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WHITE ON WHITE: a film noir — ALMATY, KAZAKHSTAN Jeff Wood
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ALMATY, KAZAKHSTAN

In Almaty we meet a pair of extraordinary gentlemen. Tanned and sinewed as weasels, Renato and Jean-Marc have walked from Vietnam. North across Southeast Asia, traversing the Tibetan Plateau via Lhasa, crossing the Himal, navigating the ex-Soviet conglomerate of Stans and eventually arriving in Alamty, on foot. Here, in the former capital and modest cultural center of Kazakhstan they have grounded themselves in a dimly lit office dormitory adorned with the antique carpets of nomads, sheep’s skulls and glowing computer monitors where they run freelance operations in hydro-geologic archaeology. They have not returned to Europe, or the West, in 25 years. The regional authorities on the ways of these Central Asian desert peoples and the accompanying prehistory of their desert milieu, Renato and Jean-Marc are experts on water. They have scoured nearly every square meter of the steppe and deserts to the south from their ultra-light aeroplane, making stunning aerial photographs of the vast and shifting terrain. And through the orchestration of their excavations on the ground, and in the ground, their knowledge of Kazakhstan is unsurpassed. With confident precision and candid speculation they may inform you with some bit of useful or entertaining data pertaining to every oblast and every village, every cultural, religious and economic inflection, every railway departure time, every flight, every transfer, every roadway, every remote ridge and possibly every last dried up wash. Not only do they know what lies above the ground but they know the invisible layers that are stacked up beneath it and the millennia of history human, animal, plant, geologic and mythic and that have built us up and eroded away to expose the thin skein of present that we wish to explore for a few weeks. So we seek them out for advice. They feed us real coffee and beautiful vodka. Wiry and fit from a diet that I can only imagine to be desert yoga and oranges, Renato paces and pauses in long mesmerizing monologues, energized with colorful Italian explosions while Jean-Marc in his languid Belgian French offers calm punctuation and clarification from behind his desk illuminated in the blue light of an antiquated monitor occasionally rising to retrieve a map or a document from the library against the wall. These are men of another time, and of the movies. We’re making one. And these guys are one. The kind of men in the movies of childhood that inspired you to do everything you have ever done. That have brought me here, before them.

“If you want to see the desert you must follow the pilgrims. To the Sufis. If you want to see the desert you must not go by car. From behind a car window you will see nothing. From behind a car window you will look at the desert gong by for one maybe two hours and then you will sleep. You will see nothing. This is not your fault. This is the fault of the desert. There is nothing there. And the fault of the car which will put you to sleep like a baby. I do not understand what you are doing but if you want to see nothing, you will find it. There is all the nothing you could ever want to find.

“You must go to Aktau. There you will find what you are looking for. Aktau is a shit hole. Is very hot. The sea it smells like a toilet. Is a city only for oil. Aktau is a piece of shit but there you will find all the emptiness that you can bear. The desert is very beautiful. Yes. Is what you are looking for. But they don’t even know it is there. They try to build now for tourist, but they don’t even look to the sea. They look inside, to their pocketbook. Like people must do. Is very very hot, it smells like shit… and then there is the plague. Yesss. The Black Death. Is here. Is buried under the ground for many thousand of years. But then the rat come to build an etage and the they build an etage down under the ground to the plague and they bring the plague up to the surface and they bring the plague to the flea and the flea bring the plague to your dog and the dog bring the plague into your home and then you have the plague. Yessss. Aktau is a shit hole. But the people are very nice.

“In Aktau you follow the pilgrims. Out into the desert. In Aktau you catch a cab driver he take you to the pilgrim tour and you buy a spot on the pilgrim. The pilgrimage. Very cheap. These are pilgrims. Minibus in desert you see. The bumping of the bus keep you awake. You see desert. Many days. You see desert like pilgrim. Not like tourist. Bring water, enough water is 3 liters for each person for each day. Keep the water on the roof of the minibus wrapped in a wet towel. Bring more water for washing. Brushing teeth, etc. Keep covered but stay out in the breeze. Better to be in the sun in the breeze than inside in the dead air. But just keep covered. Then maybe you find what you want. I don’t know what that is.”

“The Sufi master spend his whole life on death you see. He dig his own grave. He build a hole in the ground and he goes to it. He goes into the hole and he does not leave. Ever again. He retires to death before death. In the hole, in his grave, he sit and wait and he speak the poetry of his life, of his death and these two things become one thing. The thing that was being sought. And his secretary sit above the hole recording his poetry flowing out of this hole of death in the ground. Yesss. Death must have a secretary.”

Renato smiles broadly like a small boy, his round lizard eyes probing radiantly from his gaunt skull, looking like a master himself, and we are rapt before the archaeologist. Sitting beneath the maps and the carpets of nomads. The spiraling horn of the ram, grooven and involuting. Like the serpent, the labyrinth, the seashell, supercluster. I am marveled at these bone rail thin men of contemplation and research and action in their dimly lit loft before the whole of the Central Asian desert. As if their wandering expertise of time has folded them within time itself and between the worlds of nations and continents and mores that we comprehend. Renato regards us, our strange trio and our beguiling endeavor as though from the position of a benevolent cobra. Sitting on the hardboard pew sipping coffee and vodka, listening, this cross-roads meeting seems so extraordinary that I can’t imagine whether it happens to them everyday, disturbed from their researches, or whether it is happening at all. Is it when you make your poetic resolves, or when you fix yourself, what was broken, is this when you learn. When you become yourself? I ask him about Tibet and tell him I had been there 18 years ago. Renato raises an eyebrow.

“Ah. Very lucky. Was almost still Tibet. Not quite but almost. You saw Potala. Eees very very beautiful. Unsurpassed. The Chinese they will leave eventually. There is nothing there for them. Just land. Just dust. And they know it. All big talk now. But they know it. Problem will not go away. Eventually bigger and bigger headache. Eventually nothing there for them but problem.”

My American associate asks him if he considers himself a Buddhist.

“Yes of course.” This is the only sensible answer for anyone. “Of course I don’t like to call myself anything. But you ask, and of course I must answer that I am a Buddhist. I am a mathematician, so I must be. This is the only logical response. Yes, this is what I must answer if I must answer.”

And my American associate who is also the director and principal 16mm camera operator of this film then asks Renato if he will be in our movie.

“Yes of course. You just tell me what you want me to do. And I will do it. Eees not so difficult. Acting. Yes of course. Eees not so difficult. I used to act all the time. Many films. In Hong Kong. In martial arts films. I was a ninja.”

In the far southeast corner of Kazakhstan near the borders of China and Uzbekistan, Almaty sits against the Alatau Mountains, a front range to the Tian Shan, the Hindu Kush and the Himal beyond it. The Tibetan Plateau further to the southeast. The former capital of the former Soviet state, Almaty is developing rapidly, like everywhere. But they’ve had the good sense to not cut all the trees down as everything is rebuilt. What must have once been an almost lovely outpost between the mountains and the desert, at the center of the geo-political map of Earth, Almaty is choking itself with traffic and fumes. An inefficient network of traffic lights keeps cars lined up from intersection to intersection like the avenues of Manhattan during rush-hour. The post-Soviet oil boom has flooded the streets with SUV’s and the funny arrogant posturing that goes with them. Since I’ve spent a good deal of life on the road and behind the wheel I’m interested in how people express themselves in that theatre. The road structures its own way of seeing, and our behavior, our interiors are filtered through its mandibles. Working as a truck driver in Manhattan is an extraordinary experience that comes with it’s own semiotic vocabulary: the subtle codes and inflections of a massive and flowing complexity inscribed and listened as a peripheral array, while the nerve endings of your body as the operator extend into the far reaches of the vehicle which must be felt and maneuvered like a bull passing in ballet with a school of sturgeon through a cockfight. We take it for granted now the degree of intensity to which an automobile is capable of manifesting an expression of our ambitions and our very immediate feelings, but seated in it’s cockpit, it is literally an extension of ourselves. It is us. We understand this in one sense of course, familiarly, as road rage, but the projection, and the very injecting of yourself into our automobile can reshape an entire perspective. In boomtowns, as the streets brim to the limit with confidence, aggression and an exponential multiplication of oversized vehicles, the cars themselves become the new character of the city. In Almaty they’ll run you down and run you over for a spare five feet of turning radius around the next corner. And they’ll honk the horn off a rhinoceros at a line of traffic that has nowhere to go. Pedestrians are second class-citizens on the street. The black mass of steel and the unconscious hairless arbiter of it’s motion heave it forward with the blunt recklessness of a stampeding buffalo. It’s as though the quest for upward mobility may be expedited by unhindered lateral mobility. And while it’s true that money is time, and that time is space (or space multiplied by change), there is a ghost factor to the arithmetic that is a response to an inversion – a psychological waste. Because while it is our objective to travel more quickly, with more ease, and in a more whimsically individuated style, the more cars that flood the street, the less this is possible. So while we wish to be able to do whatever we want, whenever we want, as quickly as we want, the more we achieve this possibility, the less it actually becomes possible. The car is what we want to be confused with where we thought it might take us. The promised ecstasy of flow, and flotation, bridled and repressed into a retarded, idling, and stagnant pool of sweat and fumes. What a grand betrayal. A ferocious resentment. And the object of that resent are the armor-less objects just outside the steel bubble. Other people. The behavioral psychology of automobiles in developing boom cities is comparable to placing grenades in the hands of love-scorned adolescents. When I can walk across town faster than you can drive in your Cadillac Escalade you’d sooner be convicted of vehicular manslaughter than slow down while I cross the street in front of you. That’s just the way the math is. Things don’t get better, they just get. And we adapt our methods of exorcism. But the trees are very nice.

Quickly ascending into the hills, just beyond the outskirts of town is the Sunkar Eagle Farm, a raptor breeding, training and hunting center where falcons are hunted in the traditional manner from horseback and fine breeds are sold at extraordinary price-tags to Emirate sheikhs, emirs and sons. The birds are exquisite. All variety of the compact and deadly saker, bred to pure and assorted racing patterns. Peregrine falcons, Hobbies and kestrels. Golden and Steppe Eagles chained to stumps like dinosaurs. A perplexing and murderous quadruplet of gigantic Eurasian Eagle Owls. Nearly 3 feet tall, perched in line on a thick twisted branch in their Adirondack-style hutch. Amber eyes and narrow squid-like beak set into their queer angry faces, they attain wingspans of up to 7 feet. A novel collection of extraordinary vultures craning about like horrific animations. Behind the well-kept tableau of royal birds is the death-chamber. An infirmary of rats. Thousands of rats born to feed the raptors. And beyond the vermin barn a coral of beautiful walnut donkeys. When I ask about them I’m informed that they are slaughtered to feed the dogs. The Kazakh falcon trainer demonstrates the method by which a Steppe Eagle may bring down and carry off with a fully grown wolf. The eagle descends upon the hindquarters of the wolf at a tremendous rate, a force that may well approximate a cinderblock being dropped from an airplane. When the wolf turns around to howl and snap at the bird, the eagle quickly grabs the wolf snout in it’s other claw, locking the mouth shut. Then in one swift final action, the eagle releases the hindquarters and wraps it’s first set of claws around the rip-cage, hooks it’s razor-sharp ‘thumb’ beneath the wolf’s sternum and pierces it’s heart. Just like that. 1-2-3, earth and sky, more dramatic and storied than any fable.

Up above the stinging diarrhea-stained smog of the city we eat lunch at a remote roadside yurt stand. A semi-circle of traditional yurts on a concrete pad cleared of snow like a rest area. The air is clear and the beautiful fat Kazakhs are smiling. We sit at a picnic table with tea, bread and plov, a mildly spiced rice dish and hacked chunks of horsemeat on the bone. The air is clear. The thick and pungent one-room yurts are gorgeous and a delightful proposition for living. The men with their axes and the firewood. The blackened cauldrons. Tobacco and sparkling light. And the city below them, in reach, but just out of sight. Above the Falcon Farm, above the yurt stand, the valley quickly turns to snow and the red rock talus slopes crushing and tumbled into fields and fields of crisp hollow concussions, turning up through the bowls and rivers of stone like Mars on Earth, but ascending toward space, as close as we may come. And to the north, to the west, the Steppe, careening like a great disc of dirt and cropped grasses, asking.

by Jeff Wood