MOSCOW — The battle is on for the screen image of Central Asian nation Kazakhstan.
On the one hand, there’s the local national epic costumer, “Nomad,” which has been doing healthy box office since its Russian release early September.
On the other, there’s Sacha Baron Cohen’s upcoming satirical “Borat,” which has had Kazakh authorities up in arms over the comic’s portrayal of his Kazakh journalist hero getting up to no good on a tour of America.
The Fox product is skedded for a November release in most major territories but it certainly won’t be hitting the screens of Kazakh capital Almaty, and release in Russia and other CIS territories also hangs in the balance.
According to a Moscow Fox spokesman, the question of whether to release or not is still being discussed, which only a month before projected launch looks pretty close to a negative.
“We’re concerned that other citizens of the ex-USSR might feel some of the same reactions [as the Kazakhs],” commented Fox’s Alexander Kovalenko.
Kazakh authorities have been strongly negative on the depiction of their country, taking out corrective press and TV ads timed to coincide with the recent visit of President Nursultan Nazarbayev to Washington.
Baron Cohen, meanwhile, attempted to deliver an invitation for a screening of “Borat” to the two heads of state at the White House.
A much more pleasing and patriotic depiction of the nation comes in “Nomad,” credited jointly to Czech director Ivan Passer and Russia’s Sergei Bodrov — the latter finished the film after shooting, which began in September 2004, was held up by bad weather.
Tensions between Passer and the producers likely also played a part in the change of helmers.
Stunning visuals, including three huge outdoor sets (two military camps and a walled city), give a dramatic backdrop to the heroic 18th century story of local tribes who rally around the young Mansur (played by Mexican actor Kuno Becker) to defeat the occupying Mongol enemy.
“The world knows about cowboys, gladiators and samurai — but not nomads,” said the project’s main developer, Azeri-Russian scenarist Rustam Ibragimbekov, as shooting commenced.
Ibragimbekov also produced the film along with Czech emigre Milos Forman, America’s Ram Bergman, and Kazakh partners.
The version shown in Russian re-lease certainly gets the endorsement of President Nazarbayev, who contributes opening and closing screen titles to the film to mark the gravity of depicted events. First screening of the initial version of the pic was on Nazarbayev’s birthday in summer 2005. Then followed a local Kazakh-language release.
In Russia, released on an impressive 330 prints through Fox’s local partner Gemini Entertainment, it’s earned close on $2.5 million to date — an impressive enough, though not completely heroic, figure given the film’s subject matter.
“Nomad” has also found an international audience, sold through France’s Wild Bunch. U.S. rights have gone to the Weinstein Company, with the brothers reportedly making editorial suggestions along the way.
Pic’s development and production were challenging. A week’s delay due to financing problems in September 2004 forced the shoot to be held-over to the following year. At one stage, the crew went on strike for two days due to the non-payment of fees.
The budget shot up from a reported $25 million to a final figure of as much as $40 million. More than lavish funding for the region — and lavish battle scenes certainly show the result, with a cast of thousands of extras, and no need for computer-generated effects.
Main cast include U.S. thesps Jason Scott Lee, Mark Dacascos and Jay Hernandez — all of whom are of Asian descent, and fit in well visually with the rest of the cast. Film was originally pitched as English-language, but returned to a Kazakh-lingo format as the pic developed.