Eurasia 2006: An International Festival?

By Birgit Beumers (Bristol) and Michael Rouland (Miami U)

This year’s Eurasia festival presented two competitions: a minor, Central Asian competition, and a “big,” international competition. This led to some arbitrary decisions in the selection of films for one or the other competition and to some confusion regarding the status of both programs, which we have reflected in the divide between international and regional aspects for this festival report, where Michael Rouland writes on the Central Asian aspect while I focus on the international side.

The International Film Festival Eurasia III, now equipped with a fully-fledged website (albeit only slowly and partly updated with information pertaining to the 2006 program), presented itself from the outset in a much more professional format than last year’s, which came eight years after the first Eurasia Festival in 1998. The experience that the organizers had acquired last year led to numerous improvements, such as timely starts of screenings, professional projection facilities, and an up-to-date screening schedule, alongside a press center equipped with computers and headed by a press manager, and a hall designated for press conferences, professional preparation of press releases, and the availability of visual materials and press kits. This is particularly admirable considering that the festival’s budget was released as late as June, since Kazakhstan’s new policy of allocating grants by competition (the so-called “tender”) led to a delay in the confirmation of Kazakhfilm as festival organizer. This left very little time to invite stars, directors, and films, and it is a genuine feat of the festival organizers to have brought together two complete competition programs in such a short time. However, the “veterans” of the Eurasia film festival also noticed the same small hitches that were already present at the very first edition: hospitality outstrips concern with everyday practicalities and organizational wonders have to be discovered: I stumbled into the press center by sheer coincidence as it was barely sign-posted, but once there I found a wealth of information and very helpful staff…

As has become custom now, Eurasia organized a round table with film critics, which was interesting but a little repetitive when held two years running and preceded by a trial run at the KinoForum, which was held in Moscow in April this year (see Zvonkine in KinoKultura 13). A new and, in my view very promising, feature of the program was the “project presentation” that extended over two days, where young directors and producers from the region were given an opportunity to present their new film projects. The high level of professionalism in some of these presentations was stunning, whilst it was a great pity that only few producers were present at these events an, indeed, at the festival—as opposed to last year, when a delegation of Hollywood producers came at the president’s invitation to visit Astana and Kazakhfilm in a promotional campaign for The Nomad (Sergei Bodrov, Ivan Passer, and Talgat Temenov, 2005). It would have been nice to see the two sides, producers and filmmakers, benefit more from each other’s skills and expertise.

The appearances of stars was more low-key this year than in 2005: Eric Roberts joined the American blockbuster star Steven Seagal, recently featuring in such films as Shadow Men (Michael Keusch, 2006) and Black Dawn (Alexander Gruszynski, 2005)—but they are much lesser known than last year’s guests, who included Ornella Muti, Michele Placido, Catherine Deneuve, and Jean-Claude van Damme. Austrian super-star Klaus Maria Brandauer, supposed to be in the jury, cancelled his visit, as did Gerard Depardieu. For the European guests, however, there was a surprise in store with the presence of a genuine legend of cinema: the director Volker Schloendorff was embarking on his next film, Ulzhan, starring the now 40-year old David Bennent of The Tin Drum as a shaman and the lead actress Ayanat Esmagambetova from The Nomad alongside other Kazakh, German, and French actors.

The international competition was formed in less than two months and included among its seventeen competition titles three Central Asian films, by far not the best when set against those films in the Central Asian competition. The Homeland (Rodina, 2006) by Zulfikar Musakov, Uzbekistan’s best-known director, was screened in competition, while Yolqin To'ychiyev’s The Spring (Chashma, 2006), which had been shown in Moscow’s International Festival program and received an award there (see Khokhriakova in KinoKultura 14) was relegated to the Central Asian competition. The Homeland deals with Musakov’s trademark themes of an Uzbek’s return from a foreign land to his native Uzbekistan: the old man has returned to take revenge on a man who he believes has mangled his life—only to find that the latter is conscious-stricken and plagued by guilt himself. Musakov’s is a traditional and narrative-driven film, thus justly included in the man competition when considering the more experimental nature of To'ychiyev’s film.

This principle does not, however, apply to The Paradise Birds (Raiskie ptitsy; Kyrgyzstan, 2006) by Talgat Asyrankulov and Gaziz Nasyrov, which is an experimental and puzzling film with a vague and sketchy plot-line. However, while it was entered the main competition, Nurbek Egen’s The Wedding Chest (Sunduk predkov; Kyrgyzstan, France, and Russia, 2005)— see reviews by Rouland and Tolomushova in KinoKultura 14—was demoted to the Central Asian competition despite the fact that several weeks later Kyrgyzstan would choose this film to represent the country—for the first time in history—as its nomination for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Furthermore, it is unprofessional to include into competition a film co-directed by one of the selectors, specifically, Gaziz Nasyrov who served on Eurasia’s selection committee.

The most unfortunate choice, however, was Kazakhstan’s entry into the competition—a choice clearly driven by Kazakhfilm’s own involvement in the production of Damir Manabai’s, Revenge (Kek, 2006). The inclusion of Manabai, a classic of Kazakh cinema, thus brushed aside such talented works by young filmmakers as Zhanabek Zheteruov’s Notes of a Railway Inspector (Zapiski putevogo obkhodchika, 2006) or Amanzhol Aituarov and Satybaldy Narymbetov’s Steppe Express (Stepnoi ekspress, 2005). A little more diplomacy and boldness would be required to ensure that the program does not come across as contrived when selecting national or regional entries. This sense of contrivance was strengthened by the choice of Russian veteran director Petr Todorovskii as chairman of the international jury—unlike the Greek Theo Angelopoulos presiding over the 2005 competition; this was “one of ours,” a man who would understand political and artistic concerns. However, it has to be said in the selection committee’s defense, that the audiences—who had free entry to all competition screenings in the “Palace of the Republic”—clearly showed more interest in and support of national/regional films than of some of the widely-acknowledged international; titles.

Despite these critical remarks, the film selection presented a clearer concept than previous years, focusing largely on films from the Eurasian region or dealing with themes of Europe-Asia. The program included, apart from the three films mentioned above, Djamshed Usmonov’s To Get to Heaven First you Have to Die (Tajikistan and France, 2006), presented in Cannes in the Un Certain Regard program; the Russian titles It Doesn’t Hurt (Mne ne bol’no; dir. Aleksei Balabanov, 2006; ) and Alive (Zhivoi; dir. Aleksandr Veledinskii, 2006), both of which have thematically very little to do with Central Asia; the Hungarian White Palms (Szabolcs Hajdu, 2006) and the Bulgarian film Monkeys in Winter (Milena Andonova, 2006), Aku Louhimies’s Frozen City (Finland, 2006), the Swiss-German Eden by Michael Hoffmann (2006), the Georgian émigré Gela Babluani’s Tzameti –13 (2005), Kim Ki Duk’s The Bow (South Korea and Japan, 2005), as well as two Iranian, a Japanese, and a Chinese title. Most of these films concerned the theme of man searching for his place in life while internal and external constraints prevent this. In this sense, It Doesn’t Hurt fits into the agenda with its story of a sick woman who seeks personal fulfillment in the last months of her life, as does Alive, with its theme of the traumatized soldier unable to cope with the present. A concern with people’s inability to cope with life outside an enclosed space governed by man-made laws informs the Korean master Kim Ki-Duk’s The Bow, set on a boat where an old man holds a young girl prisoner and awaits her maturity to make her his wife. White Palms is the story of the coach Uldi, who tries to break free from the traumas of his own past sporting career; and Frozen City explores the dilemma of a taxi driver trapped in financial and personal unhappiness, determined to failure—just like Kaurismaki’s characters.

The geographical profile of the competition selection focused, thus, on Asia and central Europe as well as the Middle East. Thematically, however, films such as Aleksandr Rogozhkin’s Transit (Peregon, 2006) with its East-West theme, or Valeri Rubinchik’s Nankin Landscape (Nankinskii peisazh, 2006), Konstantin Lopushanskii’s The Ugly Swans (Gadkie lebedi, 2006), or Elena Khazizova’s Free Translation (Vol'nyj perevod, 2006)—with its Russian-Swiss migration theme—would have made better, more suitable choices for the competition as Russian entries. But given the time constraints, it is surprising how coherent a program the organizers managed to form. It remains to be seen whether Kazakhstan’s government will make the festival permanent, exempt it from the tender-policy, and enable a strong team to realize its full potential.

Birgit Beumers, University of Bristol

In the Central Asian competition, the festival organizers created a significant venue to explore recent offerings in regional cinema. This focus on Central Asian films was in many ways a key to the success of the festival as a whole. The region has been undergoing a film renaissance since state governments recently decided to engage film as another means of illustrating their cultural and national visions. It was also a nice way for local audiences to see how regional films compare to art house cinema across Europe and Asia.

The Central Asian competition included eleven films and demonstrated an impressive diversity. The festival organizers clearly wanted to include a geographic balance of Central Asian films (although slightly favoring Kazakhstan), in addition to one film from Azerbaijan. The former Soviet influence was clear, as discussed above, and a more meaningful Central Eurasian concept could have been realized with the inclusion of films from a wider region, such as Mongolia, Afghanistan, and Tibet.

The first film of the competition, Zhanabek Zhetiruov’s Notes of a Railway Inspector (Zapiski putevogo obkhodchika; Kazakhstan, 2006) set a positive tone and eventually earned the competition’s highest award. It was the director’s first feature film effort after completing several documentaries about Kazakhstan’s trains. By the end of the film, one could feel Zhetiruov’s love for trains and the life alongside them. The audience, unfortunately, did not always share this sentiment. At times his film lacked subtlety and resorted to clichés, but it was an honest film with a stark visual realism. This film also gathered the largest audience of the competition. The attendance of many of the actors and their families clearly helped in this regard. As we would soon realize, the small corps of foreign guests and the competition jury often comprised the majority of the audience in the small theater in the Cinema House.

The following three films should probably not have been included in the festival at all. Gulandom Muhabbatova and Daler Rakhmatov’s The Wanderer (Ovara; Tajikistan, 2005) was little more than a coarse, low-budget television melodrama. Despite its overwhelming popularity on Tajik television, the film was shot in digital with an awkward home video style. It presented a story about a boy’s circumcision using weak actors and a deficient cinematic eye. Aikhan Chataeva’s Night Blues (Nochnoi bliuz; Kazakhstan, 2005) followed with another digital melodrama. On a certain level, Chataeva provided a visually interesting exploration of the texture of Almaty’s nouveau riche, but the rather weak acting and poor dialogue ultimately undermined the film. Bolat Sharip’s Holy Sin (Sviatoi grekh; Kazakhstan, 2005), by comparison, exemplified a bombastic return to patrimonialism. While the cinematography (of the regional star, Boris Troshev) rendered beautiful color and a rich visual palette, the misogyny of the film was at times too painful to witness and seemed a poor use of Kazakhfilm’s limited 35mm film stock.

The next three films were effective but not exceptional, reflecting the diversity of visual and narrative styles. Elya Gilman’s Gust of Wind (Poryv vetra; Kazakhstan, 2005), another Betacam film, related an appealing story of the interplay of Almaty’s poor and wealthy, rural and urban. Gilman exploited a blend of camera angles and a creative use of space to construct a film that was realistic and vibrant. In Calendar of Expectation (Kalendar' ozhidaniia; Tajikistan, 2005), Safarbek Soliyev implemented a DVcam in his first feature film to examine the return to normal life in a small community in the Tajik mountains after the turmoil of the Soviet collapse and the Tajik civil war. While both films displayed a good deal of humor, Soliyev demonstrated a particularly good sense of Soviet and post-Soviet kitsch with the overlay of mafia and Lenin posters. Directing films since the 1970s and winning the best director award in the Central Asian competition, Kamara Kamalova developed a folkloric story of Uzbek village life in Road under the Skies (Doroga pod nebesami; Uzbekistan, 2006). Visually reminiscent of Sergei Parajanov, her film utilized bright color, rich filmic metaphors, a non-linear plot, and an interweaving of dreams and reality to examine the boundaries of tradition and of love. Notably, this was one of the few films that successfully integrated its musical score within the film.

The last three films were in my mind the most rewarding in the competition. Yolqin To'ychiyev’s The Spring (Chashma; Uzbekistan, 2006; <LINK>) considers the complex interactions of modern life and traditions in an Uzbek village as a woman prepares for her wedding day. The film related a sympathetic view of his heroine’s reservations as she negotiates her past and family dysfunction to embark on marriage. The Spring employs an aesthetic style that reflects an awareness of world cinema, yet a consciousness that this an Uzbek film with a particular story to tell. The contingent of film critics rated it their best film. Amanzhol Aituarov and Satybaldy Narymbetov’s Steppe Express (Stepnoi ekspress; Kazakhstan, 2005) explored the concept of cultural clashes by inverting the orientalist narrative and by turning a French tourist into the exotic and erotic object of desire. The film largely engaged the idea of the loss of culture when an unmarried Kazakh daughter leaves for France in search of an idealized Europe. She eventually returns home with her son, only after the death of her father, their bond never established as the young boy is disoriented by rural Kazakh life. The acting is strong—Tulegen Kuanyshov won the award for best actor in the competition through his role as the father—and it is a well produced, entirely a Kazakhfilm endeavor. Nurbek Egen’s The Wedding Chest (Sunduk predkov; Kyrgyzstan, Russia, France, and Germany, 2005; see reviews by Rouland and Tolomushova in KinoKultura 14), a film that has already gained international regard, engages similar questions of Central Asia’s engagement of Europe without Russia, in this case France. Here, Egen relates the story of a Kyrgyz man and his French fiancée returning to his native village. His inability to announce his true intentions of marrying a foreigner is ultimately overcome by her will to make herself part of their community. The film concludes with a beautiful shot of Paris where we see that Kyrgyz tradition remains alive and well abroad.

Despite the ambitious scope of the weeklong event, there was an unfortunate lack of coherence in the film festival as a whole. As with this review, the International and Central Asian competitions were quite distinct events. While I was overwhelmed and impressed by the films on offer, it quickly became clear that the festival suffered from both a conceptual problem as well as organizational oversights. The premise of the festival and the Eurasia concept used here were designed to provide a cultural bridge between “east” and “west.” In some places this was quite successful and effective; The Wedding Chest and Steppe Express appear to test these dichotomies from Central Asia. East Asian films have long explored and undermined the depictions of exotic “east” and civilized “west.” When we witness international cinema, we observe a borrowing and blending of styles; and the international competition demonstrated an effort to underline these tendencies in the context of Eurasian cinema. The film triptych, Talk to Her (South Korea, 2006), sponsored by the Jeonju International Film Festival and screened in the venue of the Central Asian competition, brought together digital shorts by Eric Khoo, Darezhan Omirbaev, and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang. These films underscored an interpretation of the world that undermines the simple east-west dichotomy. At the same time, the benefit of the festival was an opportunity to enjoy world cinema and to learn from the new generation of influential filmmakers while potentially meeting those involved in the filmmaking process and engaging Central Asia in the world film movement more deeply than the few auteur cineastes that tour the world.

The Eurasia concept breaks down when we examine the place of Central Asian film in the competition. Despite claims to the contrary, Central Asia is sinking more deeply into images of nationalism. The recent success of The Nomad (Kazakhstan, Russia, and USA, 2005; reviewed by Abikeyeva), and its impending worldwide distribution by the Weinstein Brothers, reflects a more insidious problem in Central Asian film studios. Long neglected by state funding agencies since independence, the power of cinema (and its propaganda value esteemed by their Soviet mentors) has been recently rediscovered. Filmmakers of the Kazakh and Turkmen “New Waves” of the 1960s and 1970s have withdrawn from film production to appear only as guests of the festival. Where is the cinematic auteur? And what effects will the state have on the younger generation of filmmakers from the region? As an observer of the influence of music in Central Asian identity, it is surprising how quickly the new generation has lost its musical ear. Music had long been the marker of national consciousness in the 20th century, and it remains to be seen how it will serve in the future.

Despite the international reputation of films included in the Central Asian competition, organizers decided to relegate this segment of the festival to a secondary screening location. This was emblematic of a regional cinema still suffering from post-independence growing pains and complemented the past funding challenges and the lack of local interest. The festival seemed perfectly placed to address these shortcomings and it could have created a much more coherent and provocative restructuring to begin to address these challenges. Deeper linkages between the Abdulla Karsakbaev, Samira Makhmalbaf, and Volker Schloendorff retrospectives, the Central Asian festival, the international festival, and the screenings of other out-of-competition films would have provided a more interesting engagement of the Eurasia concept while also serving to provide audiences with more than the typical foreign fare. Reconfiguring the screening locations in a more significant way could have served to alleviate the dismal audience sizes outside the international competition. If Almaty audiences cannot fill the nine theaters provided for the festival, given that the films were shown at no cost, then there is a serious problem that needs to be considered. According to friends in Almaty, active members of the city’s cultural life, there was little knowledge of the festival despite its oblique and repetitive images on the evening news.

Beyond the hierarchies of screenings, this was a festival of multiple worlds even for the participants and audiences. The two juries, the film dignitaries from VGIK, the young audiences from KIMEP (the business school across from the Palace of the Republic), self-assured studio and government officials, the Hollywood has-been, and foreign critics created a bizarre amalgamation that was lost under the rubric of Eurasia. Space was certainly a concern: the primary screening venue was located in the Palace of the Republic, while other activities of the festival were relegated to theaters across the city center. As this is a film festival with grand aspirations, typical of most Kazakh international projects, English and Russian-language subtitles should be included for the international film competition. The fact that Gerard Carbiau, the Belgian director, needed French translation as well seemed a serious oversight for a member of the jury. At the same time, if the festival prefers to preserve itself for the Russophone world, then Russian subtitles would suffice. This choice must be made eventually, since the hedging between the two simply leads to confusion.

In spite of these shortcomings and the political realities of Almaty life, Gulnara Abikeyeva, the artistic director of the festival, pulled together a fantastic event that should only expand in the future. There is evidently a great deal of interest by local government officials, and they should capitalize on Almaty’s beautiful location, its rapid urban revitalization, and the growing interest in Central Asia’s film history. This coming year, with the worldwide release of The Nomad, we will have a better sense of the future of Central Asian cinema and its international reception.

Michael Rouland, Miami University, Ohio


International Competition
Grand-Prix: Eden, Michael Hoffmann, Germany/Switzerland
Best Director: Zhang Yuan (Little Red Flowers, China)
Best Actor: Masato Ibu (Sway, Japan).
Best Actress: Ladan Mostofi (Goodbye, Life, Iran).
Special Jury Prize (Best Debut): Gela Babluani, 13 – Tzameti, France
Special Jury Prize “for keeping traditions in Kazakhstan cinematography”: Damir Manabai (Revenge [Kek], Kazakhstan).
Audience Award: Bonka Ilieva-Boni (Monkeys in Winter, Bulgaria).

Central Asian Competition
Grand Prix: Notes of a Railway Inspector (Zhanabek Zheteruov, Kazakhstan)
Best Director: Kamara Kamalova (The Road under the Skies, Uzbekistan)
Best Actress: Fatima Gulyamova (The Wanderer , Tadjikistan).
Best Actor: Tulegen Kuanishov (Steppe Express, Kazakhstan).
Special Jury Prize: Nurbek Egen (The Wedding Chest, Kyrgyzstan).
Special Jury Prize: Gulandom Mahabatova (The Wanderer, Tadjikistan)

Special Festival Prize:
Asanali Ashimov (Kazakhstan)

Birgit Beumers, Michael Rouland© 2007

Updated: 07 Jan 07