Venice Film Festival: ‘The River’ Review

It’s festival season! The FilmSoc blog is covering the 75th Venice International Film Festival (29 August – 8 September), diving into the myriad of films and events on offer to deliver reviews.

Milo Garner reviews Kazakh director Emir Baigazin’s latest feature. 

The River (Ozen) is a film split into three. It starts as a soothing and meditative piece on family in isolation, continues into a trite analysis of technology and its discontents, before concluding with a striking consideration of hierarchy and power. As might be expected, these three sections are linked by the eponymous river, a device that takes on new metaphorical meanings as the film drifts by. It is in many ways a flawed work, inconsistent and naïve, and yet is at once engrossing, even enchanting.

The first of the film’s segments introduces its characters, primarily the five brothers who will drive its plot. They are led by the eldest, Aslan, a solemn boy who seems alienated by this position of supposed authority. Their father appears in frame only occasionally, generally as a disciplinary figure. They grow restless, and the eldest becomes unsure of himself. But they are in the middle of a wide emptiness – modern civilisation would appear absent entirely if not for their father’s motorbike. As such they survive in their own way. Emir Baigazin’s camera focuses on the boys at play, the boys at work. As they wander the wilderness, astounding compositions portrays the Kazakh wastes as rarely seen, yellow rocks against the cutting blue sky. These shots are slow, and generally do not imply direction, but resist being ponderous. Instead they are immersive, fragile snapshots of a world so far removed. The introduction of the river changes this feeling a little, suggesting a tension. Against the stillness of frame its fast current becomes electric. Dangerous. The boys are taken in by its lure, but resist its rushing course. It seems as though the river represents a certainty in life, a constant and unchanging motion. But also a pleasure, the likes of which the boys hadn’t yet experienced.

Then begins the second, with the arrival of Kanat, a boy from the city. The tone immediately changes. This young cousin zips around on a segway and dressed in a reflective silver hoodie. He holds in his hands a tablet that plays obnoxiously loud 8-bit music, presumably from what is supposed to be a video game. Kanat is a caricature, and apparently a caricature from a different decade. He is the modern world, the opposition to the hills and crags and lonely peaks that have so far been established. He is also a vastly uninteresting addition to the film. We watch as his tablet slowly corrupts all but the eldest of the brothers. They begin to fight over the game, as if they hadn’t before. They begin to masturbate, as if they hadn’t before. They begin to become greedy and commodified, something they had also, apparently, been protected from. I’m not suggesting that technology has no real impact on the world, so much as that the impact displayed here is of a totally naïve kind. Tech rarely creates these behaviours, but it might exacerbate them – there is no sense of Baigazin acknowledging this fact, instead presenting Kanat’s bag of tricks as the serpent of Eden. Not so serious as that, I would add, nor quite so equivocal, but close. Now the river is technology, a treacherous force that enraptures those who come near – it can be treaded so long, before taking you under.

Suddenly Kanat disappears, and Baigazin reveals his final hand. The eldest son takes responsibility for the disappearance but forces a silence on the others by revealing the secrets of each in turn. As a result, each of his brothers begin to treat him as an authority figure, informing on the others, obeying his ever-harsher word. His father says that he has become a man, but it seems rather a channelling of frustration after Kanat had stolen his spotlight. A tension emerges that is never fully resolved, but the sudden change in dynamic works nonetheless, a sort of coming of age, and one that benefits greatly from the edging out of Kanat’s character. By the film’s conclusion a certain fraternity is achieved, and the river changes again. Now it appears a sort of catharsis, a symbol of closeness and brotherhood. It flows together, as one. Peace has returned to the plain.


The River had its premiere at Venice Film Festival on September 3rd, 2018. It has yet to acquire a UK release date. Check out its trailer below:

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