Revamped studios, emerging talent lure Western filmmakers

ALMATY, KAZAKHSTAN In the place where Sergei Eisenstein once created agitprop for Stalin to help inspire the Russian effort to beat back the Nazis, Kazakhfilm studios has put $7 million into “Myn Bala: Warriors of the Steppe,” an epic historic saga of a small band of traditional herdsmen fending off hordes of invading Mongols. The pic’s scrappy characters make for a fitting metaphor for a country that until recently was the butt of Borat jokes, but is now engaged in a monumental effort to make an international name for itself, not just as a shooting locale but as a source of directorial talent.

The newly renovated collection of soundstages, labs and post facilities has a prime location in the former capital of Almaty, and is at the forefront of a charge to rebuild Central Asian filmmaking.

Kazakhstan’s Oscar foreign-lingo submission this year, “Myn Bala” is a sweeping adventure tale whose global rights were picked up by Jeff Rayman’s 108 Media. The company has since sold video and DVD rights to Germany, France, the Netherlands, the Middle East and the U.K., and plans on a theatrical run in the U.S. with Paladin Films in the fourth quarter.

The film’s glossy production values haven’t just set a new standard for local pics — they also serve as a calling card for the formerly Soviet-run Kazakhfilm.

The studios’ sales director, Ilyas Akhmet, calls the ambitious pic’s $2 million local take “an unbelievable success” and adds that a 2013 production date is slated for the studio’s next major project, U.S. helmer Chuck Russell’s 3D adaptation of “1001 Arabian Nights,” starring Liam Hemsworth.

Rayman believes “Myn Bala” will do solid arthouse business in North America, similar to the $5 million minted by another steppes-set historical epic, “Mongol,” in 2007. (That film nabbed a foreign-language Oscar nom.)

“The film’s landscape is stunning,” he says, adding that its epic visual nature and grandeur should travel well.

The deep roots of this nomadic society, where yurts are still common outside the city and many still know the folk songs that have helped pass long, freezing winter nights for generations, were never successfully severed by decades of Soviet efforts to industrialize the areas. Although the Russians built dozens of prison camps here and considered Kazakhstan essentially an extension of Siberia, the natives’ fierce independence often caused their old overlords to throw up their hands — and sometimes run for cover.

That same determination and resourcefulness are key to rebuilding the film sector, say international bizzers. Kazakh horse wranglers are in demand abroad for training actors to ride, while Kazakhfilm has spent the past year creating the country’s first CGI-animated fantasy, “The Book of Legends: Mysterious Forest.” (Still the years of Russian domination have had consequences. The young cast of “Myn Bala” had no trouble galloping through canyons, performing their own swashbuckling stunts and working all day in dust, snow and baking heat. But they needed help learning Kazakh. Youth here speak mainly Russian these days.)

Anna Katchko, a Moscow-based producer for the first German-Kazakh co-production in recent memory, “Harmony Lessons,” says the crop of new local talent is promising. She helped organize the first showcase of young directors at last year’s Eurasia fest, Kazakhstan’s biggest annual film event, and this year’s edition in September drew even more new features.

Festival scouts such as South Korea’s Lee Yong-kwan say they’ve been following the Kazakh film renaissance for some time, and are now running focuses on the region, which fascinates foreign auds with a diversity of filmic styles and strength of storytelling.

The Berlinale’s Nikolaj Nikitin predicts that soon, to Europeans, Kazakhs will be partners, saying they offer film perspectives no one else has.

Golden Globe award reps also came calling this year to court Kazakh filmmakers, encouraging new auteurs to submit pics and offering to hold press conferences abroad for those who make the cut.

The country’s policy of outreach dates from its active cooperation with the U.S. in tracking and securing enriched nuclear fuel left behind by the Soviets not long after the first days of its independence in 1991. The outbound focus now means that budding Kazakh filmmakers, along with all other university students, are funded by the state to study abroad as long as they agree to return and work in their native land for three years.

Many are fast absorbing Western production and marketing savvy, and talk of film “branding” and franchises as often as they do story and character.

Others are intent on following their own hoofbeats, willing to bypass the development-to-distrib support that Kazakhfilm can offer those it favors.

Helmer-scribe Adilkhan Yerzhanov, whose topical film “Constructors” follows the story of canny young Kazakhs forced to steal building materials in order to save their land from the maw of corrupt local officials, is content to work independently. His low-budget feature debut has already won foreign fest programmers’ interest.

But whether going big or going it alone, Kazakh filmmakers clearly aren’t put off by struggle. That quality, more than any one filmmaking asset, may just get them to their goal — no matter how long and winding the road.

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more