After Borat, Kazakhstan’s Cinema Dreams

Post-Borat, the Kazakh film industry is churning out its own blockbusters

The set of Myn Bala, two hours north of Almaty, feels like a Hollywood production. The director, Akan Satayev, is shooting the penultimate scene of his war epic in a dusty bowl surrounded by rocky hills, a river, and a fiberglass fortress where the bad guys, the Dzhungars, live. A cameraman is wearing a T-shirt that says “Stupid People Shouldn’t Breathe”; tattooed production assistants toss empty water bottles on the ground; an anorexic makeup artist screams at an extra in rust-colored pantaloons. Meanwhile, Satayev says he wants to reshoot the same 30-second stitch of film for the umpteenth time, and the camera, mounted on a strip of rail, starts following a clutch of Kazakh warriors as they prepare for battle. Then Satayev, who watches on two monitors inside an air-conditioned RV, whispers into a walkie-talkie that he’d like another take.

Later, at a Soviet-era casino that the crew has temporarily taken over, Satayev explains why he must get his picture—and his ending—just right. “We’re in a boom time,” he says. “Everyone in the former Soviet Union knows the film business here is very robust.” Indeed, between 2007 and 2010, the number of Kazakh new releases quintupled—from 2 to 10. As a result, expectations have risen, too: With a budget of $7 million, Myn Bala (“The Thousand Boys”) will be the most expensive movie in Kazakh history. It’s a gamble that producer Aliya Uvalzhanova is willing to take. Uvalzhanova thinks Satayev is “a genius”—a rare director capable of turning Almaty into the Hollywood of Central Asia. And Myn Bala, she believes, will be his greatest triumph yet. That’s why it’s been slated for release on Dec. 16, Kazakhstan’s own version of the July 4 tent pole weekend.

Despite such ambition, nearly all discussion of the Kazakh movie business still includes Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2006 film, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Kazakhs have mixed feelings about Borat, which grossed nearly $262 million worldwide by portraying Kazakhstan as a former Soviet backwater that no one in America knew existed. Now they do. “I like Camus,” says Ermek Amanshaev, president of the state-run Kazakhfilm studio, who watched Borat on a pirated DVD since the movie was banned in the country. “But this was not just absurd. This was very absurd!”

Amanshaev, who took over Kazakhfilm in 2007, says the studio is moving beyond Borat. Housed in a concrete complex surrounded by weeds, freeways, and empty buildings, Kazakhfilm is key to President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s plan to foster a national identity. After communism ended in 1991, Kazakhstan faced an existential crisis: For decades the Kremlin had deported enemies of the state to the Kazakh wild, blown up nuclear bombs in the Kazakh desert, and tried to grow cotton in the sprawling flatland known as the Kazakh Steppe. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, Kazakhstan was a confused, multiethnic broth that didn’t make much, grow much, or have much of a national identity. Or, as government spokeswoman Gulazhar Mashrapova put it, “Kazakhstan has always been sort of a dump for the rest of the Soviet Union. That was what we were famous for.”

Nazarbayev, who has been President since the communist collapse, is a Soviet holdover whose government is widely considered little more than a “hard authoritarian regime,” says Pavel Lobachev, president of Echo, an Almaty-based pro-democracy organization. He adds that Kazakhstan is “plagued with the resource curse,” meaning its rich energy deposits have stymied development of the rest of its economy. Well, almost. “The regime in Kazakhstan, which I would call enlightened dictatorship—it’s good for film industry,” says Kirill Razlogov, the program director of the Moscow International Film Festival. “I don’t know if it’s good for people.”

In recent years the government has funneled millions into the Kazakh movie machine. Amanshaev says the industry is focusing on historical dramas that make people proud to live in Kazakhstan—or comedies that distract them from what it’s actually like to live there. Kazakh films, Amanshaev claims, account for 7 percent to 8 percent of the Kazakh movie market, vs. nearly 3 percent in 2007. (Russian films account for about 20 percent; the U.S. controls more than 70 percent.) In 2010, he says, 26 theaters were built, and the industry grossed $50 million in ticket and DVD sales.

To market Hollywood on the Steppe, the government is hosting film festivals in Almaty that have drawn the likes of Adrien Brody, Kevin Costner, and Harvey Weinstein. It’s also upgrading Kazakhfilm’s special effects and post-production technology and promoting Kazakh cinema at the renowned film festivals in Cannes, Berlin, and Venice. In Kazakhstan, says producer Uvalzhanova, “President Nazarbayev attends every first night of every Kazakh movie.” Last month the Kazakh Embassy in the U.S. presented its own film festival, “Kazakhstan: Montage of Cinemas.”

Kazakh cinema, however, continues to evolve. Until recently, Satayev says, almost all its movies were “art house projects”—low-budget films that rarely netted more than $1 million. Satayev believes Kazakhs want “blockbusters”—movies that are more expensive, are emotionally simplistic, and make Kazakhs happy to come from a country that did not exist when many of them were born. Myn Bala is a perfect example—promoting a story about the fearsome but peace-loving Kazakh people’s quest for independence in the 18th century. It traces the life of the young warrior Sartai, who leads a horde of boys against Kazakhstan’s Dzhungar occupiers. Satayev admits that the uprising didn’t actually happen this way but says that’s actually not important. “What’s important is that young people are proud of their country,” he says. Kazakhfilm is also upgrading its romantic comedy offerings with The Wind Girl, which, Amanshaev says, is about three guys who kidnap a girl. “This subject is not funny maybe in America,” he explains.

Amanshaev has also greenlighted Kazakhfilm’s first feature-length cartoon and an action-thriller that, he says, “would be sort of like a prequel to 300.” Meanwhile, he says he is open to working with Baron Cohen—so long as he doesn’t make fun of Kazakhstan again—as well as Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. “We’re talking with Warner Bros.,” Amanshaev says of the action-thriller, “and we’d like Robert Downey Jr.”

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