tue 18/06/2024

The Light Thief | reviews, news & interviews

The Light Thief

The Light Thief

A powerful post-Soviet fable brings geopolitics to remote village life

'The Light Thief': like a Kyrgyz Robin Hood, Aktan Arym Kubat filches for electrical power for the poor

You don’t tend to get many films from the breakaway republics of the former Soviet Union. And certainly not from Kyrgyzstan.

The Light Thief is the kind of work which schleps respectably around the festival circuit harvesting nods of approval from film aficionados but not, more importantly, the support of distributors. So the fact that, as of this week, the film has made it past Go is worth cracking open the orange juice (its titular main character does not drink). And it more than repays a look. The Light Thief is light on its feet at only 75 minutes, and it melds gentle lyricism with a very sudden punch.

Writer-director Aktan Abdykalykov has taken the screen name of Aktan Arym Kubat to play the lead in a story set in an impoverished rural community where electricity is among the commodities in short supply. Svet-Ake makes it his business, like Robin Hood, to filch for the poor, channelling contraband electrical power away from passing overhead wires and supplying it to the villagers. He brings light into primitive lives which have no access to unimaginably fancy things like televisions and computers. No wonder his wife (Taalaikan Abazova), scrubbing him in the tin bath, refers to him with a tender shake of the head as a revolutionary. He also acts as a local counsellor to the afflicted and the aggrieved, such as the spineless neighbour (Stanbek Toichubaev) whose wife abandons him, absconding to the roadside and clambering into the first passing truckful of soldiers.

Abdykalykov faithfully captures the slow pace of village life without allowing the film to slump into a kind of torpor. The traditional Kyrgyz equestrian sport of goat-wrestling (pictured below) fills the screen with the kinetic force of stamping hooves and snorting mounts. Svet-Ake clambers up a telegraph pole when drunk and all but electrocutes himself. A boy apes his passion for heights and gets stuck up a tall tree from which, like Svet-Ake before, he wants to see out of the valley.

the-light-thiefThe village would appear to be marooned in a valley remote from the heart of national life – the mountains are shimmeringly captured under rich blue skies by Khasan Kydyraliyev. Violent protest in the big smoke (such as actually happened in Kyrgyzstan last year) is glimpsed on a television rigged up in a local bigwig’s office and tellingly operated by a Russian, the only Caucasian face in this Central Asian redoubt.

Eventually, political intrigue forces its way into the heart of the narrative as, taking advantage of the winds of change, a young businessman (Askat Sulaimanov) seeks to buy up the villagers’ land offering the promise of wealth for all. Svet-Ake is enlisted as a kind of windsmith with a seductive vision of harnessing the power of the gusts roaring through a gap in the mountains. He is therefore a guest when a Chinese delegation promising to invest development money is greeted to a traditional Kyrgyz welcome with a contemporary twist. The ending, when it comes, is a devastating and quite unexpected illustration of the way huge geopolitical forces exploit the lives of blameless individuals and traditional cultures.

  • The Light Thief is released today

Watch the trailer for The Light Thief

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Actually, the fact that cinema from the ex-Soviet republics is in a (relatively) healthy state, given the often dire economic circumstances to be found there, is one of history's small miracles. Kyrgyzstan's Abdykalykov may be the best-known name from that country - and look out for his "Beshkempir" from 1999, available on dvd. But he is not the only one. Should be noted that this is a co-production with France, Germany and the Netherlands. Which is a typical enough process for much of the films coming out of that region (the main player of which, at least by quantity is Kazakhstan). The film's release in the UK is certainly to be treasured - but if TAD was covering Paris instead of London, it would be no surprise at all. Such is the landscape of UK distibution of foreign films...

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