KinoKultura: Issue 27 (2010)

Waves, Old and New, in Kazakh Cinema

By Birgit Beumers (Bristol)

Can we really talk about a “New New Wave” in Kazakh cinema? Kinokultura has recently carried two articles—by Inna Smailova (19, 2008) and Jane Knox-Voina (24, 2009)—which use this label. Smailova has identified a “new generation” of Kazakh filmmakers in the programs she coordinated at the IV and V Eurasia IFFs (2007 and 2008), while Knox-Voina passionately supports the students of the Zhurgenov Academy of Arts in their work. I contend here that it is too early to speak of a new “New Wave,” or even a new generation in Kazakh filmmaking. Above all, while there may be some coherence of the perception of the world among young filmmakers, as Knox-Voina and Smailova demonstrate, this alone is not enough to make a “new wave” that would make a considerable and lasting impact on Kazakh cinematography. Let us recapitulate for a moment the emergence of the New Wave of Kazakh cinema in the late 1980s, before we look at the context for Kazakh filmmakers in the Kazakh film industry today.

The New Wave

In 1983 Sergei Solov’ev (b. 1944) selected a course at the Moscow Film Institute (VGIK), consisting of a group of students from Kazakhstan; it included Rashid Nugmanov, Darejan Omirbaev, Serik Aprymov, Ardak Amirkulov, Abai Karpykov, and Amir Karakulov. The course graduated in 1988, by which time the students had developed a sense of community, sharing with Solov’ev his interest in the young generation and in underground movements, or what we might call today marginal groups (only that these groups then were on the political rather than social margins). Moreover, the course was released into the professional arena at the height of glasnost and perestroika and during the emergence of the independence movements in the Soviet republics that would culminate in 1991 in the collapse of the USSR. The impact of these filmmakers on cinema—that of Kazakhstan, the Soviet Union and Russia, and on the European festival circuit—is significant. Nugmanov’s Needle (Igla, 1988) became a cult film. Omirbaev’s Kairat (1991) won the Silver Leopard in Locarno 1992; his Cardiogram (Kardiogramma, 1994) screened in competition in Venice in 1995; Killer (1998), co-produced with France, screened at Cannes and had already won in the Certain Regard section before screening in competition in Karlovy Vary; The Road (Doroga/Jol, 2001) screened at Cannes, Toronto, and Rotterdam. Aprymov’s films participated in international festivals, too: Terminus (Konechnaia ostanovka, 1989) competed in Locarno 1990; Three Brothers (Tri brata, 1998) won the Tokyo Asian Film Award in 2000; Hunter (Okhotnik, 2004) won the NETPAC award and screened in competition in Locarno. Amirkulov’s Otrar’s Death (Gibel’ Otrara, 1991) won the FIPRESCI prize at Montreal. Karpykov’s Fish in Love (Vliublennaia ryba, 1989) was a popular debut before he continued working in Russia, winning the Best Actor award for The Headlight (Fara, 1999) at Moscow. Karakulov’s Rival in Love (Rasluchnitsa, 1991), another cult film of the New Wave, won the FIPRESCI award in Moscow in 1991, and his Last Holidays (Poslednie kanikuly, 1996) received the Tiger Award in Rotterdam, as well as participating in the Tokyo IFF in 1996.

At its time, Solov’ev’s ASSA (1988) had stirred young audiences, starring figures of the Leningrad underground movement, such as Sergei Bugaev (Afrika), Timur Novikov, and Irena Kuksenaite; it also featured the music of rock legends Viktor Tsoi, Boris Grebenshchikov and Zhanna Aguzarova. ASSA represents a strong change in the perception of underground culture in general and rock music in particular, associating it with peaceful revolution or rebellion. Bananan (Bugaev) is a non-violent and innately good character, who stands apart from the others because of his behaviour and his somewhat unorthodox appearance (sporting an earring). He is contrasted with the “Soviet” official Krymov, played by the documentary filmmaker Stanislav Govorukhin—a representative of the establishment—, who holds power over his mistress Alika (Tatiana Drubich) and engages in some dubious business. He may have the power to have Bananan killed, but when Alika learns of the plot, she kills Krymov. In the finale, a concert by Viktor Tsoi takes place—against all rules and regulations, and the song “I want Change” expresses the dissatisfaction with a world where happiness is possible only through escapism into a dream world. The concert takes place in a hotel, but as the song is performed, the camera pans out onto the audience, standing in the open air while holding candles—in an almost visionary manner anticipating the Monday-night vigils with candles in east Germany that would lead to the fall of the wall less than a year after the film’s release. It is also worth noting that Solov’ev’s contact to the Leningrad underground groups were facilitated by one of his students, Rashid Nugmanov, who would subsequently be hired by Kazakhfilm in order to take on a film project abandoned by another director: Needle (Igla, 1988), which became the Kazakh New Wave’s cult film.

needleNeedle touched upon previous taboo themes, from drug addiction to environmental issues to rock music. As in ASSA, the hero Moro is played by a rock star, Viktor Tsoi. Moro returns to his home town Alma-Ata to collect debts from Spartak (Aleksandr Bashirov), visits his former girlfriend Dina and finds her to be on drugs. He tries to get her clean, taking her to a deserted aul by the dried-up Aral Sea. When Moro discloses the dealer’s identity (the freaky doctor is played by another rock star, Petr Mamonov) and prepares to leave with Dina, the dealer stabs him on a winter road. However, “heroes never die:” Moro lives on, walking down the snow-covered road as his blood leaves red dots on the white surface to the tune “Blood Type.” The positive moral values Moro represents are perpetuated, but only in a world of dream and escape, while in reality it is the drug-dealer who triumphs. Nugmanov’s film not only showed with great accuracy the meaninglessness of life (drug addiction, debt collection, drug dealing), but also the barrenness of the land as a symbol for the absence of a future. Moreover, Needle raised the issue of countryside and city: life in the city is always corrupt and flawed. It is in the desert by the Aral Sea that Dina comes clean and her love for Moro returns. Urban civilization may mean progress, but purity lies in a return to the roots. This theme would become a leitmotif for the Kazakh New Wave (in such films as Aksuat by Aprymov or Killer by Omirbaev). The casting of non-professionals for the main roles, reflecting an interest in types rather than individuals, is another characteristic of the New Wave.

The directors Kazakh New Wave shared the same educational background and experience of training in Moscow, which appears to have enhanced their understanding for their own culture. Moreover, they learnt from Solov’ev how to observe life on the margins of society, where cracks and crisis are more visible than in the center. The filmmakers returned to Almaty as a group, making their debut films at Kazakhfilm and defining the ethos and aesthetics of Kazakh cinema for the 1990s: a cinema that focuses on marginal groups and explores the roots of Kazakh culture in the village or in pre-Soviet times; a cinema that engages with the young generation and portrays types; a cinema that is experimental in form. The return of the entire group to Kazakhstan at the time when the USSR was about to disintegrate and Kazakhstan began to think about its identity added to the role they would be able to adopt in the nascent Kazakh film industry of the early 1990s. This process marks the formation of a New Wave of filmmakers, who speak for the new nation, Kazakhstan, even if some would emigrate (Nugmanov), others would move into television (Karpykov), and yet others would remain in Almaty to continue the New Wave, looking at Kazakh life through the lens of a new future and a new national identity.

This situation is quite unique. Today’s young filmmakers find no such social, political and educational context in Kazakhstan. Most filmmakers nowadays train at the Zhurgenov Academy for Arts, but also abroad: not only in Moscow, but also in the US. The link to Moscow, the former empire’s capital, is still vital to allow for Kazakh (and other republics’ cinema) to thrive, because once the Soviet Union collapsed, the national film industries had to struggle to stand on their feet—something that is true both for Russia and the former constituent republics of the USSR. In the case of central Asia, they are slowly building their own educational and infrastructural framework. A new New Wave may be detectable in the new millennium by the number of films made, and by the emergence of a few new names and young filmmakers in national cinema and on the international festival circuit. However, so far there are a good number of young filmmakers and students who have made largely short films; these were deemed to be very talented and promising, often experimenting with docu-style (frequently the result of a lack of finances). Yet they have found no way into proper professional production mechanisms. Moreover, the way in which documentary techniques are deployed in this new cinema fit entirely into the style of Russian and European cinema of the last few years, preoccupied with a documentary approach and hand-held cameras to establish its authenticity, so this is not a unique marker for a new cinematic trend. Young filmmakers by and large have no potential to make mainstream or art-house cinema, because of the absence of a proper market for Kazakh films.

The waves of Kazakhstan’s film industry

In terms of production, the Kazakh film industry has undergone a similar crisis and reorganization as the Russian film industry during the 1990s. In 1997 Kazakhkino (the equivalent of Goskino) was dissolved, and in its place a National Producers’ Centre was established to administer state funding for films. At the same time, private production companies were launched, producing several films that were successful nationally and at international festivals. At the same time the training for filmmakers in Moscow was no longer deemed suitable for citizens of the new republic, and in 1999 Kazakhstan saw the first group of filmmakers graduate from the KazGITIK (now the Zhurgenov Academy of Arts). However, while the Russian film production recovered in the new millennium, developing a distribution network which allowed the country to rise to sixth place in terms of international film distribution, Kazakhstan also rebuilt its infrastructure, but remained in a less strong position as far as distribution of its films—national and international—was concerned. While Russia has produced its own blockbusters since 2004, making between 5-8 films per year that reach box office figures between $20-50 million, Kazakhstan cannot boast of such figures. 

One of the reasons for the non-viability of Kazakh films in national distribution lies in low audience figures. A country with 15 million inhabitants, Kazakhstan counts some seven million cinema visits per year. On average, a resident of Almaty would visit the cinema seven times per year, while his counterpart in Astana would pay four visits to a cinema. A mere 694,000 viewers saw Kazakh films in 2008. The figures are even worse in percentages: among commercial releases, 0.6 % of films watched were Kazakh, 99% foreign. When looking at all screenings (including festivals), then the margin for Kazakh films is noticeably higher: 10% Kazakh, 90% foreign. There is then clearly some demand for Kazakh films, but most are not commercially released, because the profit margin is not high enough to justify the expenditure for the publicity and print costs where multiple film copies are necessary for a theatrical release. The average box office therefore remains at $37,000 for Kazakh films compared to $134,000 for foreign films. This indicates that even foreign films do not fare spectacularly well in Kazakh distribution, and the first problem suggests that cinema visits have to be made more attractive.

How well did Kazakh films fare? Racketeer (Reketir, dir. Sataev, 2007) is the highest grossing Kazakh film in Kazakhstan to date, grossing $1 million at the box office. This contrasts significantly with The Nomad (Kochevnik, 2005), which grossed $720,000. However, if we compare the figures to Timur Bekmambetov’s Irony of Fate. Continuation (2007)—the sequel to Riazanov’s Irony of Fate, 1975—with $50 million at the Russian box office alone, or with the first Russian blockbuster, Night Watch (2004) grossing $16 million, it becomes clear that we are talking of a different league of film markets. Bearing in mind that the Russian film industry could only recover after achieving two-digit box office figures, the problem that Kazakhstan faces in terms of the distribution of Kazakh cinema begins to take shape. It is impossible for Kazakh films to break even or make a profit on Kazakh audiences and the national market alone: films need to appeal to the Russian market, or even better the international one, in order to bring in money, which will then (one would like to think) enable the national studio to subsidize and support the work of its talented young directors waiting in the wings while working on advertising or exploring private production avenues.  

tulpanIn 2009 Kazakhstan produced 15 films—double of what it used to produce at the beginning of the millennium; nine were produced by Kazakhfilm, five by private studios and one as co-production (see Assanova). Yet Kazakh films did not fare well at the box office, even if they had international exposure. If we compare these figures for Russian films to the Kazakh box office of some top festival films, the dilemma becomes even more obvious: Narymbetov’s national epic Mustafa Shokai (2008) grossed $42,000; Abdrashev’s Pusan-opener Gift to Stalin (2008) grossed $63,000; Amirkulov’s Montreal entry Farewell, Gulsary (2008) grossed $29,500, and Guka Omarova’s festival hit Baksy (The Native Dancer, 2008) grossed $14,000. These figures underline the non-viability of Kazakh films to break even in Kazakhstan; as they have a low chance of international distribution, they rely on film festivals for exposure. (figures Bel’gibaev). Even Sergei Dvortsevoi’s debut Tulpan (Kazakhstan/Russia/Germany/Poland, 2008), which won the “Certain Regard” Prize at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2008—followed in the next two months by First Feature at London IFF; Oscar entry for Kazakhstan; Best Film at Tokyo IFF; Discovery of the Year at Reykjavik; Best Film at Zurich FF; Best Film by Asia Pacific Awards; Golden and Silver Peacock at Goa IFF; and Best Director at Cottbus IFF—was not successful in distribution. The film had an estimated $2 million budget and made $150,000 at the box office. Its premiere at Eurasia V in 2008 was marred by technical difficulties with the projection in a hall ill equipped for film screenings.

In terms of infrastructure and cinema networks, the Kazakh film market is run by several chains, including the Russian network StarCinema and the Kazakh network Kinopark (Astana, Shymkent, Almaty and Aktobe), both equipped with up-to-date projection technology and operating through multiplexes. Whilst the number of cinemas is growing in Almaty (17 cinemas), Astana has only recently acquired a multiplex (Kinopark) and has no large festival cinema to speak of. Furthermore, specialized media publications have come under market pressure in the last two years: the professional journal Kinoman has been stripped of its funding and had to close in 2008. The national film studio, Kazakhfilm, has since launched its own publication, Territoriia kino (Territory of Film), which is edited by Gulnara Abikeeva and available online.

astanaAt the level of the national film studio, Kazakhfilm, some serious changes in management have taken place in recent years. In 2007 the studio’s head Sergei Azimov was dismissed and replaced by his deputy, Anar Kashaganova. She was succeeded by Ermek Amanshaev, a former official at the Ministry of Culture in Astana—a man from the government administration rather than film production. When the IFF Eurasia, founded by the visionary Azimov in 1998, was held in Astana in 2008 to mark the capital’s anniversary, Amanshaev announced that the festival would move permanently to Astana—which is neither the centre of film production nor of culture (as much as the government might wish to see this), thus limiting the opportunity for international visitors and producers to meet with young filmmakers and students (almost entirely based in Almaty, although the V festival did ensure that many young filmmakers with short films in the sidebar program were invited to Astana). The new festival, which would be renamed “Astana” (as shown in an advert for the new festival planned for 14-19 September 2009 [Territoriia kino 1-2, 2009]), was canceled because the economic crisis struck. Moreover, the state budget for cinema was channeled into several major projects that were designed to revive the Kazakh film industry and put it on a commercial footing with films in the style of Night Watch (rather than on the basis of national agendas, as has been attempted with The Nomad and, on smaller scale, with Mustafa Shokai). After huge government investment the studio is now equipped for the full post-production process and has attracted some star-studded names to boost the image of Kazakh cinema.

The new mega-projects include Egor Konchalovskii’s The Afghan (Afganets); Timur Bekmambetov’s Golden Warrior (Zolotoi voin); and a project by Renat Davletyarov, former chief producer of the Moscow IFF and producer of such audience hits as Lovey-Dovey (Liubov’-morkov’), entitled “Irony of Love” (Ironiia liubvi). The studio thus puts its stakes onto co-production with major film companies, filmmakers and producers. Having commissioned a market survey by the Russian agency MRC, Kazakhfilm has adopted a path to boost its production of blockbusters that could be sold internationally.

In order to make films that break even, we turned to Timur Bekmambetov who has a record of a number of successful projects, which have brought considerable profit. When we signed the contract with him, we agreed that the project would be commercial, so we would be able to recoup production costs” (Amanshaev in Assonova)

Recent films include Ermek Shinarbaev’s Astana, my Love (Astana, liubov moia, series); scriptwriter Ermek Tursunov’s debut film Kelin, which screened at a number of international festivals and is set in a pagan era, where the directness of codes of life and death, love and animosity are explored through a love story– making a box office $15,000 (Kinokultura); Kurmanbekov’s Seker (Kinokultura); a film by Akhat Ibraev and Farkhat Sharipov, both graduates of US colleges, entitled Tale of a Pink Hare (Skazka o rozovom zaitse, rel. 2010) about a boy from the provinces who comes to the big city; Daniyar Salamat’s children’s film Baiterek about a boy in search of his parents in Astana (November 2009); and Amir Karakulov’s internet romance Unreal Love (Nereal’naia liubov’), co-produced with Bazelevs (the company headed by Timur Bekmambetov). Moreover, several commercial films have been produced independently, including Akhan Sataev’s Brothers (Bratia) and Zhanna Issabaeva’s comedy Omyrpai (Kinokultura). Rashid Nugmanov is scheduled to remake The Needle. Bakhyt Kilibaev, film director from Kazakhstan who won fame for his advertising campaign for the ill-fortuned pyramid scheme MMM, has recently made the television serial The Gromovs for Russian television and is due to bring part of the third series to his native Kazakhstan.
The setting of Astana as a new location for many films is noteworthy, as is the absence of new names on the production schedule: what has become of Adilzhan Erzhanov, Emir Baigazin, Serik Abishev, Talgat Bektursynov and others—those talented students or graduates who showed their films at the IV and V Eurasia festivals and who were noted by national and international critics as promising, spurring the talk of the “new New Wave”? The national studio clearly has made a choice and placed its stakes on renown directors, whilst offering a chance to younger, but more established filmmakers also. It is quite understandable that it is difficult to put into production films by debutants at a time of financial crisis (the same is true also for Russia); however, where in all this is the role of television, which in Russia supports numerous projects through pre-sales or commissioning television films?

On the one hand, the strategy of the country’s largest film studio not to promote Central Asian cinema, and its own cinematography within this, through a festival is regrettable and a huge oversight in terms of talent development. On the other hand, the investment into large projects, which might enable Kazakh film production to release films that make box office profits, which allow the producer to break even or recoup production cost (in order to achieve this, a film’s box office has to be much over the budget figure, so it can also be offset against the cost of publicity, advertising and printing copies) may ultimately also facilitate a structure whereby profits could be channeled into art-house and non-commercial projects (and festivals).

Some questions remain: whether there will ever be enough cinemas and enough spectators to achieve such figures as can be reached by Russian films in the Russian box office, or whether the region might want to think about networks similar to “Europa Cinemas,” a EU funded initiative that supports cinemas screening European films (which will not usually do as well at the box office as American blockbusters) in order to develop and support creativity in the region. And indeed, whether it is possible for the former Soviet states to facilitate another rebirth of their national cinematographies (following the first wave of national studios founded after the war, but funded centrally by the Soviet government, and the second, new, wave after independence) and whether these cinematographies can exist independently of each other and of the former “big brother”, the Russian market.

The Baltic republics have, in a sense, been able to integrate themselves though EU accession into the already existing model and benefit from European funding and development funds for production and distribution. Central Asia, it would seem, may be well advised to think of a trans-national program that would benefit a number of countries, on the lines of an initiative organized by a group of young filmmakers in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan who have been trying to promote their own cinematographies by taking films to local cinemas in the hope of finding their audiences. Maybe Astana 2010 could become a launch-pad for such an initiative, and not only a festival that allows the Kazakh film industry to pat itself on the back, as has happened during past festivals, when the winners have traditionally been Kazakh titles. The festival might not want to take on the old reputation of the Moscow IFF in Soviet times (and still today) of awarding prizes only to its own films.

As these reflections go online, the IFF Locarno has announced to focus its 2010 Open Doors co-production lab on Central Asia. And once again it is the Swiss (alongside French and German producers who have collaborated with such directors as Dvortsevoi or Omirbaev in the past) who actively support the development of the creative potential in the region.   

Birgit Beumers

Works Cited

Assonova, Anna. “V ozhidanii blokbastera,” CentrAzia 12 (2009), 15-28 December,

Bel’gibaev, Saken. “Kino v tsifrakh. Itogi 2008 goda,” Territoriia kino 1-2 (2009), pp. 18-19

Knox-Voina, Jane. “New ‘New’ Wave Filmmakers Welcome Their Audiences’ Discomfort: Kazakh and Kyrgyz Youth Films” KinoKultura 24 (2009)

Smailova, Inna. “Three Generations of Kazakh Cinematographers: Action — Reaction — Change of Reality”, KinoKultura 19 (2008)

Birgit Beumers© 2010

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Updated: 14 Jan 10