The story of Zhalanash, a town in south central Kazakhstan, is that of a crime against the planet. Formerly a thriving fishing town on the Aral Sea, the construction of canals in the 1960s to irrigate the land for cotton production reduced the sea to a quarter of its original size. The town of Zhalanash consequently receded 15 kilometres into the desert and became home to a cemetery of beached ships. In the lyrical essay Zhalanash – Empty Shore director Marcin Sauter chronicles the town and its inhabitants, to “tell the story about the end of the world, about what can happen when humans destroy nature.” The film screens in IDFA Competition for Short Documentary.
Save for a handful of characters, the town is deserted. A man delivers water to the inhabitants in his truck; two melancholy old ladies celebrate a birthday with a simple cake; a female doctor treats other elderly residents. Another man rounds up horses in the desert, while a friendly braying camel provides punctuation between the portraits. A small number of children make the most of the limited play opportunities. “People started to live more internally – their memories and imagination are more important than the reality around them,” comments Sauter. “Children shown in my film do not remember the sea and better times, they only heard about them from the adults, so they are aware that they live in a place which used to be beautiful and now is horrible, but they do what they should in any other place, just live and play – with sand, not in the water.”
Archive is used judiciously in the film and to great effect, and serves as both to counterpoint the town’s current condition and provide an explanation for it. “In the final version of my film, there is only one archival shot. Editing was long and definitely not easy. Me and my three editors spent a lot of time mostly removing additional themes. Characters have told me a lot of stories, memories; I really had a lot of records and also archives, but I decided we would not use them in the film. This also applied to the archival materials. I wanted the film to be less specific, less journalistic, but rather more universal and maybe even poetic.”
Sauter worked on the film for three years, accumulating a lot of material over this period. Why did he settle on medium-length rather than long-form? “A lot of feature-length films are just ‘long-winded’; it is a pity for the film and for the audience. In my opinion, if you can tell the story with a powerful and unique voice in a short way, there is no reason to make it longer. I like the forty-minute form a lot, but during the shooting or even editing I was not thinking ‘it needs to be short’, I just wanted to present the story in the best way.” The film is handled for promotion by KFF Sales and Promotion, as is Volte in Kids & Docs. KFF is handling both sales and promotion on Call Me Tony in Student Competition.