Anna in Almaty: Darejan Omirbaev's Shuga (2007)
Tolstoy On Screen
The verdict that "the book is always better than the movie" is a cliché that has long haunted literary adaptation. As actor, writer, and director Vasilii Shukshin put it: "It is impossible to make a film which in all respects is equal to a work of literature. . . . True, serious literature cannot serve as a basis for cinema." Yet, if adaptations are subordinate, futile efforts doomed to disappoint, this is refuted by the history of adapting Lev Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina, which has been one of the most frequently adapted classics of Russian literature (if not of world literature) since the early cinema. To the more well-known list of American, British, Italian, Russian, and Soviet films and television series that take Tolstoy's novel as their narrative framework we must add Darezhan Omirbaev's Shuga (2007), a Kazakh-French coproduction written and directed by one of Kazakhstan's most esteemed filmmakers. With Shuga, Omirbaev does not simply revisit Tolstoy's classic; his adaptation bears the unmistakable marks of contemporary Kazakh production: first, because its settings and identities have been refashioned in accordance with life in twenty-first-century Kazakhstan; and second, because the nuanced and introspective plot of Tolstoy's novel is subordinated to Omirbaev's auteur aesthetics of "anti-theater," the roots of which we find in the Kazakh New Wave of the perestroika and post-Soviet periods. Accordingly, instead of bringing Anna Karenina to life visually in all its baroque intricacies, Omirbaev intentionally inverts and flattens the psychological and spiritual crescendos of the novel. He thereby creates an adaptation that intentionally leaves the viewer as alienated as the archetypal Omirbaevian hero, all part of a larger statement on literature, adaptation, and dichotomies of East and West in contemporary Kazakhstan.