KinoKultura: Issue 23 (2009)

New Voices and Old Images: Eurasia 2008

By Birgit Beumers (Bristol)

Astana is situated in the steppe near the northern border of Kazakhstan with Siberia. Historically, it was a settlement called Akmola. The city was renamed Tselinograd during the Soviet era—the capital of the tselina, the virgin lands cultivated under Brezhnev to increase harvests in a country constantly suffering from grain shortages. When Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991, the city was first renamed Akmola (which means: white tomb) and then became “capital”—astana, in the Kazakh language. The construction of one of the most modern administrative centers in the world began. The old center still bears the imprint of pre-Revolutionary and Soviet architecture, while the new center of government buildings and corporation headquarters is located on the left bank of the river Ishim that divides the city into two halves. Here, Lord Foster's “Pyramid”—the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, which served as venue for the opening and closing ceremonies of the festival—stands out as a landmark opposite the central Baiterek Tower, and is a striking example of contemporary architecture in a city planned personally by President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

The V Eurasia IFF took place in Astana from 7-13 September 2008. Previous editions of Eurasia IFF had been held in Almaty, and this edition migrated to mark the tenth anniversary of Astana as capital of Kazakhstan. However, at the end of the festival, the recently appointed Minister of Culture Kul-Mukhammed surprised the audience when he announced that the festival would from now on be held annually in the capital; thus, another aspect of cultural life has been appropriated by Astana (following the move of the opera and ballet. Yet a brief look at some figures speak a different language: Astana has five cinemas, of which three multiplexes, while Almaty can pride itself of 18 cinemas, including the Arman that forms part of the Europa Cinemas network. Moreover, the Minister announced that the festival would include films from Europe to Asia, thus reverting back to the old festival concept.

The festival concept had been changed this year, an announcement made only at the end of June. Previous editions had included an international competition with films from Asia and Europe (or dealing with themes related to Eurasia), and a second competition of Central Asian films (in 2007 this also included Turkic language films, from Turkey, Azerbaijan, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan). This year, the main competition consisted of ten films from the Central Asian republics of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (Turkmenistan declined participation shortly before the festival). There were two competitions: Central Asian features and Central Asian shorts. The juries consisted of people of international renown, such as the American producer Michael Fitzgerald, the Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel, the Uzbek filmmaker Shukhrat Abbasov, the Turkish filmmaker Huseyn Karabey, the Romanian filmmaker Nae Caranfil, the Georgian actor Nikoloz Tavadze and Kazakh-born director and producer Rashid Nugmanov (whose film The Needle of 1988 had initiated the “Kazakh New Wave”); the short film jury was headed by cultural historian Kirill Razlogov from Moscow, and included the popular Kyrgyz actor Gennadi Bazarov, the French critic and selector of the Vesoul festival Eugénie Zvonkine, as well as the Japan-based film critic Chris Fujiwara. There was also a NETPAC jury with three members: the Kyrgyz critic Gulbara Tolomushova, Singapore's IFF director Philip Chean, and the Sydney-based critic Russell Edwards.

The competition included ten features, largely from the major producers of the region, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Film production in Tajikistan is largely limited to video and digital media. In Kyrgyzstan, film production is vibrant. However, several Kyrgyz films were not selected for the competition: Marat Alykulov's Adek Akhlak had been screened in Rotterdam in January 2008; Tengri: Blue Heavens, a Kyrgyz-French co-production directed by Marie Jaoul de Poncheville, was included in the (two-film) sidebar “View from Outside”—films by foreign directors on the region; Erkin Ryspaev and Aktan Arym Kubat's Love has its own Heavens was screened in the Central Asian Premieres programme, because the film bears a distinct commercial mark because it is adapted from a television serial made under the supervision of the well-known art-house director Arym Kubat (better known as Abdykalykov, author of Beshkempir: The Adopted Son (1998), and Maimyl: The Chimp (2001). Kyrgyz films are financed both by the state-run film studio and by independent production companies, such as OyArt; special mention should be made of a series of ten short films produced with the help of a funding scheme of the Dutch Hivos Foundation in conjunction with the Manas Turkish University in Bishkek. In Uzbekistan, 90 per cent of released films are produced in the country, so that the majority of films produced in Uzbekistan caters for mass audiences and works within the paradigms of Bollywood cinema. Some films in the sidebar of Central Asian Premieres, which was—as the program informed—designed to showcase commercial cinema, were good examples of this Uzbek Bollywood, but this tendency also extended to some of the Uzbek competition films, which stood a world apart from the remainder of the competition. In Kazakhstan, the film industry is thriving, as is the economy and the infrastructure. With international projects such as The Nomad and Mongol, Kazakhstan put itself on the map of world cinema; Sasha Baron Cohen's Borat did more good than harm in adding to Kazakhstan placement on the map (even if Borat spoke neither Kazakh nor was the film shot there). Then followed international festival successes with Zhanna Issabaeva's Karoy in the “Orrizonti” program of Venice in 2007; Strizh by Abai Kulbai in the Rotterdam competition in 2008; and finally Sergei Dvortsevoi's Tulpan, winning the “Certain Regard” competition in Cannes this year. Moreover, Kazakhstan has just produced its first blockbuster film with Akhan Sataev's The Racketeer (Reketir, 2007), which grossed over $1 million at the national box office.

So, let us turn to the competition films. Kazakhstan was represented by four films. In the Town of A (V gorode A., Kazakhstan 2008, video) is an almanac film consisting of five short films by the young directors Galiya Eltai, Talgat Zhanybekov, Erlan Nurmukhambetov, Erzhan Rustembekov, and Nariman Turebaev. Some of the novellas are interesting as stories, but on the whole these rather talented directors did not try very hard, since they used this project as gap-filler while waiting for the financing of their own feature productions. This is certainly true for Nariman Turebaev, whose Little People (Malen'kie liudi) competed for the Golden Leopard in Locarno in 2003 and who has not launched his next film project. A different case is the first full-length film of Danyar Salamat, Together with the Father (Vmeste s otsom, Kazakhstan 2008, 35mm): Salamat had already made an impression with his medium-length film Zhoshe (2005); here he works with the well-known actor Bakhitzhan Alpeisov (from Satybaldy Narymbetov's Story of a Young Accordionist, 1994) who plays the father in this film about a father-son relationship: the father and his eight-year-old son live on their own after the mother left the family for another man, who beats her. The boy suffers from the separation and from the mother's disturbed new relationship, but has a strong bond with his father, with whom he shares both the hardship of life and the moments of joy. This is a well-made debut with interesting acting and an original script (also by Salamat), although towards the end the initial energy seemed to fizzle out rather than leading towards a proper ending.

Farewell Gulsary (Proshchai Gul'sary, Kazakhstan, 2008, 35mm), directed by Ardak Amirkulov, had long been in the making and now received a timely release at Montreal after the death in June this year of the Kyrgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov, on whose story about the life in Soviet Kirgizia under Stalin this film is based. Farewell Gulsary is conventional in its film-language, often reminding of Soviet films of the 1930s, as the director himself admitted in his introduction to the film. Through the horse Gulsary, the film tells of the martyrdom of Tanabai Bakasov, who is deprived of his horses and reduced to a simple shepherd during the 1930's de-kulakisation, thus highlighting the detrimental effects of Soviet rule on the traditional way of life of the Kyrgyz people that is destroyed forever—as is the horse Gulsary, which serves as a symbol for the Soviet devastation of central Asia. Thus, the film is an important historical and political statement told through a moving story.

Song of the Southern Seas (Pesn' iuzhnykh morei, Kazakhstan/Russia/France, 2008, 35mm) is the third film by Marat Sarulu and an ambitious, if not always successful, work that interweaves the legend of the seas—presented in cut-out animation—with the story of two neighbors, a Russian and a Kazakh family. When a dark-skinned child is born to Ivan and Maria (symbolically, John and Mary, i.e. Russians of Christian faith), Ivan searches his ancestors after his 15-year-old son is caught stealing horses. Ivan's grandfather tells of the marriage of his great-grandfather to a to Kazakh woman, whose family was almost annihilated when the people were suspected of a revolt against the tsar in 19 th- century Russia, thus removing the accusation of betrayal from Maria. At the end of the film a white son is born to the Kazakh family. The film thus attempts to embrace all ethnic groups and underline their belonging together, including also a family of Volga-Germans who emirate, whilst taking with them a small sack of their native—Kazakh—soil. The film interweaves different stories in a non-chronological manner, but is often muddled, since the director seems occasionally uncertain about the montage of different times and scenes. Yet this is no doubt the most interesting film from the point of view of the filmmaker's desire to use to the full the potential of cinema—acting, montage, editing, landscape shots, animation and visual metaphors.

Amongst the Kazakh short films, “113th!” should be singled out. The 55-minute-long (short!) film observes an inmate of a cell in a psychiatric clinic. The actor-director-scriptwriter Talgat Bektursunov—a fourth-year student at the Zhurgenov Academy—has this inmate of cell 113 interact with and play for the surveillance camera installed in his cell: he knows he is being watched by a supervisor, with whom he tries to engage, although he never sees the man.

Whilst awaiting its premiere at the Pusan IFF as opening film of the festival, The Gift to Stalin (Podarok Stalinu) by Rustem Abdrashev would no doubt have been a great addition to the festival programme. A special event was the screening of Satybaldy Narymbetov's national film project Mustafa Shokai. The film may have been promoted as a “national film” and financed by the state, but this does not mean that the ideological side of the sotry takes the upper hand over the artistic side, which clearly dominates here as it dos in other films of Narymbetov (for example Leila's Prayer (Molitva Leily), in which he addressed the nuclear experiments in Kazakhstan's polygon). Shokai is a biopic about the founder of Turkestan, whose government was in place for 62 days before the Bolsheviks toppled this union of Central Asian states (based on the idea of the Turan) and Shokai fled via Georgia and Istanbul to Paris, where he published the journal “Yash Turkestan” until the Nazi invasion. The Nazis draw on him to recruit soldiers among the Soviet POWs from Central Asia and form legions that—following the insistence of Shokai—were deployed only in non-belligerent regions and not dispatched to the front. He thus saved hundreds of thousands of POWs from death, before he died in a Berlin hospital in 1941. The part of Shokai is subtly and convincingly portrayed by Aziz Beishenaliev, an Uzbek actor who lives and works in Moscow.

The Route of Hope (Neizvestnyi marshrut, Kyrgyzstan, 2008, video) is the debut film of Temur Birnazarov, an established Kyrgyz theatre director, whose experience in working with actors shows particularly in this film, which is set in a bus that has lost direction—and as such it is almost a sequel to Bus Stop (Beket, 1995), a short film by Ernest Abdyzhaparov and Aktan Abdykalykov. A crowd of people is quibbling on the bus about behavior and manners, money and life, when the bus loses track—and unnoticed passes a barrier into military territory, accidentally hooks up a gun-carrier, until the bus driver abandons the vehicle in an argument over fares and takes with him seat—leaving his replacement to mount a saddle which forms a makeshift “drivers' seat”. Finding together and understanding is the message of this witty and clever film, highlighting the loss of direction as people try to find their way home as a metaphor for the lack of national identity. The themes of betrayal of religion, of corruption and bribery, of negligence of the military patrol, of theft and repentance, are all touched upon; the only person who does not engage in the arguments is a young student called Umut—meaning hope—, who puts bus back on track and leads people back to life and home.

Marie de Poncheville's Tengri: Blue Heavens is a love story (loosely based on Aitmatov's “Djamilia”) of a married woman who is beaten by husband and escapes with her lover; they are persecuted by the village elders. The film shows the harshness of the traditions of the Kyrgyz people who still adhere to old rituals and live in yurts in the mountains. Even if the film romanticises – people now have jeeps rather than hoses, plastic tents rather than yurts—the film tells a powerful and universal story: of a man who runs away with a woman he loves but who is not his, and this flight leads to isolation—whether we read the final image of the film as escape into another country or into the other world (they find death in the snow) is left to the viewer: important is that a change in the traditions is impossible in the here-and-now. Such a stance is also found in other recent Kyrgyz films, such as Nurbek Egen's Wedding Chest (Sunduk predkov, 2007), exploring the culture clash arising from the arrival of a French bride in her husband's Kyrgyz aul, but also in Ernest Abdyzhaparov's Pure Coolness (Boz Salkyn, 2007), where a girl is mistakenly abducted on a trip to her boyfriend's village, but stays with the shepherd she is wedded to.

Among the Kyrgyz short films Temur Birnazarov's “Duty” is noteworthy: it is made in a completely different style to Birnazarov's feature Route to Hope, relying exclusively on images and rejecting words altogether for the story of a son who returns from prison and has to bury his father. In order to comply with the traditions, he steals a horse and slaughters it for the funeral wake, but he is arrested for theft, and returns to prison. The performance of the enigmatic Akzhol Bekbolotov is a fine one. His own film “Everything is OK” (also in Rotterdam) is a social advertising film about homeless children, about a boy who runs away from home when his mother dies and befriends a homeless boy he meets on cemetery. On the whole, the short films—especially from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan—were the most promising section of the festival, with experimental and innovative work.

The Uzbek films were rather conventional in style and clearly aimed at catering for the national cinema audiences. There is very little experimentation, and genres are predominantly comedies or melodramas. A certain degree of staleness can also be detected in Tajik cinema, where plots remain informed by legends and rituals, choosing “exoticism” in lieu of an idiosyncratic approach to film-making. Overall, the level of films this year was a little below the average of previous years.

From Uzbekistan the four films included in competition were The Other (Uzbekistan, 2008) by Ayub Shakhobiddinov, who had delivered a fine debut with The Yurt last year. Although this film was scripted by the talented Yolkin Tuichev (Chashma—The Spring, shown in Moscow IFF in 2007), this film had a more commercial twist with its melodrama about a poor boy who falls in love with a rich girl, but whose love is reciprocated—even though a happy ending is impossible. Veteran filmmaker Khatam Faiziev delivered a professionally made but rather dull film with Small People (Uzbekistan 2007), joining three stories without bringing them together stylistically or thematically. Sevginator (Uzbekistan, 2008), a debut by Abduvokhid Ganiev, was the most original of the four films, with a story about a technician who creates his ideal woman—a robot. Boivacha (Uzbekistan, 2007) by Zhakhongir Pazildzhonov is also a debut, one that made the press literally run away, although it may well work for the Uzbek masses. Finally, Love to Live (Tajikistan, 2007, video) by Yunus Yusupov is a decent film about a man who flees from prison and hides in a hunter's hut, ultimately killing the hunter, who turns out to be his father. The story of parricide is set in the snowy mountains, but this exotic setting does not detract from the lack of acting skills of the two main performers.

The danger of excessive commercialisation for filmmakers is particularly great in the region, as is evident from the film by Shakhobiddinov, or indeed Hurly Burly (Aurelen) by production designer Sabit Kurmanbekov, but also of Arym Kubat, who here worked temporarily for television in order to generate money for his next feature. This increasing commercialisation, which is not sufficiently offset by state subsidies and independent production (especially in countries with a less stable infrastructure than Kazakhstan) is a negative influence on the experimental and innovative work of the talents from the region, which may well be counter-acted by the expansion of festivals in the region that provide a platform for more experimental work. In that sense, it is desirable for Eurasia to continue the promotion of regional cinema, preferably in the cinematic center with the legendary film studio where Eisenstein worked during the war: Almaty.

Birgit Beumers
University of Bristol


AWARDS V Eurasia 2008

Young Critics' Jury:

Audience Award

The Racketeer (dir. Akhan Sataev)

NETPAC

Together with the Father, dir. Danyar Salamat (Kazakhstan, debut)

Short Competition

Grand Prix: “113th” by Talgat Bektursunov (Kazakhstan)
Best Director: “Bakhytzhamal” by Adilzhan Erzhanov (Kazakhstan)
Special Diploma: “Duty” (Paryz), by Temir Birnazarov (Kyrgyzstan) and “The Bridge” by Tyunai Ibragimov (Kazakhstan)

Main Competition

Birgit Beumers© 2009

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Updated: 08 Jan 09