Sergei Bodrov, Ivan Passer, Talgat Temenov: The Nomad (Kochevniki, 2005)

reviewed by Gulnara Abikeyeva© 2006

The Nomad is Coming…

Never before have Kazakh people waited so long for the arrival of a national film. The press and television reported on the progress of this mega-project during the two years that it was being made. At last, Nomad has been finished. For the first time a Kazakh film has such powerful Western distributors as Wild Bunch for Europe and Miramax for America. These companies are preparing for the film’s broad release worldwide. What else could we wish for? After the film’s premiere in Kazakhstan in July a negative, rather than positive, opinion was formed, although the majority of spectators have still not seen it yet. Why is Nomad being criticized? Has this project been successful?

Why did Nomad Appear?
For 14 years we have lived in an independent Kazakhstan as it was creating its statehood. Nobody will contest that this has been a historically important period in terms of nation-building. We have not only raised our economy and built an effective management structure, but we have also been creating the image of this new country. What is the contribution of Kazakh cinema in this context? Which domestic films have influenced the formation of our national consciousness? Many such films have been made and I would classify them according to three categories:

It is hard to overestimate the significance of all these films: they not only reflect our views on life today, but they also fill in important cultural codes about what has happened to us and what the present and future hold in store.

Moreover, during these years several films have been made that carried out the task of nation building to the full. For example, when Bolat Sharip’s Zamanai (1998) appeared, it had all the prospects of becoming a genuine national film because it told the story of the Kazakh people’s return to their homeland. But probably it appeared at an unsuitable moment, in 1998, when there was no operative system for film distribution. The film was lost and has not been seen by audiences. The same thing happened with such films as Serik Aprymov’s Aksuat (1999), Slambek Taukelov’s Batyr Bayan (1993), Satybaldy Narymbetov’s Leila’s Prayer (Molitva Leily, 2002), and many others. As a result, spectators formed a false belief that Kazakh cinema was exclusively aimed at festivals, even though it was the lack of access to a domestic film distribution network that deprived national audiences of our national cinema.

At this point the idea arose for the film-project Nomad, which would be seen by all audiences; that is, not to build our own Hollywood, but instead to bring Hollywood to Kazakhstan. The filmmakers were faced with three global tasks:

History or Myth?
It seems to me that one question is of crucial importance: whether Nomad is a historical or mythological project. At the press conference about the film, the scriptwriter and the general producer of the project, Rustam Ibragimbekov, was asked what relation the film Nomad has to Ilias Esenberlin’s novel The Nomads. Ibragimbekov replied: “None.” He added: “Of course, I read the novel with the great pleasure and it inspired me greatly, but it has no relation to the script whatsoever.” The film was created as a myth, as a fairy tale, as a legend; it bears practically no relation to the historical genre. Admittedly, the action unfolds during the war between the Kazakh people and the Djungars, and there are recognizable historical figures, but it is just a heroic fairy tale about a batyr, who was born to protect his people and defend his land. Therefore, all of the dramatic developments in the film are exclusively mythological.

In general, the plot can be summarized in two sentences, as with a legend: the Kazakh people suffered from invasions of an enemy, but the wise man Oraz predicted that a hero would be born who would have the power to free the people from the Djungar yoke. This is what happened: the boy Mansur was born, Oraz saved him from death and raised him as a true warrior together with other boys. They grew up to protect the Kazakh land from its enemies.

It is obvious that such a summary is not characteristic of a historical drama, where historical figures, details of events, and the accuracy of place and time of actions matter. Here we are dealing with pure mythology. The majority of American films are constructed along the same principle, whether they are about Robin Hood, the Gladiator, or Alexander the Great. Epoch and geography matter only for the specific setting; everything else follows the same pattern: a hero is identified; he experiences suffering and undergoes trials, and then achieves victory. In our case the Kazakh steppe and the nomads serve as a backdrop. Is this a good thing or bad thing? If we speak of the patterns, then it is a bad thing; but if we consider that the world sees as heroes the Kazakh people who have never before been featured, then that is probably a good thing all the same.

The Participation of the Americans
In its structure, Nomad is purely a Hollywood film, but instead of the habitual pathos about “this is the American land,” we hear “this is the Kazakh land.” And why not? Why are we all the time afraid of or embarrassed by pathos? Why do we not say simple and clear things about patriotism, about our native land? American cinema is entirely built on these simple concepts, but for some reason we hesitate and feel embarrassed.

I repeat once again: we stand at the very beginning of our independence. When would be a more opportune and appropriate time to position ourselves as a young, strong, independent state? We can look at ourselves in different ways; for example, we can examine Kazakhstan and our history as a series of endless, tragic experiments—from collectivization, djut, the KarLAG (Karaganda labor camps), to the Semipalatinsk polygon and the ecological disaster of the Aral Sea, etc. But this perspective on our native land is unlikely to inspire our young generation. It is obvious that what we need are myths about a great country, strong heroes, wise philosophers, and happy people. And that’s what Nomad has.

Nevertheless, the main allegations vis-à-vis the film have been and will continue to be the fact that it was shot by and with foreigners. There are, however, other examples from world cinema: the Englishman Richard Attenborough made the best film about Mahatma Gandhi (1982), Bernardo Bertolucci made the amazing film about China’s Pu Yi, The Last Emperor (1987), etc.

Certainly, nobody can tell about the Kazakhs and Kazakhstan more magnificently than the Kazakhs themselves, but why should not one of many such projects be made in this way. In fact, Kazakh directors have attempted to create epic historical films several times—from Ardak Amirkulov’s The Fall of Otrar (1991) to Abai (1995), from Kanymbek Kasymbekov’s The Youth of Dzhambyl (Iunost' Dzhambyla, 1996) to Bolat Kalymbetov’s Sardar (2004)—but all of these remained at the level of local film productions and frequently did not achieve the highest artistic quality, and so they were almost immediately forgotten.

Many filmmakers from Central Asia were present during the premiere of Nomad in Almaty. Kyrgyz filmmakers asserted that a project like Nomad should have been shot only by local filmmakers, while an Uzbek director recalled how much effort and funding the State had put into the creation of the film The Great Amir Temur (Velikii Amir Temur; dir. Isamat Ergashev and Bako Sadykov, 1996), which virtually no one knows or remembers. During the screening of Nomad I thought about the love and care that the foreign experts had put into creating this cinematic reality, into the musical score of the film, into the casting. This was no “side job” or “hack-work”; the crew had clearly worked with devotion and respect for Kazakh traditions.

A Powerful Impulse for the Film-industry
Thanks to the filming of Nomad, Kazakhfilm, the national film studio, underwent a large-scale technological refurbishment; moreover, the second shooting crew went through a Hollywood school of film production. During the shooting Kazakhstan acquired technological equipment to the value of $5.5 million: film cameras, carriages, cranes, sound recording equipment in DOLBY-stereo for use on location, an editing suite that is already used for other Kazakh film projects, as well as being rented by Russian, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz filmmakers. The equipment and the set for Turkestan were used in the production of Timur Bekmambetov’s Day Watch (Dnevnoi dozor; Russia, 2006) and the shooting of ancient Kokand near the Fergana Valley for Satybaldy Narymbetov’s film Mustafa Shokai is planned here, too.

For the first stage of the shoot about 80% of technological equipment was rented and 160 foreign experts invited. But, by the end of the project, only 20% of the film-equipment was rented and there were only 60 foreign experts since the rest were replaced by local staff who had mastered new professional skills. Old studio production shops were revived and new ones opened, such as costume sewing, prop preparation, upholstery, and dye-works. More than 15,000 costumes, including footwear, headgear, jewelry, leather items, and many other things were produced on site.

Success Lies in the Team!
The success of any film depends in many ways on the team, which is assembled by the producer. Genuine star producers worked on the first Kazakh film project of this scale. The general producer was scriptwriter Rustam Ibragimbekov; from the American side came executive producer Milos Forman and from Russian side producer Pavel Douvidzon. Kazakhstan was represented by Serik Zhubandykov, Anara Kashaganova, and Sergei Azimov. Post-production was handled by the American Ram Bergman, who also managed to secure an agreement to have Miramax distribute Nomad in America. It should be noted that Bergman Lustig Gallery Productions acted as producer of the film on a par with Kazakhfilm.

To ensure a total success, the producers decided also to pick a powerful group of “production workers.” For example, ancient Turkestan was built by the Croatian production designer Kreka Kljakovic, who has worked on practically all of Emir Kusturica’s films. The Director of Photography organically fitted into the star-studded crew: Ueli Steiger had worked with Roland Emmerich on Godzilla (1998) and The Day after Tomorrow (2004). The costume designers were Michael O’Connor, who has been associate costume designer on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (dir. Chris Columbus, 2002), and Marit Allen, who worked with Ang Lee on Hulk (2003) and Brokeback Mountain (2005).

It is quite understandable that the choice of foreign actors to play the main heroes is frequently criticized. In order for an international spectator―the main target audience―to accept Nomad, the actors had to be well known. For example, the actor Mark Dacascos, who starred in American and French action films, such as Mark Lester’s The Base (1999) or Christophe Gans’s horror film Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le Pacte des Loups, 2001), here plays the Djungar warrior Sharysh. Jason Scott Lee, who gained popularity with his role as Bruce Lee in the film Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (dir. Rob Cohen, 1993) plays one of the key characters in the film―the wise man and seer Oraz. In addition, two young Hollywood actors were invited to play roles in Nomad: Kuno Becker and Jay Hernandez.

Some of the lead roles were played by Kazakh actors, amongst whom the directors singled out the popular actors Doskhan Zholzhaksynov and Tungushbai Dzhamankulov, and the young actress Aianat Esmagambetova, who had played the lead in Satybaldy Narymbetov’s Leila’s Prayer. Despite the different languages, nationalities, work styles, and other features of film production, the cast list congealed into a unified ensemble. The Hollywood star Kuno Becker and the beginner Aianat Esmagambetova appear in absolute harmony, and only the film crew knows that behind this appearance lay hours and hours of training at the ballet rail, horse-riding, English lessons, etc.

There are 22 main characters in the script of the film, alongside some 300 episodic roles. Obviously it is a tall order for a director to piece all this together and to create the action of a two-hour film. This task was not solved easily because three directors were involved in the making of the film: the Czech-born American Ivan Passer started the film and the Russian director Sergei Bodrov completed it, while the Kazakh director Talgat Temenov constantly worked on location. This would appear to be an impossible situation, considering that we are accustomed to thinking of a film, above all, as a director’s project. But Nomad was a producer’s project from the outset, and the directors changed along with production requirements. Probably Ivan Passer had a difficult time with the technological aspect of the filmmaking, while for Sergei Bodrov the challenge consisted of having the opportunity to try his abilities in the genre of a historical film. For Talgat Temenov as well this was undoubtedly a trying experience, both in terms of production and creativity. Finally, it is noteworthy that after the completion of the film, nobody tried to divvy up the laurels and to designate whose contribution was biggest: the credits show the names of all three directors side by side. In this sense, too, Nomad was a very international project.

In Lieu of a Conclusion
I cannot forget a conversation with a young Kazakh man in Washington. He had been studying in America for a year when he asked me: “How’s Nomad doing back home?” I answered: “Well, they’re finishing.” He was surprised by my indifference and said: “I am very much waiting for this film. If all the boys in the world will play at being Kazakhs, will dream of becoming heroes, would that not meet the overall aim of this film?” Probably this 19-year-old boy is wiser than I am; or maybe it is just that he is far away from his homeland and so his emotions are all the more acute than mine at home? We should not only be pleased, but proud of such a project that has taken shape at the right place and at the right time.

After the premiere of Nomad I had a short conversation with the film’s general producer, Rustam Ibragimbekov, and I asked him whether the Azerbaijan filmmakers were not jealous that he had accomplished such a huge project in Kazakhstan rather than in Azerbaijan. Ibragimbekov replied that any country of the former Soviet Union would be proud to have such project, but that at present only Kazakhstan had the potential for realizing it.

The appearance of such a film also testifies to Kazakhstan’s emergence as a sovereign state. It is clear that for any future creative work we need new myths that will eclipse the old ones. The commercial film Nomad, together with such art-house films as The Hunter by Serik Aprymov (2004), help create such new myths, giving rise to the cinema of a new country that is capable of coping with the post-colonial syndrome.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Gulnara Abikeyeva
Program Director, Eurasia IFF

Nomad, Kazakhstan, Russia, and USA, 2005
Color, 120 minutes
Directors: Sergei Bodrov, Ivan Passer, Talgat Temenov
Screenplay and General Producer: Rustam Ibragimbekov
Cinematography: Ueli Steiger, Dan Laustsen
Composer: Carlo Siliotto
Producers: Milos Forman, Sergei Azimov, Pavel Douvidzon, Sergei Zhubandykov,
Ram Bergman, Anara Kashaganova
Production: Ibrus and True Story Production

Sergei Bodrov, Ivan Passer, Talgat Temenov: The Nomad (Kochevniki, 2005)

reviewed by Gulnara Abikeyeva© 2006

Updated: 05 Oct 06