There are some films that put our problems into perspective, and Schizo, a 2004 film about poverty and survival from director Gulshat Omarova does exactly that. The film has a couple of other titles, Fifty-Fifty and The Recruiter. I’d prefer either of those over Schizo–although my copy comes with that title.
Schizo, which is written by the director in collaboration with Russian powerhouse director Sergei Bodrov, is a Russian language film set in Kazakhstan. The Schizo of the title is Mustafa, a fifteen-year-old boy (Oldzhas Nusupbayev) who is seen immediately as a problem teen. He’s been expelled from school (that’s where the nickname Schizo comes in), and he has a doctor’s appointment (with his mother in attendance) to determine just what the problem is. While the appointment is, ostensibly to find out just what’s ‘wrong’ with this teenage boy, the incident that led to his expulsion from school and the doctor’s (Viktor Sukhorukov) subsequent diagnosis all seem unfair. After all, while Schizo may seem slow, who’s to say at this point just how much is due to his social deprivation. The scenes in the doctor’s office are unforgettable. How many of us have tried paying our doctors with a jar of sour cream and a bag full of eggs?
Schizo lives with his mother and her sleazy boyfriend Sakura (Eduard Tabishev). Their home looks like a makeshift-lean-to, but as the film continues, it’s easy to see that Schizo lives in positive luxury when compared to most of the other locals.
There appears to be an age discrepancy between Schizo’s mother and her boyfriend, Sakura, but that may be due to the fact that she’s led a harsh life and Sakura is more-or-less loafing around. Sakura does make money, however, through arranging illegal boxing matches. Sakura, who doesn’t like to take risks, floats Schizo in front to do the actual recruiting of day-labourers and anyone else desperate or hungry enough to risk being beaten to death for a relatively small amount of money. The fights are organised by gangsters and held in what appears to be an abandoned building. Severely beaten fighters are left to die in empty rooms.
Schizo is a fascinating character who’s seriously, and as it turns out dangerously, underestimated. The name “Schizo” is one of the cruel nicknames given to the teen by classmates, and everyone writes him off as retarded. Not a PC term these days, but this is how everyone acts towards Schizo. They do and say things in front of him that they assume he can’t compute. Big mistake. Fate and a kept promise takes him to the shack of Zinka (Olga Landina). It’s a lesson in humility to see how these people live. While Zinka lives in squalor, she rents the shack she lives in from a landlord, and she’s behind on the rent….
While Schizo is not a particularly appealing character, I found myself cheering him on as he comes up against some nasty gangsters. There are some marvellous scenes here which illustrate the harshness of life in Kazakstan, and just how far these tough people will go to survive. The scenes depict a country so poor, it’s almost impossible to contemplate anyone employing people for meaningful work, and one of the most telling factors of poverty is the conditions in which people live. Schizo’s uncle lives in what appears to be an abandoned, dilapidated Noah’s Ark of a boat. No toilet, no running water, no electricity, but it offers shelter and indeed some measure of security. Other scenes depict locals stripping telephone wires. The wires have been dormant for years, so there’s no fear of electrocution but their abandoned presence raises many questions about what the hell happened to Kazakhstan.