The River represents the third chapter in director's Emir Baigazin’s “Aslan trilogy”, following Uroki Garmonii and Ranenyy Angel (Aslan being their main character's name). It's the story of a family of five boys, aged approximately 6 to 16, who live in the middle of a remote desert landscape in Kazakhstan. Their mother remains mostly in the background while their grumpy and violent father (Eric Tazabekov) forces them to work constantly, whipping them at the slightest sign of youthful exuberance. The kids make bricks out of mud, build a barn, and tend to the dirt farming in blistering heat, only getting short rest breaks as a reward. Aslan (Zhalgas Klanov), the oldest son, is the patriarch in training, charged with keeping the other boys in line while the father is away. One day their cousin, Kanat (Ruslan Userbayev), arrives from the city to the village on a hoverboard, wearing colorful clothes, a metallic helmet, and sunglasses in contrast with the colorless shirts and pants the boys wear throughout the movie. From the moment young Kanat shows the children his tablet and computer games, life at home takes a different turn, in a collision with the 21st century, which will unfold in a mysterious tragedy involving the river. Each brother will have his own way of dealing with the tragedy, and family ties will be put to the test.
Baigazin, who first came to attention with the Berlin-contending bullying saga Harmony Lessons, is a filmmaker of sensitivity and restraint. The River has been hailed at various festivals worldwide, beginning with its debut at the Karlovy Vary Film Fest last July 3, then at the Venice Film Festival, where Baigazin won the award for Best Director in the Horizons program. It won the Jury Choice Award at the recent Asian World film festival and an honorable mention from the Platform Prize jury at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
“This film completes my Aslan Trilogy,” says director Baigazin. “Whereas the first two films deal with an actual murder, in this third film the main character grapples with his intention to kill. The family lives in isolation – a decision made by a despotic father, who wants to shield his children from the world and its temptations. The River is not set in a specific time period. Each of the film’s characters personifies a certain idea: Aslan dreams of creating a paradise for his brothers but yields to his own temptations. With his coveted gadget Kanat, their guest from the city arrives at the family’s secluded world as a new Prometheus who represents civilization.”