Cine Kazakhstan

By James Norton


Recent films from the Central Asian giant reveal a society in transition

The vast former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan hardly looms as large in our audiovisual consciousness as it does on the map of the world, and even then it is largely as the homeland of Sacha Baron Cohen’s spoof TV presenter Borat. Ten years ago Tony Harrison’s TV poem A Maybe Day in Kazakhstan meditated on the democratic hopes of the recently independent state – hopes that remain unsatisfied.

The BBC’s series Holidays in the Danger Zone included a tour of the thrills and disturbances the country had to offer. A British producer shared responsibility for Shimkent Hotel by the French Anna Sanders Films (see page 20). This drama, made by and about a plucky group of Gallic trustafarians getting in trouble as they try to buy a slice of local industry, uses Kazakhstan as an orientalist quagmire, throwback to ripping yarns of the Great Game.

We might also know Kazakhstan for its decades of atomic tests and the environmental destruction they have wreaked, for launching Soviet space missions and for the gargantuan deposits of oil and gas in its remote immensity, which have the US, the Chinese and other predators cautiously drooling.

Last year, programmer Tim Brown organised ‘Independence Days: New Cinema from Kazakhstan’, for City Screen, in association with Visiting Arts, a UK touring season showcasing a diverse array of recent Kazakh films, revealing much more about the country and its substantial cinematic culture.

This is rooted in the great tradition of Soviet cinema, though local production did not begin until the 1920s, supporting propaganda efforts in favour of modernisation and collectivisation and against Islam. During World War II, Soviet studios were evacuated to the then capital Almaty, where Eisenstein began shooting Ivan the Terrible. After the war, mainstream film production rattled along under the influence of Bollywood, with a few smaller, more personal neorealist films occasionally appearing.

serik-aprymov.jpgSerik Aprymov

Kazakhstan was one of the first Soviet territories to experience the liberalisation of the glasnost era, and its films are acknowledged by Russian critics to be the first flowering anywhere of this change. As early as 1985, independent and commercial production companies were starting up and the same year saw the first film of the Kazakh new wave. Directed by Ermek Shinarbaev, My Sister Lucy is narrated by a Kazakh boy, recalling a summer spent sharing his home with a Russian girl and her mother. As well as embracing the issue of cohabitation between the two peoples, which in Kazakhstan is both more pronounced and less problematic than in the other Central Asian republics, the film sets out, in its emphasis on childhood experience, often narrated retrospectively, the model for many subsequent independent Kazakh productions. Perhaps this pervasive enthusiasm for childhood stories serves a similar, if less intriguing, purpose as it does in Iranian cinema, of oblique criticism concealed in ease of appeal.

In Biography Of A Young Accordionist, Satibaldy Narimbetov sprinkles a charming coming of age comedy with visions of trees and water lifted straight from Tarkovsky. The oneiric passages in the film – a grandfather clock standing in a road, and a vivid underwater sequence – are exceptions to the film’s generic clichés, as the boy accordionist Esken, whose father has been jailed for spying for the Japanese, hangs out with his best friend, gets a leg up to watch Chaplin’s City Lights over a wall, (in the Soviet era itinerant projectionists plied the steppe setting up screens in villages, a popular means of exhibition that has now fallen by the wayside) and spies on a beautiful librarian. The story is set at the end of WW2, and its most interesting characters are a group of sympathetically treated Japanese prisoners.

Narimbetov’s latest film Leila’s Prayer, deals directly with the suffering inflicted by 40 years of nuclear testing in the area known as the Polygon near Semipalatinsk in the east of the country. Leila is a young shepherd in the village nearest the test site, and the film dramatises the continuing horrific effects of the more than 400 nuclear tests that were carried out.

Serik Aprymov’s Three Brothers offers a more oblique and complex account of growing up near the Polygon The title has blighted echoes of Chekhov but its realities are more menacing. The film opens with Soviet jet fighters on television, as if in parody of Top Gun, as one of the three brothers introduces the long flashback that makes up the narrative (in which he and his friends grow up in a zone of abandoned military bases and rusting locomotives, a “secret military object”).


The story is divided by painted chapter headings inspired by children’s books. The Kazakh brothers and their Russian playmates amuse themselves amidst disintegrating hardware, riding the railway and exploring the surreal innards of the bases. A first aid diagram displays body parts on a wall, a telephone is found to be connected to a German phone sex line. The boys are regaled with fantastic stories of the zone by Klein, a survivor of the camps. There is a lake where Klein would drive officers to meet beautiful women he himself was never able to satisfy.

The boys’ belief in these fables leads to a tragic finale as they joyride into the zone on a train which is mistaken by the air force as a practise target. The film concludes with a cruel cut back to the present with the surviving narrator himself now an air force pilot. There is a lush, solitary dream sequence at the heart of the film which invokes a Kazakh golden age of equestrian beauty and emerald grasslands. The theme of disillusion is richly underscored by the remarkable similarity of the sun-bleached, unforgiving dusty steppe and the hulks of steam trains to the settings of the great elegiac Westerns of Sam Peckinpah. Aprymov’s first feature, and another of the key works of the early Kazakh new wave, Last Stop is similarly redolent of post-war sadness and the decay of empire, as it follows a Red Army recruit returning to his village to find his friends’ lives empty and violent.

In conversation, Aprymov, trained in Moscow but born near the Polygon, though deploring the materialistic trends of the new Kazakhstan and concerned that there is no budget to clean up the test sites, offers an alchemical spin on the radioactive desert of his homeland: “even dust can become gold”. He claims that Kazakh film-makers have complete freedom in their subject matter, but has always had to struggle to get his films made. Most of their small budgets have been made up of state concessions augmented in some cases by generous Japanese and European producers. The state prefers to lavish funding on portentous historical films, providing the entire budget and retaining thematic control. “The condition imposed by the government is to show Kazakh people as clever, talented, kind and solely good. But if the Kazakh population is entirely positive, where does conflict between people arise from?” Even these movies are muscled out at the box office by Hollywood actioners, and the independent minority scarcely gets shown at all. For a few years Aprymov could only find work employed by president Nursultan Nazarbaev to make propagandist news footage “like: president meets ambassador, president on holiday… boring! I thought if I stayed any longer in the job my brain would explode.”

That said, the extravagant state-sponsored pageants are not always without artistic merit. In 1990 Ardak Amirkulov directed The Fall of Otrar based on an uncharacteristic script by the Russian auteur Alexei Gherman. The film, which so impressed Martin Scorsese that he put his weight behind a release in the US last year, is a dazzling epic recounting local resistance to Genghis Khan, a heady mixture of sepia and colour, Shakespearian history, gory tortures and perfumed eroticism. The alternative to this genre offered by the gritty realism of the independents is also a critique of the posture of these epics of Kazakh heritage as they strain to defy and outdo the proliferation of Hollywood blockbusters in the multiplexes of Almaty.

Amirkulov’s follow up Abai is a biopic of the early years of the national bard Abai Kunanbaev in the mid 19th century, a glossy, high-end nationalist artefact on which even Serik Aprymov worked at an early script stage. In it, the future poet emerges from the shadow of his brutal warlord father, who is driven by the pursuit of a traditional vendetta: “there is no such thing as a bad custom”. Abai proves his physical courage, then falls for a beauty from a rival clan.

This romance occasions the outpouring of Abai’s lyric gift which, unless a lot is lost in translation, would seem trite even on a Hallmark Valentine’s card. The only poetry worthy of the name in the film is a kind of Rimbaudian delirium uttered while Abai is suffering from fever: “make the camel stand, it is made of water that is secreted by the clouds”. Abai’s father reprimands him for reading Russian and the film ends with the conclusion of the vendetta and the consecration of a new mosque, a convenient cut off point, as Abai was to become famous as a populariser and translator of Russian and European classics. “Study Russian culture and art – it is the key to life. If you obtain it, your life will become easier”… such inconvenient sentiments have no place in this eulogy to an exemplar of the Kazakh soul.


Perhaps the most striking talent of the new generation is that of Darezhan Omirbaev, whose Killer is a real heartbreaker of life sucked into a vortex where capital’s king and welfare has been evacuated from society. An epigraph to the film paraphrases Herman Hesse: “human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap. Now there are times when a whole generation is caught in this way between two ages, two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standard, no security, no simple acquiescence”. The film brutally demonstrates the appropriateness of this description to contemporary Kazakhstan.

It begins its narrative thrust fatalistically down to oblivion when Marat, a professor’s driver, bringing his wife and newborn baby back from hospital, crashes the car into a mafiosi’s limousine and is forced to turn to loan sharks to cover the costs and save his job. His car is later stolen, he is obliged to carry out a contract killing and is finally double-crossed. This is not merely an effective existentialist film noir but a catalogue of the evils preying on the primitive accumulation of capital. Marat’s sister is beaten up by racketeers and his scientist boss commits suicide when his lab is closed down by the bank. Someone jokes bitterly that president Nazarbaev has told scientists that “our best brains have gone, only our gold teeth remain”. The tragic fable is organised with an elegantly spare formal economy. Most of the violence occurs just off-screen. The tough, laconic style is akin to Melville or Kitano, and the film stands comparison with both.

And off-screen is where the violence toils in this apparently peaceable country. As with the more infamous case of neighbouring Uzbekistan, millions of dollars of US military aid in return for use of air bases during the Afghan war shore up the autocratic regime and security apparatus of president Nazarbaev, who was appointed by the Soviets just before the collapse of the USSR and has remained in power through election ‘victories’ ever since. Opposition politicians have been routinely harassed and charged with tax evasion and embezzlement, while their parties have been shut down on legal technicalities. And in Kazakhstan, it is an offence to “violate the honour and dignity of the president”. For those braving the independent media, the situation can be deadly.

Lira Bayseitova’s journal Respublika consistently investigated government corruption. The most common allegations involved oil company millions stashed away by Nazarbayev in Swiss bank accounts. She received a barrage of verbal threats and suffered an assault that left her blind in one eye. Respublika’s editor was sent a funeral wreath bearing her name on it, and a headless dog was hung outside the office with a note attached to it reading “there will be no next time.” The journal’s offices were later firebombed and, just to make sure, the government officially closed it down shortly afterwards. In May 2002, the day after Bayseitova published another accusatory article in SolDat (‘Let me speak’) and had received a threatening phone call, her daughter died in police custody, reportedly committing suicide while crazed with heroin withdrawal by hanging herself with her jeans. But when the body was brought to hospital she was still wearing them, had no traces of narcotics and showed signs of a beating.


In August 2002, on the eve of his departure to address a meeting in Poland concerning human rights abuses and corruption, journalist Sergei Duvanov was knifed outside his home and beaten unconscious. Remarkably, he made it to the meeting anyway. Just two months later his luck ran out. Preparing to leave for the US to lecture on media freedom in Kazakhstan, he was apparently drugged at his home, woken by police and charged with raping a 14 year old girl. Official news sources mistakenly broadcast details of his arrest hours before it took place, and before his trial had begun Nazarbaev declared that he was guilty and must not be freed. Duvanov is currently in prison for the crime.

Other critical newspapers and television stations have had their premises trashed and been closed for bureaucratic niceties and such things as using faulty equipment and having unsanitary workplaces. Numerous other journalists have been assaulted and threatened, and one, Nuri Muftakh, was killed last year by a hit and run driver. These crimes are blamed on hooligans and drug addicts, though it has been proved that some were carried out by former policemen.

The vast Kazakhfilm studio complex in Almaty, which once shook with the fury of Ivan the Terrible, has lain mostly dormant for years, the buildings maintained only through the efforts of loyal but unpaid caretakers. During the years following perestroika and independence a diminished but steady stream of movies kept the place going, but in 2001 Omirbaev’s Road was the solitary film to use its facilities and, as the title suggests, even this was not a production to linger long on the sound stage.

However, this autumn the studio doors have been flung open once again to accommodate Nomad, the most massive of all state-commissioned heritage epics, this time a hybrid Hollywood blockbuster, as an army of US technicians overhaul studio equipment alongside a large Kazakh cast and crew. The film stars Jason Scott Lee as a nomadic warrior and is directed by Ivan Passer, expat veteran of the Czech new wave now finding himself by the ironies of economics and history on the far side of his old Soviet antagonists. The Kazakh state is counting on the resulting juggernaut to impose the majesty of the national culture on the markets of the world. As shooting began, President Nazarbayev hung out on set for an hour and announced that film would spearhead a Kazakh cultural revival to complement his “wholesome” economic reforms.

Agents of genuine cultural invigorisation are more likely to be found sheltering at the Soros Centre for Contemporary Art in Almaty, which holds festivals of independent and student video, as well as workshops held by visiting film-makers and artists. Many of these focus on the country’s social problems and include recent projects concerning prostitution and homophobia. It is heartening to learn that from this source there is an alternative to Nomad, and it is titled Priscilla, Daughter of the Steppe.

James Norton is a freelance film critic and researcher for television arts programmes.