, when he attempts to cure his inability to father a son by climbing a power pole during an ill-advised night of drunken carousing). Svet-Ake is unassuming to a fault; a shy and well-mannered man of fierce but generally unvoiced principles. As the past and present collide, the humble electrician will be caught between his desires and his dreams. 

Mr. Light routinely risks his livelihood by illegally connecting his poor light-starved neighbors to commercial power lines but he dreams of someday powering the village independently with an armada of wind-turbines arrayed on a nearby hill. In the meantime, he spends his spare hours tinkering with an impressive hand-made wind-charger he has pieced together near a wall of his family home. 

The Light Thief takes viewers into the home life of its quiet hero—a house filled with a doting wife and four rambunctious daughters. Along the way, we meet Svet-Ake's neighbors (mostly played by local villagers) and look on as children play in the dusty streets and village elders don their traditional ceremonial hats and meet to ponder the challenges of local democracy. 

The tranquility is doomed by the death of a principled political patriarch and the arrival of Bekzat, a political protégé with dreams of growing right by developing the "barren wastelands" by handing development rights over to a cabal of Chinese investors. 

At first, Svet-Ake is dazzled by Bekzat's attention—and his generous payments for stringing lights to brighten a yurt erected to entertain the visiting investors. Even more tempting is Bekzat's professed interest in Svet-Ale's blueprints for a local wind-farm. 

It all falls apart when a young village woman who once had dreams of going to college is forced to present herself as bait to the Chinese visitors. After copious drinks are poured during the well-catered yurt-fest, Bekzat offers to entertain his guests with a "local tradition" that turns out to involve a tethered camel, a liquored guest, and the young woman whose dreams are dust. 

Svet-Ake, invited to sit-in in the shadows far from the seated VIPs around the central table, suddenly lurches forward indignantly, to halt the proceedings. 

Bekzat is not the kind of politician who takes kindly to someone messing with his master plans. Svet-Ake finds himself targeted for punishment and stands his ground bravely. The eventual showdown is stark, simple, unique, shocking, and unforgettable. 

While there are dark moments, the film ends on a magical note. In the middle of one dark, windy night, the chain on Svet-Ake's windmill breaks and the blades begin to spin, turning a newly installed generator. As the night grows darker, a lone electric bulb dangling unseen outside Svet-Ake's home, begins to weakly pulse until it finally begins to grow with a steady brilliance. 

It comes as a surprise to discover that director Aktan Arym Kubat not only wrote the screenplay for The Light Thief and also played the lead role of Mr. Light—a role that required him to climb pole poles and towering trees with a nimble prowess that would due credit to action-film superstar Jackie Chan. 

The Light Thief has won 19 major international awards, from Calgary to Cannes. For ordering and other information, contact the Global Film Initiative, 145 Ninth Street, Suite 105, San Francisco, CA 94103, (415) 934-9500.