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WHITE ON WHITE: a film noir — THE BLACK DEATH
rufus corporation

THE BLACK DEATH

Midnight 07/02/07 Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Renato and Jean-Mark are a visual and aural force to behold. Two white men burned the color of fried chicken. They bare all the signs of years in the desert, excruciating thinness, lots of lines, and a sense of deeper wisdom that instantly shows us up as the neophytes we are. Hit with a barrage of heavily accented italianate English the first half hour of our meeting is completely incomprehensible.

Geo-archeologists, they do not, as they put it, “dig for trinkets”. They study the history of water and by extension the history of mankind. They are celebrities in Almaty, commanding massive respect from locals and foreigners alike. Three facts seem to account for their reputation:
1) they set up their Central-Asian headquarters in town.
2) they own a plane
3) they arrived in Kazakhstan 15 years earlier having walked from Vietnam and in spite of their Belgian and Italian citizenship, have not touched European soil for 25 years.
They possess venomous contempt for what they see as the overly domesticated pet that is Europe. More important than these facts is that every inch of the Central Asian steppe has been burned into them. They are human maps of the desert.

They peruse us curiously at first as if we are weird animals so far out of our depths that our turning up in their office at midnight has been the result of some natural anomaly that requires scientific study. “What are you doing here?”. “We were told you were the ones to meet…that you can advise us….tell us where to begin a journey”. “But what are you interested in?”. “Everything, Nothingness, as it applies to everything…” we try to explain haltingly at first the transference of art into life, the synthesis of Malevich’s 1920’s idea’s about a new freedom supplied by the realization of non-objective art making and how we might be able to manifest these ideas anew in a film about space shot in the desert. We hint at an itinerary that spans the 3000 kilometer length of the country in under ten days. Renato openly scoffs at us. He treats us momentarily with cynicism just short of disdain, for what he sees as our superficial tourist objective – exploitive, lacking in depth or research. He has taken the lead now, we are quiet. Jean-Mark – easily ten years his junior – is quiet. We inquire meekly to see some of their aerial photos of the desert.

“When we know you are serious we will show you something”

We try to say in the most serious tone possible “Yes, we are serious”

“I do not understand what you are doing.” Renato comments, in the sharp staccato that punctuates everything that comes out of his mouth, “but we will show you some things.”

They begin to open up. They unfold maps and bring out books and vodka. They start opening a few of the thousands of photographs that chart each square meter of the Mangyshlak plateau.

“You must go to Aktau, from there follow the pilgrims to Beket-Ata and Shopan-Ata, the holy shrines in the desert. Aktau is an shithole, a horrible place, don’t waist your time there, but the people, ah, the people are really very nice.”

They continue giving us the requisite advice about entering the desert in July. Four liters of water per person, per day, wrapping the water properly, covering our skin, the symptoms of heat stroke, etc. They let us know that if we break down in the desert we should not worry, the pilgrims in their Waz minibuses will find us.

And then Renato adds in his thickest most ominous tone – picture Peter Lore as an aging Italian archeologist –, “But beware of the blaaack deeeath”
“The black death?” we query.
“Yeeeees, the black death, you know the plaaaague.”
“The plague?”
“Yeeees, in the west of Kazakhstan there is still the plaaague.”
“You know, the rats they carry the plague, the plague is under ground for thousands of years, the rats they live underground, they build a ‘muli-etage’ apartment in the ground in the desert and then, you know, the rat it comes up, the rat bites your dog, the dog comes home to you, the flea is on the dog, the flea bites you, you get the plague.”

We sit their wide-eyed and dumb founded and feeling lucky that are chances of getting bit by a plague infested flea is considerably less as we were not traveling with a dog that could get bit by a rat that had come to the surface from its underground ‘multi-etage’ apartment.

We leave their office at 2am, delirious.
The next morning we fly to Aktau.
At first sighting it certainly seems to be the shithole that Renato and Jean-Marc promised.
But the people are really very nice.

by Eve Sussman

One comment.

  1. Hey eve,

    We just read this…it’s a lot of fun…
    are you only publishing it on the web?

    A