MUNICH — Poor Kazakhstan. First Stalin, now Borat.
The world’s ninth-biggest nation in size might not be a mustache-free zone, and a popular Kazakh sport is indeed a version of polo using a dead goat instead of a ball (as seen in “Rambo III”), but don’t be fooled. The humiliating village scenes in “Borat” were actually shot in Romania and, yes, Kazakhstan does have its own film industry with an impressive history.
During WWII, in the face of the Nazi invasion, the Soviet film industry was moved from Leningrad and Moscow to the former Kazakh capital of Almaty. It was there that Sergei Eisenstein helmed his “Ivan Grozny” pics.
At the end of the 1980s, Kazakh cinema blossomed under then-Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalization of the Soviet economy and culture. By the time this oil-rich former member of the Soviet empire finally reached independence in 1991, film production was flourishing, and more than 30 private production outfits had sprung up.
But like the rest of the former Communist block, the Kazakh biz suffered a post-Soviet slump. With government subsidies coming to a sudden end, film production tumbled from a dozen projects in 1994 to around seven today.
However, things are looking up in Kazakhstan. Gulshat Omarova’s “Schizo” was a success on the foreign-language and fest circuits in 2004, and the Kazakh helmer is certainly one to watch.
In September 2004, production started on the $40 million action pic “Nomad,” currently hailed as an award contender. Picked up by Gaul sales outfit Wild Bunch for international distribution, its North American rights were sold to the Weinstein Co., although no U.S. release date has been set.
Financed by the Kazakh government, “Nomad” was designed as a national-identity-defining exercise. Set in the 18th century, it tells the story of the formation of the Kazakh nation and how the country’s tribes united against the Mongol occupiers. The pic’s stunning visuals include vast landscapes and battle sequences (some of which reportedly were added following suggestions from the Weinsteins) employing thousands of extras.
Starring Western thesps Kuno Becker, Jay Hernandez and Jason Scott Lee, “Nomad” originally was budgeted at a reported $25 million, already a lavish sum for a region where pics usually cost between $250,000 and $1 million. However, the budget shot up due to weather and logistical problems, in the course of which the pic changed director from Czech New Wave filmmaker Ivan Passer to Russian helmer Sergei Bodrov.
“Nomad” isn’t the only historical epic produced by the nationally owned Kazakh Film, which dominates the local production biz. Kazakh Film recently finished production on “Kek — Revenge,” another historical saga, helmed by Damir Manabai.
“Kazakh films are currently very much concerned with what it means to be Kazakh, because it’s such a young nation,” says U.S.-based Kazakh film scholar Jane Knox-Voina. “Apart from the historical films, there are also documentaries about the Kazakh countryside shot on digital and made for no money.”
Kazakh Film is producing French-German-Kazakh co-production “Ulzahn,” helmed by Jean-Claude Carriere and Volker Schlondorff, about a French man traveling to Kazakhstan.
And while Kazakh Film is very much the first port of call for foreign filmmakers wanting to shoot in Kazakhstan, some Kazakh filmmakers manage to finance their pics independently. Among them is arthouse veteran Darezhan Omirbayev, who recently contributed his short “About Love” to a digital film project produced and financed by the Jeonju fest in South Korea.
Obviously, there’s a lot more to Kazakh culture than table tennis.