Three Generations of Kazakh Cinematographers: Action — Reaction — Change of Reality

By Inna Smailova (Almaty)

At present, Kazakh cinema is feeling cramped within the framework of cinematic rules elaborated over the decades. What was cutting-edge in cinema twenty years ago now has become traditional, and today the generation that launched the Kazakh New Wave works in parallel with directors of the next era. Each new generation of Kazakh directors prepares its own codex of cinematic rules and offers a new point of view on the conflict between space and protagonists as it maneuvers between eastern classics and western demands. A new trend in filmmaking is now emerging: private studios have begun to make feature films. The process of shooting films without state financing has not yet been worked out completely. Nevertheless, every year brings new results: at first there were short films, now there are full-length features; at first films were made on video, now they are also made on 35mm. The current situation for cinema is unprecedented because different levels of filmmaking and different generations of filmmakers are colliding.

The majority of filmmakers who shoot their films at the country's main studio, Kazakhfilm, are directors of the venerated generation of the Kazakh New Wave of the 1980s. Amongst these, the most interesting films released in 2006 were Damir Manabai's Revenge (Kek, 2006), Amanzhol Aituarov's The Steppe Express (Stepnoi ekspress, 2005), and Bolat Sharip's The Holy Sin (Sviatoi grekh, 2006). This year's hits are Darezhan Omirbaev's Shuga and the soon to be released complex historical project by Satybaldy Narymbetov, Mustafa Shokai. In 2007, Ardak Amirkulov's screen version of Chingiz Aitmatov's Farewell, Gulsary! will also have its premiere. All of these directors are part of the golden age of Kazakh cinema of the end of the last century, the watershed period when a whole galaxy of young Kazakh filmmakers showed their own interpretations of the concept of “the times.” This new cinema surprised not only Kazakhs, but all of post-Soviet space with a different reality and a different kind of protagonist. Independence from the Soviet Union appeared as something black-and-white, with destroyed houses, unemployment, lack of money, and fear. The protagonist of the New Wave directors was no fighter against injustice; he virtually lacked any conflict. Due to historical circumstances, he had to enter into a relationship with a heartless reality, but he was incapable of fighting or resisting. Reality in that period was gradually transformed into a punitive machine of the times, which dealt mercilessly with its victims: protagonists either perished or had to abandon that reality in their powerlessness.

After more than two decades of independence, however, Kazakhstan not only has not disappeared, but it has even stabilized. What do filmmakers of this new generation suggest today and what slice of time do they represent in their films? Here we can trace two gradations: mutability and immutability.

In the category of mutability, the auteur cinema of the 1980s, made locally and with small-budgets, has been transformed by current developments into rather complex, staged films, into which substantial funds are invested. Moreover, they are no longer purely auteur films. Every film of this generation is either a screen adaptation of a literary work, or a script based on literary themes, or written by another scriptwriter. I do not mean to denigrate the role of literature in cinema, but am disheartened by the fact that the generation, which for the first time in Kazakh national cinema announced itself as directors who created their own history and reality, has chosen to undertake adaptations of literary plots as a fundamental principle for our time.

Immutability retains the source of conflict: the primary victim (the main hero) in the end is killed by the space of reality in the guise of the fate of time. In films such as Revenge or The Holy Sin, historical time remains immutable. As a result, the relationship of the present to the protagonist and his functions remains unclear. By contrast, in The Steppe Express and Shuga, Russian classics are transported to our time and space, and the protagonists are mouthpieces for today's realities. And here it emerges that reality, despite the appearance of color in the films, fulfills the same task of punishment and the protagonist is once again the victim. Admittedly, the emphasis has changed a little: a person's free will—his right to make his own decisions—is punished. The escalator carries the beautiful Shuga—a modern day Anna Karenina—downwards; her feelings are confused and, near the bridge, the train already awaits her jump. At the same time, that same escalator carries upwards other, minor characters that are well adapted to the new patriotic requirements of the time. In The Steppe Express , the young heroine abandons her country because of her love for a Frenchman and her country does not forgive her. Her father pays for his daughter's free “choice,” and in the end the daughter becomes a social outcast in her own land. In these films, the luxurious new time preaches moral values that mercilessly confront the heroines in bright colors. Another interesting moment is the shift of emphasis to the heroine: she, not the hero, is the main suffering figure in the film. But, unlike their passive, male counterparts of the last century, contemporary women on the screen freely express their desires and enter into a conflict with “norms,” defending their choice. Yet the given of a hero-victim who is killed by time is immutable.

The new generation of active filmmakers has only begun to mark out its space in Kazakh cinema. The first film in this cohort was Nariman Turebaiev's Little People (Malen'kie liudi, 2003); a little later came Rustem Abdrashev's Renaissance Island (Ostrov vozrozhdeniia, 2004); and then Gul'shad Omarova's Shizo (Shiza, 2004) , where for the first time the future can be felt in the hero: he leaves prison. Not only does he leave, but he is met outside with hope: the light and the smile on the face of the limping h eroine, holding a bunch of flowers in her hands. Omarova is now shooting The Shaman (Baksy), where the main plotline retains the romanticism of her debut film, but is refracted in the cruelty of the criminal present.

This year has forced us to focus more intensely on the work of the new generation in cinema. Three films have appeared from Kazakhfilm: Rustem Abdrashev's The Patchwork Quilt (Kurak Korpe), Serikbol Utenbergenov's Umarasa, and Abai Kulbai's Strizh, with the last two being made at the Debut Studio. The most significant of these three films—not only in the rankings of this generation, but also because it marks a watershed in the development of Kazakh cinema—is Strizh. The film's fine dynamics; the motivations, with precise emotional dramaturgic confrontations; the sharp focus on the crucial moments of action; and, of course, the new approach to the treatment of the conflict between space and the protagonist—all these features make the viewer fall in love with this story. Once again, there is a heroine—a teenager—who is symptomatic of her time. In the course of the story, the director ceases to be an observer (although Kulbai's short films strayed into this existential position); he immediately thrusts his heroine into the thicket of events. The world and the times are against her, but she is ready to strike a blow, to struggle, to fight with this world that does not let her in. Unlike the heroine of Shiza , she does not abide by grown-up laws from the outset, and if she makes any mistakes, then she does so deliberately, of her own choice, and in accordance with her own “truth.” Prickly and energetic, open and sincere, the heroine simply conquers the viewer with her emotional behavior and desire to tame this unloving reality, embodied by her family, school, and friends. Only a strange string of coincidences in the finale defeats her. The film remains open-ended, but it is not important whether she is resuscitated or not; the fact remains that the heroine is capable of struggling with reality and—most importantly (and what is missing from the works of the senior generation)—she accepts this reality. Reality in the film is not something fated by time. Instead, it is brought back to earth, to the level of old morality and social injustice, which, unlike the reality of the 1980s, is sated, pragmatic, and quite flexible, and in which the callow teenager searches for a place.

The same conflict between a young, active protagonist and a pragmatic reality informs another recent film: The Racketeer (Reketir, 2007) by the young director Akhan Sataev, made at the private studio Sataifilm. The hero, Saian, with a promising boxing career in the 1990s, chooses a criminal path. He flaunts the times, forcing reality itself to change—from the morality of Soviet sports into a criminal gang—and he simply has to “box” until his power is all spent. Although the film's release was obviously rushed a bit, its value lies in its different and “youthful” point of view on reality and its protagonist.

In the hands of the new generation of directors, reality ceases to be a Sword of Damocles; it is reduced to social relationships and to a morality that is somewhat unconventional for the cinema of our past: it seem “wrong.” The new protagonists dictate their will more forcefully than their predecessors did.

Apart from these full-length feature films by directors of the new millennium, some short films have been produced in private studios: Maksim Anapianov's The Thin Boy and the Mushroom-Avengers from Mars (Mal'chik s pal'chik i Griby-mstiteli s Marsa, 2006; the Producer Center Sinematika Studio); Galina Zherdetskaia's Another's Life (Chuzhaia zhizn', 2006; the Producer Center Altera Pars); Kaldygul' Zhanybaeva's The Only One (Zhanym Sadaga, 2007; the independent film company Asu Pictures); and Timur Musin's Eclipse (Zatmenie, 2007; Publicity Studio). All of these films are unusual, with the protagonists not only taking independent steps, but also proving their correctness.

Yet another factor has to be taken into account: the imminent arrival in cinema of an absolutely young generation of directors, today in their twenties, who are still studying film direction. This year, the Didar festival of student films, as well as the program “Kazakh Cinema of a New Generation” at the IV Eurasia International Film Festival, screened promising and professional shorts. This absolutely new generation, it is interesting to note, is also showing us a different kind of cinema. The protagonists of their films find their own reality. This is the case with Talgat Bektursunov's 113th, in which the hero, released from his fetters, encounters the new reality and quickly adapts to its colorful and stylish aspects. The film protagonists of this generation build their own reality out of their own truths and untruths; with only the strength of their willpower, they force time to retreat and others to believe that “Bakhytzhamal” (of the film of the same title [translator's note]) will come all the same.

And so, today's Kazakh filmmakers, suspended between “eastern morals and western decadence,” are preparing a new hero with a heart-beat, confronting the problems of the new reality. What is important at this juncture is not which of these generations of directors will be victorious, but the fact that this dispute is producing sincere films that reflect the change of the times. The present and the future, like a hurricane that spares only the sturdiest, are focused on the finest talents as the backbone of Kazakh cinema.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Inna Smailova
Almaty, Kazakhstan

Inna Smailova© 2008

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Updated: 20 Jan 08