An early moment in Student shows a young man at a window, staring. He has just borne witness to two acts of violence. First, a peer has spilled hot tea on a rich woman’s lap; second, the woman’s hired thugs have arrived and pummeled the peer. The young man (played by Nurlan Baitasov) watches the strongmen drive away, and then turns his wide, bespectacled eyes to us. We are being confronted directly with his choice: He can embrace or reject survival of the fittest as his truth.
Darezhan Omirbaev’s sixth feature—whose unnamed, largely quiet protagonist lives in a poor area of Almaty, Kazakhstan—is a pedagogical film. The assailants appear as the young man’s first teachers. He will have others. A professor stands at the front of a lecture hall stating with pride how millionaires have begun emerging in Kazakhstan, and how capitalism creates opportunities for the strong to succeed at the weak’s expense; a fellow classmate volunteers that one can therefore kill one’s competitors. Later, the young man watches as a wealthy man clubs a donkey to death after it fails to pull his car from a ditch. The fate of the dying animal resembles that of the country’s poor and working classes, whom globalization has pushed even further onto society’s fringe. They are treated as beasts of burden, to be cared for or disposed of as those with power wish.
In time, the isolated young man befriends a poor poet and his family, suggesting one potential path for himself. He also buys a handgun. Like Raskolnikov, the restless searcher of Crime and Punishment (a text on which, as with Robert Bresson’s great film Pickpocket, Student is loosely based), he feels the need to show himself whether might makes right. The young man shifts to acting not just as a student, but also as his own teacher.
Student follows previous Omirbaev films, including 1998’s masterful Killer (a portrait of a displaced chauffeur considering crime as the path to supporting his wife and infant child), in portraying a materialistic culture where scientists and artists matter less to society than bankers do, and where farmers are considered of less importance to the national future than businesspeople willing to broker deals with Western firms. Psychological violence is constantly present, to be reflected in the film’s physical violence, which is typically suggested rather than seen. The result of this choice is that violence registers less as a set of sensations than as a pure fact whose consequences we are left to contemplate—and whose ultimate value is left to us to judge.
The film creates room for judgment. In Killer, the editing scheme consisted of unrelenting hard, sharp cuts, reflecting the life of a person only moving in one direction; by contrast, Student‘s scenes often dissolve into each other, as though expanding time to leave contemplative space. The young man knows well that murder can lead to money and power—politicians have taught him that. But what money and power actually justify doing is something a person must decide for himself or herself.