KinoKultura: Issue 58 (2017)

The Unlucky Number? Eurasia–13

By Birgit Beumers

The 13th Eurasia International Film Festival was held from 22–28 July 2017 in Astana. The earlier date and the change in location (usually the festival is held in Almaty in September) was driven by the Culture Ministry and motivated by the wish to make the event coincide with the Expo-17, held from 10 June-10 September in Astana. And along with the link to the Expo went the ambitious idea of launching a film-market, which was done quite well, albeit in a small format.

nur alemAs main screening venue Eurasia IFF used the multiplex cinema “Chaplin” in the new “Mega SilkWay” shopping mall. Astana is a fast-growing city, and this was also a new complex, situated beside the Expo and occupying the territory across the road from Nazarbaev University—a location that only last year was still on the outskirts of the city and is now part of the center. The Eurasia business platform (the film market and the Eurasia Spotlight events, including a competition of pitches for Kazakh feature films and talks by experts from the international and Kazakh film industry and business) was held in a brand new hotel, purpose-built for the Expo, and across the road from the Mega SilkWay mall and within walking distance of the territory of the Expo. From its central pavilion, the largest spherical building in the world, the glass globe Nur Alem (constructed by Arian Smith + Gordon Gill from Chicago, known for its energy efficient architecture that appeared well suited for the Future Energy theme of the Expo) a laser beam with changing colors was projected into the nocturnal sky.

The Eurasia Spotlight events were maybe the most remarkable and noteworthy part of this festival: they were organized by the competent and professional producer Anna Katchko. The speeches, roundtables and presentations offered not only food for thought and discussion, such as the issue of a common film market area for Central Asia, but also new perspectives on the regional and national film industry.

spotlightThe actual film festival, organized by the National Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, established and headed by Rashid Nugmanov, was skillfully programmed by Elena Larionova, and it did not suffer from the “coup” by which the core of the organizing team was dismissed some two weeks before the festival started and replaced by students and staff from Astana’s National Arts University, and some people from Kazakhfilm, who used to run the festival in Almaty. I will not here go into the reasons for the change in governance, other than highlight the much-felt absence of Gulnara Abikeyeva, the leading film critic and expert on the region, who has been sidelined from government-sponsored events; and of Bauyrzhan Nogerbek, professor of film history at the National Arts University and an expert on the history of Kazakh cinema, who passed away a few weeks before the festival. The fact that part of the board of directors and the minister changed tack in the weeks before the festival also means that the Eurasia website has not been updated – no winners were announced, no information added.

Let us turn to the actual festival. The program, as already mentioned, was impeccable in its breadth, combining coverage of international films with focus on the region. There was an international competition, screening films from the Eurasian space, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Turkey, Israel, Spain, China, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia and India, thus covering neatly the area that stretches from Europe across to Asia, and “bridging cultures,” as the festival slogan promised.

centaur However, with the change in responsibilities shortly before the event started, the festival shifted attention to international stars, flying in—likely at huge costs— Adrien Brody and Nicolas Cage for the opening ceremony, and John Malkovich for the closing event. Such stars were brought in for earlier festivals, but the practice had been abandoned in favor of more industry- and audience-focused events in recent years. Indeed, glamour abounded, and audiences for the international programs were scarce while screenings of Kazakh films were overcrowded: something the management might like to think about for the future. There is obviously a market for Kazakh cinema, which it seems to deny to itself. A positive aspect was that all films were screened for free—but a ticketing system had to be effectuated for the last days as word of mouth had spread and screenings were over-run by local spectators.

Souleymane Cisse, a graduate of Moscow’s State Film Institute (VGIK), was selected as jury president, and he was joined by Kirill Razlogov (professor at VGIK), Elchin Musaoglu from Azerbaijan, Rusudan Glurjidze from Georgia, and Talgat Temenov from Kazakhstan. (There was a short film competition also, with a jury headed by Erlan Nurmukhambetov). The award of the main prize to The Returnee by Kazakh production designer and director Sabit Kurmanbekov certainly recognizes the national story more than the film itself, and looks only too much as if it had been “engineered” when screened in a competition alongside such films as Aktan Arym Kubat’s Centaur from Kyrgyzstan, Ilgar Najaf’s The Pomegranate Orchard from Azerbaijan, Boris Khlebnikov’s Arrhythmia (which won only a FIPRESCI award), or Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross’s My Happy Family from Georgia. One might find ne bewildered by the spread of awards, not only the main award to The Returnee but also the focus on Central Asia, rewarding only the Vietnamese film with an added second Special Jury Prize, but giving all monetary prizes to the region.

zavtra moreAs such, the festival’s declared goal of a cultural dialogue has failed somewhere, and some doubt has been cast over the jury’s objectivity—especially a jury composed of members from that same region (or at least the school that dominates still today the filmmaking practices in Central Asia). Indeed, such a bias was also visible in the conference about the impact of the Central United Film Studio (TsOKS), which combined staff who had been evacuated from the Soviet studios in Moscow and Leningrad during WWII, and is still seen as an inspiration to local filmmaking rather than a colonizing force on cultural and cinematic developments in the entire region, but especially Kazakhstan. The opening film Kyz Zhibek once again tries to place Kazakh tradition at the center, locating its peak in the (Soviet) past rather than the (independent) present.

The festival offered a wide range of other programs, such as: special screenings of Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, as well as Thierry Fremaux’s Lumiere! The Eurasian Panorama included films such as Kristina Grozneva and Petr Valchanov’s festival hit Slava/Glory from Bulgaria, a zombie film from Malaysia (KL24), the Yakutian film His Daughter (Ego doch’) by Tatiana Everstova that had been awarded at Window on Europe (Vyborg) last year, the Hungarian Berlinale winner On Body and Soul by Ildiko Enyedi, or the Kazakh WWII drama For the Motherland. The “Focus on China” brought to the screen six films – in the aftermath of a major deal struck with China in June this year on film co-production (Frater 2017), while “6 Plaza” showcased films from six unknown cinematic territories. There was a children’s festival with 14 titles, including animation. And, finally, a presentation of the entries for the “Tulpar” National Film Award that takes place in the autumn in Almaty. Sadly, all the “Tulpar” films were screened without subtitles (although available), and many of them were in the Kazakh language. This list of films included a feature on Alzhir (adapted from a television serial) to remember the camp for the wives and children of men repressed under Stalin, located outside the current capital in a village called Akmolinsk; Akan Sataev’s Districts; a range of Kazakh comedies and sequels; Katerina Suvorova’s impressive documentary about the dried Aral Sea entitled Sea Tomorrow (2016). And there was, from Sakha (Yakutia), Dmitrii Davydov’s Bonfire (Koster na vetru), reviewed on these pages by Gulnara Abikeyeva; from Kazakhstan there was Rustem Abdrashev’s Diamond Sword (Almaznyi mech), another historic epic that takes the viewer back to the (legendary) beginnings of the Kazakh nation in the 15th century; and Umedsho Mirzoshirinov’s Breakthrough (Preodoloenie/Mushkilkusho) from Tajikistan, set and filmed in the remote areas of the Pamir and offering not only a unique insight into local folklore, but also a finely constructed story that sets the life in the mountains against the experience of seasonal Tajik workers in Moscow.

oralmanOn the whole, films from the region were presented, but the unnecessary glamour organized under the directive of the Ministry of Culture was somewhat unnecessary. It was good to have screenings open to the public at no cost, and to have Q&A sessions where local viewers could ask their questions of the filmmakers—a thoroughly rewarding and extraordinary experience. Holding the event in a shopping mall, well, this is probably part of the practicalities of modern life. However, the lack of a network of critics (despite the existence of a national organization of film critics, there were only an very few critics present) which would be able co-ordinate and support such an event in Almaty with its superior cultural infrastructure, was a downside of the relocation to Astana. After all, Astana is a city of government and business, while Almaty remains the cultural capital, however much one may try to change that.

The crop of this year’s festival is not huge: there are hardly any new discoveries beyond the films already screened and awarded at international film festivals (Centaur, The Pomegranate Orchard, My Happy Family, and Arrhythmia). Yet there are new films in the wings: from the Partisan Group in Kazakhstan (excluded after last year’s outrage over Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s address at the closing ceremony, accusing the Ministry of a funding deal), or from independent filmmakers, such as Zhanna Issabaeva. And if a festival has to subordinate to ministerial commands to bring in some (stars) and exclude others (critical voices), then cultural bridges will be made only partially and are prone to collapse. Culture bridges not just regions and territories, but also various social and political views, critical and conform voices. Eurasia-13 did not do itself a favor by awarding a patriotic film over an artistic product, and by excluding a number of critical voices of filmmakers and film historians alike from the competition. One may only hope that the Ministry comes to appreciate the value of an independent organizing committee that will seek to open doors and build bridges rather than bathe in the glory of stars.

Birgit Beumers
Aberystwyth University

Works Cited

Frater, Patrick. 2017. “‘Composer’ Scored as First China-Kazakhstan Co-Production.” Variety 10 June.

Grand Prix: The Returnee (Oralman) (Kazakhstan)
Best Director: Aktan Arym Kubat for Centaur (Kyrgyzstan)
Best Actress: Ia Shugliashvili in My Happy Family (Georgia)
Best Actor: Gurban Ismailov in The Pomegranate Orchard (Azerbaijan)
Special Jury Prize: The Pomegranate Orchard (Azerbaijan)
Special Jury Prize: The Way Station (Vietnam)
FIPRESCI Prize:  Arrhythmia (Russia)
NETPAC Prize: Centaur (Kyrgyzstan)
Short Film Competition: Meyirzhan Sandybai’s animation The Dog (Kazakhstan) and a diploma for Akyikat Askarov’s The Bet (Kyrgyzstan)

Birgit Beumers © 2017

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Updated: 2017