Kaza­khstan mak­ing home-grown movies Re­build­ing of coun­try’s film in­dus­try in­cludes over­com­ing ‘Bo­rat’ stereo­type

The Washington Times Daily - - Life - BY RUBY RUS­SELL

IBERLIN f ever a coun­try needed re­brand­ing, it’s Kaza­khstan. The Cen­tral Asian na­tion’s in­ter­na­tional iden­tity is shaped — un­fairly, but in­escapably — by the hit satir­i­cal film “Bo­rat: Cul­tural Learn­ings of Amer­ica for Make Ben­e­fit Glo­ri­ous Na­tion of Kaza­khstan,” which lam­pooned Kaza­khstan as hope­lessly back­ward, be­nighted and big­oted.

A fresh re­minder of how Sacha Baron Co­hen’s 2006 mock­u­men­tary con­tin­ues to shadow the na­tion’s im­age came just days ago, when a medal cer­e­mony at a shoot­ing com­pe­ti­tion in Kuwait hon­ored the Kazakh gold medal­ist by mis­tak­enly play­ing the “Bo­rat” par­ody of Kaza­khstan’s na­tional an­them in­stead of the real one.

Kazakh film­mak­ers hope to shake off that im­age — and en­er­gize their coun­try’s movie in­dus­try — with a big bud­get his­tor­i­cal epic, “Myn Bala,” which opens next month in the­aters in the Cen­tral Asian na­tion.

“‘Myn Bala’ is one of those projects which is im­por­tant to give the coun­try its iden­tity,” says Anna Katchko, one of the film’s pro­duc­ers. “It’s also a com­ing-of-age story about fall­ing in love, first fights, los­ing friends and gain­ing them again.”

Telling the tale of 18th-cen­tury Kazakh war­riors over­throw­ing Mon­go­lian over­lords, the movie is funded by Kaza­khfilm — the for­mer Soviet-era movie stu­dio that now, as a par­tially state-owned en­ter­prise, has been re­build­ing Kaza­khstan’s film in­dus­try for the past three years.

Kaza­khfilm not only pro­vides fund­ing for tal­ented film­mak­ers in Kaza­khstan but also pro­motes the coun­try as a film lo­ca­tion for for­eign projects: Chuck Rus­sell, di­rec­tor of 1994’s “The Mask” and 2002’s “The Scor­pion King,” is film­ing “Ara­bian Nights” — star­ring Dwayne “The Rock” John­son and Sir An­thony Hop­kins — in Kaza­khstan with a re­ported $70 mil­lion bud­get.

“For many years all over the [for­mer Soviet re­publics], there was al­most noth­ing hap­pen­ing, few films were made,” Ms. Katchko says. “In the past three years, there has been a lot of progress in Kaza­khstan par­tic­u­larly.

“Kaza­khstan of­fers amaz­ing lo­ca­tions close to the an­cient [for­mer] cap­i­tal of Al­maty, where the pro­duc­tion stu­dios are. For­est,

steppes, moun­tains, lakes — wher­ever you go, there is a dif­fer­ent land­scape.”

‘The real Kaza­khstan’

Ger­man screen­writer/di­rec­tor Veit Helmer’s 2011 ro­man­tic-ad­ven­ture com­edy “Baikonur” (co-pro­duced by Ms. Katchko) was filmed in Kaza­khstan and was in­spired by the “cos­mod­rome,” or space launch fa­cil­ity, in the coun­try’s desert steppe, which gives the movie its ti­tle. The plot re­volves around a French “space tourist” who falls from the sky into the life of a young vil­lager and, suf­fer­ing from mem­ory loss, is led to be­lieve the vil­lager is her hus­band.

Mr. Helmer con­ceived the idea for “Baikonur” af­ter vis­it­ing Kaza­khstan to run work­shops for film stu­dents at the Zhurgenov Art Academy in Al­maty, be­gin­ning in 2004. He said that even though many of his stu­dents — and even their teach­ers — had never made a film be­fore, some showed real prom­ise.

“There were some very bril­liant stu­dents,” Mr. Helmer said. “Some of them are now work­ing in Paris, in London, in Moscow, which was a shame be­cause when I went to Kaza­khstan to shoot my movie, those I wanted to hire weren’t avail­able.”

One of his Kazakh stu­dents who stayed in the coun­try, Farkhat Shapirov, went on to di­rect “The Tale of the Pink Rab­bit,” which fol­lows the for­tunes of a child from the coun­try try­ing to find his place in fast-paced Al­maty. It was a ma­jor hit in Kaza­khstan.

“We tried to show the real Kaza­khstan with rich and poor in one film, and I guess it was the first high-qual­ity Kazakh film for young guys with young ac­tors,” said ac­tor Anuar Nurpeisov, who played the film’s lead char­ac­ter.

“This movie brought to­gether am­bi­tious di­rec­tors, ac­tors, cam­era­men. There haven’t been that many great films com­ing out of Kaza­khstan, and we showed we could do some­thing by our­selves.”

Kaza­khs cite the pro­mo­tion of a pos­i­tive im­age via por­tray­als of Kaza­khstan’s mod­ern cul­ture and an­cient his­tory as a key rea­son for their gov­ern­ment’s sup­port for the film in­dus­try. Last year, a fea­ture film de­pict­ing Pres­i­dent Nur­sul­tan Nazarbayev’s ru­ral child­hood pre­dictably casts the leader of 20 years in a glow­ing light.

And then there’s ‘Bo­rat’

“One rea­son film is such a big is­sue in Kaza­khstan is ‘Bo­rat,’ ” said Mr. Helmer, the Ger­man film­maker and teacher.

Mr. Baron Co­hen’s send-up of life in Amer­ica via the “re­port­ing” of a cul­tur­ally ob­tuse, Pamela An­der­son-ob­sessed Kazakh TV pre­sen­ter cre­ated an im­age that many Kaza­khs have found hard to stom­ach.

“It was im­pos­si­ble to ex­plain to my stu­dents that ‘Bo­rat’ is a film that makes fun of Amer­i­cans. That is be­cause any­where [ my stu­dents] go in the world, when they say they are from Kaza­khstan, peo­ple smile and say, ‘Ah, Bo­rat!’ ”

Still, Ms. Katchko says, Kaza­khfilm is putting a ma­jor em­pha­sis on the do­mes­tic mar­ket. That both “The Tale of the Pink Rab­bit” and “Myn Bala” fo­cus on youth­ful he­roes is no co­in­ci­dence: Ms. Katchko says the main cin­emago­ing au­di­ence in Kaza­khstan is be­tween 12 and 25.

“In gen­eral, a young au­di­ence goes to see films,” she says. “For 15 years, there was re­ally no real film­mak­ing in Kaza­khstan. For those who are 40 now — when they were 20 there were no films to watch.

“So ba­si­cally, we now have to ed­u­cate a new gen­er­a­tion. Be­cause I hope that those who are now 20 and 25 will con­tinue the habit of go­ing to see films.”

Mr. Nurpeisov, the ac­tor, says creative young peo­ple such as those in­volved in mak­ing “The Tale of the Pink Rab­bit” — which he likens to a Kazakh take on Guy Ritchie, the Bri­tish di­rec­tor of the wise­crack­ing ca­per flicks “Lock, Stock and Two Smok­ing Bar­rels” and “Snatch” — are a driv­ing force in Kaza­khstan’s bur­geon­ing film in­dus­try.

“Who can best speak to that au­di­ence? Their peers, their own gen­er­a­tion,” he says. “If this movie had been made by an older di­rec­tor, it wouldn’t have been so suc­cess­ful.”

“Myn Bala” is ex­pected to draw swarms of young movie fans when it opens April 26. Even the cast­ing process has con­trib­uted to the hype: 22,000 hope­fuls com­peted for the lead role, which even­tu­ally went to 17-yearold Asylkhan Tole­pov.

Whether it will suc­ceed in win­ning over in­ter­na­tional au­di­ences re­mains to be seen. This is not the first time the gov­ern­ment has sunk ma­jor fund­ing into a his­tor­i­cal epic that glo­ri­fied Kaza­khstan’s his­tory. But the last at­tempt, the 2005 “No­mad: The War­rior” — largely a for­eign pro­duc­tion backed by Kazakh money — was an in­ter­na­tional flop.

Even so, the pre­dom­i­nantly Kazakh team be­hind the $7 mil­lion pro­duc­tion of “Myn Bala” hopes its home­grown ad­ven­ture will put the coun­try’s film in­dus­try on the map — and maybe even eclipse the im­age of “Bo­rat.”


Ac­tor Sacha Baron Co­hen put Kaza­khstan in an un­flat­ter­ing light in “Bo­rat: Cul­tural Learn­ings of Amer­ica for Make Ben­e­fit Glo­ri­ous Na­tion of Kaza­khstan,” but the Cen­tral Asian na­tion is fight­ing back with its own moviemak­ing, in­clud­ing “Myn Bala,” “Baikonur” and “The Tale of the Pink Rab­bit.”

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