The Eurasia-2005 Film Festival: Ambitions and Realities

By Bauyrzhan Nogerbek (Almaty)

Translated by Vladimir Padunov

The second Eurasia International Film Festival is essentially a response to the ambitions of a new, young government. The Republic of Kazakhstan is striving to be the leading country in the region by any yardstick for measuring contemporary social life―economic, political, artistic. In this respect, the thematic format of the Eurasia festival―with its slogan: “For a United Space of Filmmaking”―is absolutely in line with the goals that have been set. It is only possible to dream about a festival that would include films produced in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Baltic Republics, in European and Asian countries. But desires, dreams, ambitions are one thing; concrete reality, which introduces correctives, is another. And, of course, the final result puts everything in perspective.

In this article I want to share my thoughts about the Eurasia Film Festival. This is simply my own personal point of view. So if my critical comments are offensive to the interests of bureaucrats in the film business, I am not at fault. I shall write only about what I saw and experienced during the festival; issues concerning economics are not part of my purview.

A Repeat Debut after Seven Years
This would be a suitable way to describe the organizational structure of Eurasia-2005. Launched with pomp and fanfare in 1998, the second festival took place after seven years despite forceful assurances from representatives of governmental agencies that the festival would become a regular event. But this did not happen. It is possible that changes in ministerial cabinets impeded the positive resolution of this proclaimed intention. But in any case, we remain people who failed to keep their word, something that is not pleasant. On the eve of this year’s elections for President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, they finally remembered the festival. This provided all sorts of opportunities for ironic comments, barbs from the respected guests from Moscow―in part, from film critic Kirill Razlogov. According to several published reports, Eurasia-2005 was merely a political show, intended to raise the ratings of the Republic of Kazakhstan and its first President.

Despite all of this, the festival took place. Unfortunately, however, it took place just like a debut film festival. The original team―more precisely, the original festival staff from 1998―had been dissolved because it was no longer needed. The new staff lacked sufficient experience, at times even in elementary labor discipline and responsibility. Programs of foreign films that had been announced fell apart because they did not finalize arrangements on time. Kim Ki Duk’s films, shown at the Silk Way City movie theater, were screened after delays of several days. The prints of Emir Kusturica’s films were of very poor quality, something that Oleg Boretskii, who was responsible for screening this program, informed the audience not without some irony and ridicule. In his telling, he had foreseen this situation and so had brought his personal copies of the prints of Kusturica’s films for the screenings at the Caesar movie theater. As I sat in the auditorium, I felt embarrassed to hear such reproaches to the organizers of the International Film Festival, especially since I also was working for the festival, showing the “Kazakh Panorama” program at Silk Way City. But, as people say, the truth is more valuable.

Things were no better with other programs. According to one filmmaker who attended all of the events at the press-club, these took place in an empty hall with only one or two journalists participating. At the same time, virtually no Kazakh filmmakers attended the meetings with leading foreign filmmakers. Perhaps the only place where one could meet Kazakh “film people” was at the Palace of the Republic, where films were screened for free, while other film theaters screened films, including Kazakh films, for a high admission fee. Inasmuch as Kazakh films were screened during daytime, there was once again virtually no one who wanted to see them; the only exceptions were students from the National Academy of Arts and members of the respective production crews.

The “Forbidden Kazakh Cinema” program took everyone aback. I heard complaints from both viewers and filmmakers. Abdulla Karsakbaev’s Disturbing Morning (1966), Zhardem Baitenov’s The Blue Route (1968), and Mazhit Begalin’s The Tracks Lead Beyond the Horizon (1964) had been in distribution; no one ever forbade screening them. At most, there were some attempts to greet these films with silence or with cruel criticism. “But we’ve seen all of these films. What kind of forbidden cinema is this?!,” viewers asked; and they were right. And the guests from abroad didn’t have a clue about why these films had been “persecuted.” For the sake of fairness, I must admit that Viktor Pusurmanov’s White Aruana (1973) did not have broad distribution and Satybaldy Narymbetov’s Don Quixote of My Childhood (1978) was blocked from distribution for artistic reasons. All the rest of the films, including Bulat Mansurov’s Kulager (1972-1987), had been screened at artistic counsels, conferences, All-Union film forums; they were written about in the press. I should mention that Kulager is screened on television through today. At the director’s own insistent requests, the film was redone several times, which cost more than a little additional funding. Today, no one can recall the original version of Kulager, about whose artistic achievements there were so many disputes among critics, writers, and filmmakers after its premiere in the House of Cinema. The festival organizers clearly overdid things with the “Forbidden Kazakh Cinema” program.

As a whole, the festival’s programs were extremely rich: there was the “Panorama of Kazakh Cinema” and “Forbidden Kazakh Cinema of the Soviet Period,” as well as retrospectives of two stars of international cinema, one from the West―Emir Kusturica—and one from the East―Kim Ki Duk. In addition, there were master-classes, press conferences, meetings with viewers, roundtables for producers (“Kazakhstan―Land of Cinema”) and film scholars (“The Representation of the Processes of National Identification in Cinema during the Epoch of Globalization”), etc. In terms of putting the programs together, the festival’s Art Director, film scholar Gul'nara Abikeeva, accomplished a great task; the problem lies in how these programs were carried out. This is something for which the staff of the festival and the moderators of individual programs have to answer. Occasionally there was the impression that instead of an international film festival, there were simply meetings with and celebrations of stars of international cinema, at which the tone was set by people who are very distant from the world of filmmaking. The festival’s guests were showered with attention; the stars were surrounded by crowds of admirers. Yet, the films in competition―the real reason for organizing any film festival―were screened inopportunely; on occasion reels were screened out of sequence. And this occurred―to our great shame―in the Palace of the Republic, the main screening hall of the festival. In a word, the festival was not a success from an organizational point of view. The first one was organized much better.

An All-Union, Not an International, Film Festival
We―the members of the Selection Committee―were very fortunate. We got to watch all of the films submitted for the festival’s competition program; we had the opportunity to screen them on weekends at the Kazakhfilm Film Studio. In the course of our discussions, we formed our own list of films that were potential winners of the Grand Prix. These included Mohammad Rasoulof’s wonderful film Iron Island (Iran, 2005) and Kay Pollak’s magnificent As It Is In Heaven (Sweden, 2004). We naively believed that specifically these films would receive the top prizes at the Eurasia-2005 Film Festival. The prize for best male lead, we reasonably thought, would go to the splendid Japanese director and actor Takeshi Kitano for his acting in Blood and Bones (Yoichi Sai, 2004), while the leading candidates for best female role were the actresses in Kira Muratova’s The Tuner (Ukraine and Russia, 2004) and the Korean actress in Innocent Steps (Park Young-Hoon, 2005).

Imagine our surprise and chagrin when he heard the jury’s decisions―not a single one of the films from our list was even noticed by the competition jury. We can only ask: did the jury work in a responsible way or were its members overwhelmed by the festival’s cultural program, by boundless Kazakh hospitality? It is conceivable that the jury’s decision was made hastily, considering that one of its respected members, director Krzysztof Zanussi, arrived towards the end of the festival and it is unlikely that he had time to see all of the competition films.
The jury’s decisions were exceptionally traditional, almost “Party-like,” in the spirit of All-Union film festivals in the former Soviet Union. All of the major prizes were reserved for filmmakers from Moscow and Leningrad, while the lesser prizes went to representatives of the Brotherly Republics. In the old days, when such festivals were held in one of the republics, depending on the precise region, films from Central Asia, the Transcaucasus, or the Baltic Republics would be singled out. And so it happened this time: special prizes went to films from Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, even though it is perfectly clear to any filmmaker that Serik Aprymov’s The Hunter (Kazakhstan, 2004; image left), which has received awards at many international film festivals, is significantly better than Levan Zaqareishvili’s Tbilisi-Tbilisi (Georgia, 2005; image right) or Ernest Abdyzhaparov’s Saratan (Kyrgyzstan, 2004). The problems raised in these two films had been worked out a long time ago in the films of the Kazakh “New Wave”―in films by Aprymov and Darezhan Omirbaev. Not to know or not to see this means not to understand the contemporary filmmaking process in the Central Asian region and in Kazakhstan.

So everything turned out as in the old days of the Soviet Union: the Grand Prix went to Muratova’s The Tuner (Ukraine―Russia; image left), the award for Best Director to Aleksandr Sokurov for The Sun (Russia, 2005; image below), and the award for Best Actress went to the Russian actresses Alla Demidova and Nina Ruslanova for The Tuner. Once again we bowed in a servile way to the “older brother,” even though it was clear to anyone who watched the competition films that neither The Tuner nor The Sun were in the running for the top prizes. Saddest of all: not a single film from Europe or Asia received an award at this so-called Eurasian film festival. Only films from the republics of post-Soviet space received this honor. In this respect, the noble conception of a Eurasian international film festival was totally discredited.

We wanted to host an international film festival, but it turned out as always to be a local, All-Union mini-film festival, where all of the prizes were distributed in advance according to the principle: from oldest to youngest. Even the festival’s honored guests were not forgotten: they were awarded prizes for “Contributions to Filmmaking.” Admittedly, several of them could not understand how they had earned such an honor; they did not understand that they had come to Kazakhstan―where they were not only invited with all expenses paid, but that they would also be given per diems, be presented with expensive gifts and prizes. I am not against Kazakh hospitality, but it should not be taken to the absurd. On what grounds does the Eurasia Film Festival, which has still not earned its international reputation, distribute prizes for “Contributions to International Filmmaking”? This is simply laughable. If we planned to undertake something so daring, then we were obligated to include it in the regulations of the festival.

In a word, what is the point of protecting the garden if we have once more staged an All-Union film festival with the rudiments of colonial consciousness, with a desire once again to please “the older brother”? Sokurov is a famous director, but The Sun is not his best film, and Muratova’s The Tuner is a standard work, whose language is similar to contemporary television serials―although, of course, it is masterfully done. But it is far from deserving the Grand Prix. Why, even Muratova, when accepting the prize, got embarrassed and said: “I thought The Sun would win. I liked it more.” The members of the jury, perhaps under the influence of the organizers of the show-festival “Eurasia-2005,” only paid attention to Russian films. And in doing so they inflicted, in my opinion, irreparable harm to the ideological conception of the Eurasia Film Festival.

What Kind of Festival Do We Need?
In any case, not the kind that we just had. The word “International” carries many obligations. First of all, this means the precise functioning of all services; that programs and screenings correspond to the announcements; etc. The main thing is the films—the competition films. In this respect, the Eurasia-2005 Film Festival was interesting; the films were well-chosen: 15 films from Europe, Asia, and the CIS. There was a variety of genres. Despite all of the technical difficulties, viewers in Almaty received a great treat in watching so many wonderful films.
The real question is: what do we get from an international film festival paid for by our own funds? It is one thing if what we want is just another show in order to acquaint the world community with Kazakhstan. For this, it is enough to invite Jean-Claude Van Damme and other stars, to organize a meeting with the President of Kazakhstan, to show off the new capital. Yet if this is to be a genuine international film festival—a competition of the best films—then our goal is most certainly not to fall flat on our face, but to screen a worthwhile film, to win the competition in order to show the world that a highly professional and very artistic Kazakh cinema exists. But if the guests at the festival will be surrounded only by businessmen and the festival’s organizers instead of by filmmakers, then what is the sense of such an expensive undertaking? Why do we need a festival in which Kazakh filmmakers do not participate? A stroll down the red carpet does yet mean participation in a festival. Films compete in a festival in order to win.

I can only repeat what I have already stated concerning the relationship between the “Shaken’s Stars” Festival and the Eurasia Film Festival. International film festivals in Kazakhstan bring no benefits to Kazakh filmmakers. So long as Kazakhstan produces only three to four films a year, we shall be hampered by participating in the competition program; it is always more prestigious for our filmmakers to compete in film festivals in Europe and Russia than for them to win at home. And this means that some of the best Kazakh films will not be entered into our competition.

We desperately need our own, republican film festival, where the work of our filmmakers can be evaluated on the basis of their professional specialties—scriptwriters, directors, cameramen, sound operators, composers, artistic directors, etc. The problem facing Kazakh cinema today is the drop in the level of professionalism in the production crews. A republican film festival will help to raise the professionalism of people working in cinema.

I am firmly convinced that Kazakh auteur cinema has no need of advertising; more precisely, no need for promotion through festivals in our own republic. Films by Narymbetov, Omirbaev, Aprymov, Ardak Amirkulov, and Amir Karakulov have been winning prestigious awards at film festivals abroad—on foreign soil—for more than a decade. The ambition of these filmmakers is to win at Cannes, Venice, Berlin, to receive an Oscar. It appears that the Eurasia Film Festival is needed more by our neighbors or at most by our own producers to set up business contacts. But setting up business contacts should be done by the producers themselves, by attending category-A international film festivals or any of the film markets where contracts are made, where screening rights are bought and sold. There is no point in organizing an international festival simply to have a cup of coffee with a famous producer or actor.

The initiators of the Eurasia-98 International Film Festival, directors and producers Slambek Tauekel and Igor' Vovnianko, proposed organizing a non-competition festival, a kind of “Festival of Festivals.” In such an arrangement, the commission selects award-winning films from other festivals, invites the filmmakers for a series of meetings, master-classes.

There is much to be gained from such a festival. Kazakh filmmakers and viewers would have the opportunity to see the best films of Europe, Asia, the CIS and the Baltic republics, films already honored at international film festivals of the highest category. Such a festival would not inflict any liabilities on the governmental budget. Box office receipts for the screening of these “Star” films during the course of the festival would partially reimburse the expenses of inviting the masters of world cinema. It would also be an excellent way to advance Kazakh cinema: the foreign guests and filmmakers would most certainly want to see some Kazakh films; our filmmakers and students would have the opportunity to learn the secrets of art from their idols at the master-classes. As filmmakers, we would be kept abreast of what is taking place in the filmmaking world throughout Eurasia. This would be a unique opportunity and I am convinced that filmmakers and viewers who love cinema would buy subscriptions in advance to be able to watch masterpieces of contemporary world cinema. Such a “Festival of Festivals” would become a genuine holiday for filmmaking, not an excuse for backbiting and ironic jokes about the distribution of prizes or the organization of the Eurasia-2005 Film Festival as part of the presidential elections.

Bauyrzhan Nogerbek (film scholar; Chairman of the Selection Committee, Second Eurasia International Film Festival)

Bauyrzhan Nogerbek© 2006

Updated: 27 Mar 06