In This is What I Remember (Esimde), writer-director-actor Aktan Arym Kubat plays Zarlyk. In Kyrgyz, “Zarlyk” means “necessary.” We soon learn that, twenty-three years earlier, Zarlyk, a man with a wife, a son, friends and a respected place in his village, suddenly disappeared. His son, Kubat (played by Aktan Arym Kubat’s real son, Mirlan Abdykalykov), now grown, tracks down his father on the internet and finds him in Russia where, as the result of an accident, he has lost his memory and, evidently, his power of speech. The film opens as Kubat returns home with his father.
What is fascinating about This is What I Remember is the wide range of responses to Zarlyk’s appearance. Kubat wants desperately for his father to be who he used to me. Kubat’s wife, Meerim (Elnura Osmonalieva), tries to be helpful, but her patience begins to wear thin. Zarlyk eats heartily, but he does not respond emotionally, except to one person: his granddaughter, Syrga. He plays with her and together they engage in the one activity Zarlyk takes pleasure in: gathering garbage and, with the help of his son and others, bringing it to the dump.
Because Zarlyk was presumed dead, his wife, Umsunai (Taalaikan Abazova), has remarried. Her second husband, Jaichy (Nazym Mendebairov) is a gangster type who is the richest person around and thus the most powerful. Jaichy’s mother, Kadicha (Anar Nazarkulova), appears to be the person most threatened by Zarlyk’s reappearance. She fears that Umsunai will leave her son and return to her first husband. She invokes Islam to support her position, and she tries to convince others that Zarlyk is insane and should be sent off to a psychiatric asylum.
Eventually the village elders gather to decide what to do with Zarlyk. On the one hand, he does appear to be bizarre, at best, but on the other hand the village certainly has become cleaner since he arrived.
Because of the title, This Is What I Remember, I assumed that at some point Zarlyk would regain his memory. But, at the very end of the film, Umsunai sings a song that shows that the title has a completely different meaning.
Aktan Arym Kubat has stated that while Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet Union, his country’s traditional values were under attack, and the Kyrgyz people were forced to parrot the beliefs allowed by the Soviet government. When Kyrgyzstan gained its independence in 1991, it was assumed that traditional values could reemerge. But Islamic missionaries moved in and imposed their own version of what one is allowed to believe. Combined with the corrupt economic bullying of people like Jaichy, the freedom that many Kyrgyz thought they would gain with independence has proved illusory. The character of Zarlyk symbolizes this lost set of values.
I also thank This Is What I Remember for teaching me a new word: mankurt. Popularized by the Kyrgyz author Chinghiz Aitmatov in his novel The Day Lasts More Than A Hundred Years, a mankurt is someone who has lost touch with his or her historical and national roots, and who has forgotten their family and ancestors and the values they represented.
By the way, back in 2009, Aktan Arym Kubat was involved in a minor but unusual Academy Awards controversy. At the time, what is now known as the International Film category was then known as the Foreign Language Film category. Kubat was the screenwriter for the Kazakh film Kelin, which wasn’t in a foreign language and didn’t have subtitles because all the characters just grunted and mumbled. In the end, Kelin was allowed to compete and even made the Foreign Language shortlist.