Oh Yeah, Thank You Borat!

A RESURGING FILM INDUSTRY IN KAZAKHSTAN STILL POSES PLENTY OF QUESTIONS

by Zhulduz Baizakova

borat

Kazakhstan’s film industry may not be widely known in the world for a number of reasons. Nonetheless, it appears to be a growing phenomenon in the modern history of the country,
yet, sadly it is not listed in the top 100 government investment areas.

It all began with the creation of the first ever Kazakh Almaty studio feature films just before the Second World War. The studio was widely used for making war films, both feature and
documentary. Moscow transferred its best equipment and personnel there.

The best of the Kazakh films made during Soviet times include “Heroes of the Steppe” by Roshal, “White Rose” by Aron, “The sounds of dombra” by Minkin (first Kazakh musical), “Amangeldy” by Levin, “Kyz Zhibek”, “Our dear doctor”, “My name is Kozha” and many more.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the so-called “new wave” arrived and started shaping and developing new Kazakh film industry. This new wave created such masterpieces as “Fara”, “Three brothers”, “The Needle”, “Leila’s Prayer”, “Mongol”, “The Nomads”, “Abay” and others. For the last decade Kazakh filmmakers have acquired awards in many prestigious International Film Festivals such as San-Francisco, Cannes, Turin, Nantes, Lisbon, Frankfurt, Paris. Alongside this success, however, the modern Kazakh cinema industry continues to be accused of making films for festivals and various grand prix contests, whereas Kazakh viewers remain deprived of watching their own national films.

There are a few reasons as to why Kazakhs are not aware of their own movies, which include poor PR, lack of funding from both state and commercial film companies, a preference for making “festival cinema” rather than for ordinary national viewers. There are also certain difficulties in presenting the story line, as some of the newest criminal dramas mostly resemble their Russian counterparts. Another important factor to mention is that there is no adequate legislation on cinema introduced in Kazakhstan’s law practice, which increasingly hinders the process and affects the filmmakers as well as potential
investors.

The neutral observer may find that industry appears to be in a state of constant transformation for the last decade in terms of modernisation, adjustment to world cinema standards and the development of its own unique style of creation. Such changes can be easily traced in “Kelin” (literal translation daughter-in-law) a challenging piece by Ermek Tursunov, which was duly nominated for US Academy Award. It tells the story of a small family living in wilderness of snow covered Altai mountains in quiet isolation; speechless characters live their daily life in survival mode and it is presented in slow, sometimes motionless pictures. Most of the crucial things are soaked in philosophical interpretation, allowing the viewer to identify the hidden rules and traditions. It is certainly worth watching for those convinced that Kazakhs used to live in a barbaric setting comparable with those of Scandinavian Vikings from the past.

Nature interacts with people in different forms, which in turn helps to build up strong emotions by the end of the film where a snow avalanche causes devastation to the characters. The main message stands still, unrevealed as an old lady turns away and leaves her Kelin with a newborn baby behind. Mentioning the Scandinavians, one cannot help noticing that there is another “silent” film of that sort, full of deep wilderness and dialogue with nature. Kazakh “Kelin” and Danish “Valhalla Rising” are pretty much similar in their concept to show the idea of wilderness and the beginning of creation. Nature plays the major role of the Universe where the person is left to face himself/herself among the most natural and challenging conditions and cannot rely on anyone, forced to struggle alone in the darkness. It carries philosophical meaning by challenging the utmost primitive laws of nature and accepting it.

The main character in “Kelin” is a young girl who upon being taken away from her family to her lifetime journey faces the same old “challenges” as every other girl in her situation – an
unknown future with her husband. Only in her case the husband is forced upon her, she didn’t choose him. She is being sold by her family to a man who offered better price and who rushes to “try” his newly acquired trophy. She might be seen as a victim from certain perspectives and yet the further story goes on the less impression she gives of being one. One of the difficulties the viewer may encounter in both Valhalla and Kelin stems from the fact that what they suggest appear to be unreal, sometimes too cruel and brutal and yet absolutely natural and truthful, almost close to the feeling of homecoming in some parts.

Another unique piece to consider watching is a historical drama “Mustafa Shokay”. Shokay is perceived to be a Pan-Turkic leader attempting to set up the independent Kokand Autonomy. The idea puts him at the centre of the Bolsheviks’ close “attention” and forces his eventual escape to the West after the Kazakh revolutionaries he led were annihilated. True, the Western audience may argue that the message of the film remains unclear and concealed due to the ambiguity of the main character himself. However, this film is believed to be one of the first serious historical perspectives by the Kazakh film industry. There are clearly some positive ideas to consider about Shokay as well as criticism. The love story sometimes interferes with the main storyline about Shokay’s interaction with the Soviet power, both during his stay inside the country and abroad. The director did not fail to show however the passion and love of Shokay towards his home land, and his burning desire in helping his own nation to face the Soviets and expose the truth about the real history in the making. Shokay’s passionate dedication to serve his people and to tell them the truth about the country they were living in brought him at some point to work with Nazis – the fact that shadows his historical role up to the present day. Though the fact frequently overlooked is that as a result of his alleged collaboration with Nazis, Shokay managed to save the lives of around 100,000 Soviet POWs.

The idea of working with Nazis is found difficult to embrace and might have composed a fairly challenging task for Satybaldy Narymbetov. The film took five years of careful planning, researching and consideration to complete.

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