KinoKultura: Issue 50 (2015)

Phoenix, risen from the ashes: The majestic return of Eurasia IFF

By Birgit Beumers

After its very meager 10th anniversary edition in 2014, I had written this once amazing festival and showcase for Central Asian cinema off the agenda. Last year, there were single screenings of competition films in small cinemas that could just about seat the various jury members plus curators and interpreters; consequently, there were hardly any local spectators. Boasting of a spectacular opening and closing ceremony in the Palace of the Republic, the festival’s budget had probably been devoured by these glamorous events, leaving no money for the “rest”: there was no Central Asian competition; the international competition repeated a medley of films from other festivals without any geopolitical axis; and a patchy Kazakh panorama was added into the program at the last minute—and that’s precisely what it looked like: half-cooked, mixing some commercial or television movies (even without subtitles) with the only worthy film, the art-house gem The Adventure (Prikliuchenie) by Nariman Turebaev.

Rashid Nugmanov, one of the co-founders of the Kazakh New Wave with his cult film The Needle (Igla, 1988) has now, some 25 years later, once again proven his ability to lead large groups of people—this time to steer a festival with a completely new team and turn it into an outstanding event, raising the profile of the festival back to the reputation it had built after the first, legendary edition of 1998—which is now a distant memory and history.

sutakThis year, the festival’s program included the international competition “Silk Road”; the Central-Asian competition of Shaken’s Constellation [Sozvezdie Shakena] as an expanded version of Shaken’s Stars [Zvezdy Shakena]—in both cases referring to the father of Kazakh cinema, Shaken Aimanov—with the ambition of developing a common space for distribution in Central Asia; a short film program “Eurasia Shorts”; a Kazakh panorama; side-bars of “Asia Today” and “Europe Today”, as well as a program of documentaries from around the world “Eurasia Doc” and a children’s program “Eurasia Kids.” Plus, of course, there were special screenings. The program was directed by Elena Larionova, with Kirill Razlogov serving as selector for the Silk Road competition and Gulnara Abikeyeva as selector for Central Asia and Kazakhstan. The festival’s Honorary President was Aiman Musakhadjieva, an accomplished violinist and Vice-Chancellor of Astana’s Kazakh National University of the Arts.

Held in four venues, the festival was scattered across various shopping malls in town, whilst remaining focused for the competition and collateral events around the Esentai Mall that served as a great, unified space, with a gallery for workshops and a festival center. However, the technical staff of any multiplex tends to be rather badly prepared for changing films for every screening, and so here, too, the festival’s only (and very minor) hitch occurred with the projection.

The festival’s opening film was Akan Sataev’s Hacker, the filmmaker’s first international venture, shot in and co-produced with Canada. Remaining true to his genre of action films, Sataev created a perfectly sellable product for international distribution, without harking back at Kazakh roots or connections.

uchitelThe Silk Road Competition included films from along the Silk Road, which were well-chosen, even if most had already been shown in the festival circuit. The competition included Irina Evteeva’s Arventur (shown at Moscow IFF); Ermek Tursunov’s Stranger (Zhat), which the director pulled from another international festival to screen it first in his homeland; Nima Javidi’s Melbourne (Iran); Khadija al-Salami’s I am Nojoom, Age 10, and Divorced (Yemen); Elchin Musaoglu’s Nabat (Azerbaijan), shown in Venice in 2014 and starring the magnificent Iranian actress Fatemeh Motamed Arya; Salome Alexi’s Line of Credit (Georgia), which had screened at Wiesbaden’s GoEast earlier in the year; Yannis Veslemis’s Norway (Greece); Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s Labour of Love (India); Deniz Gamze Erguven’s Mustang (Turkey); and Mirlan Abdykalykov’s Heavenly Nomadic (Sutak) from Kyrgyzstan, fresh from the East of the West competition at Karlovy Vary 2015. We should, however, not forget that it is almost impossible to get good films for Eurasia IFF that have not yet been to international festivals, so the selection along a thematic and geographical line works perfectly well for this competition. And precisely therefore, the Central Asian competition is of huge importance, since it allows (particularly film critics and FIPRESCI or NETPAC juries) to see those films that they are unlikely to find in a large international festival program. 

zhatThe Central Asian Competition Shaken’s Constellation did precisely that: it showcased the work of the region, of the five Central Asian republics plus the Turkic-language Azerbaijan. This program, too, comprised films that had already been at major international events, but also films that had not made it beyond the region: Saodat Ismailova’s 40 Days of Silence (Chilla; Tajikistan/Uzbekistan) had been in the Berlinale in 2014; Dalmira Tilepbergenova’s Under Heavens (Pod nebesami, Kyrgyzstan) had just returned from Montreal; Marat Sarulu’s The Move (Pereezd, Kyrgyzstan) screened at Tallinn last year and took the Jury Prize; and Jasulan Posanov’s Toll Bar (Shlagbaum, Kazakhstan) had just taken the Best Actor award at this year’s Moscow IFF. Moreover, there were Oktay Mir-Qasim’s Death with Vengeance (Umeret’ otomshchennym, Azerbaijan); Doskhan Zholzhaksynov’s Kunanbay (Kazakhstan); Nosir Saidov’s The Teacher (Uchitel’, Tajikistan), shown at Dushanbe’s Didor in 2014; Yolkin Tuychiev’s In Life (V zhizni, Uzbekistan); and Daniyar Salamat’s Sagyntay’s First Wife (Pervaia zhena Sagyntaia, Kazakhstan)—all premiers from the region. This mixed bag of very new films with those that had already been through the circuit reflects, on the one hand, the fact that this year’s program covered two years of production (there was no Central Asian program at Eurasia 2014); and on the other hand, it shows the rise of Central Asian cinema and its growing participation in international festivals—which compares ever so well when set against the relative low presence of Russian cinema in 2015, with exception of Aleksei German’s Under Electric Clouds (Pod elektricheskimi oblakami), and not counting the Serbian-Russian co-production Brother Dejan by Bakur Bakuradze which screened in Locarno, and Aleksandr Sokurov’s French-German co-production Francofonia, which screened in the Venice competition.

kunanbayThe Kazakh Panorama included both commercial films, such as Akan Sataev sequel Racketeer 2, Karijan Orynbekov’s Heist, he Wrote (Ograblenie po-kazakhski), Nurtas Adambaev’s The Bride Sabina (Kelinka Sabina), which has already been released on DVD, or Salamat Muhammed-Ali’s The Whole World at Our Feet; and also more experimental and art-house films, such as Ermek Tursunov’s Kenje (The Elder), third part of his trilogy starting with Kelin (The Bride) and followed by Shal (The Old Man), located in the mountains, the steppe and the city respectively and creating a panorama across different geographies and different times, as well as different genders and generations; Kenjebek Shaikakov’s talented The Tent (Kurko) with its beautifully filmed story of a budding love and a first disappointment; Muhammed Mamyrbekov and Aziz Zairov’s To Be or not to Be? (Byt’ ili ne byt’?), which draws attention to the issue of disabilities; and including the premieres of Kazbek Amerzhanov’s, Garden (Bak) and Kenjebai Diusembaev’s The Island (Dameli). This panorama truly covered a wide range of Kazakh films, and this was expanded even further in the socially engaged Toll Bar produced by the “Partisan Movement,” an alternative platform for socially critical and challenging cinema, which screened in the Central Asian competition; and, of course, the Kazakh films in the main competition.

sagyntayThe festival also hosted a business platform “Eurasia Spotlight”, focusing on co-production. For this purpose, the organizers had invited a group of experts from Europe, including producers, representative of funding agencies and directors of pitching platforms and film markets, to share their experience with an audience of Kazakh filmmakers, students and debutants, but also more experienced directors. Spotlight also hosted a series of master-classes, including with filmmaker Sergei Soloviev (the godfather of the Kazakh New Wave); with jury chairman Abderrahmane Sissako; with producer Anna Katchko; with actors Dinara Drukarova and Wim Willaert; and with Mikhail Fatakhov, professor in scriptwriting at Moscow’s Film Institute VGIK. The pitching session of Kazakh projects showcased not only genuine pitches but presented also projects that were close to completion and had already been selected by festivals. Moreover, the Spotlight platform held roundtables on production and distribution in Kazakhstan, and, importantly, also on new legislation and film education. It was thanks to the support from Astana’s Kazakh National University of Arts that a group of thirty students which they had sponsored to attend the festival (the Vice-Chancellor being its honorary president) that these seminars and sessions were well attended and enthusiastically received—an initiative on which Aiman Musakhadjieva must be congratulated, especially when seeing the rather lethargic attitude of local film institutes and universities.

The international competition’s jury consisted of Abderrahmane Sissako, whose Timbuktu had received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign-Language Film in 2015 and won seven Cesar Awards; South-African–British actress Justine Waddell, who had starred in Aleksandr Zeldovich’s Target (Mishen’); Kazakh director Akan Sataev, famous for Racketeer; the Russian scriptwriter Odelsha Agishev; and Kim Dong-Ho, the honorary president of Busan IFF from South Korea. And they awarded the following prizes:

Birgit Beumers
Aberystwyth University

Best Feature (Grand Prix): Heavenly Nomadic (Sutak, KYR), Mirlan Abdykalykov  
Special Jury Award: Labour of Love (India), Aditya Vikram Sengupta
Best Director: Elchin Musaoglu Nabat (Azerbaijan)
Best Actor Erzhan Nurymbet (The Stranger [Zhat] by Ermek Tursunov)
Best Actress Fatemeh Motamed Arya (Nabat). 

FIPRESCI: Jasulan Posanov: Toll Bar (Shlagbaum).
NETPAC (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema): Kunanbay
Prizes for Shaken’s Constellation awarded by NETPAC:
Best Actress: Alfiya Sembaeva (Sagyntay’s First Wife)
Best Actor: Erkebulan Dairov (Toll Bar)

Birgit Beumers © 2015

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