Karlovy Vary: Kazakh Emir Baigazin Back to French Arizona for ‘The River’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Baigazin’s third film in his Asian trilogy part of Paris-based Arizona Films’ sweeping slate of up-and-coming talent from Eastern Europe and beyond

The River, directed by Emir Baigazin
Courtesy: Arizona Films

Kazakh director Emir Baigazin, who burst onto the big fest scene with 2013 debut “Harmony Lessons,” is reuniting with its producer, Guillaume de Seille’s Paris-based Arizona Films, for “The River.”

The third feature in Baigazin’s Asian trilogy, “The River” forms just part of a sweeping 2017-18 production slate at Arizona, taking in new, on-the-rise or pretty-well established directors in 11 countries in Central and Eastern Europe and beyond, such as Chile and China, as Arizona Films acts as not only a producer and co-financier, and sometimes distributor and sales agent but also source of production expertise and creative talent and conduit into the big fest mainstream for world cinema directors looking to break through to larger recognition abroad.

Unsurprisingly, having had films at Sundance and Berlin (Georgia’s “My Happy Family,” from “In Bloom’s” Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross) and Cannes (debutant Slovak director Gyorgy Krystof’s “Out,” an Un Certain Regard player), given its deep relations in Central and Eastern Europe, Arizona is a producer behind four titles at Karlovy Vary. Its two world premieres figure among the festival’s highest-profile bows:  Competition contender “Khibula,” sold by Berlin-based Pluto and directed by Georgia’s George Ovashvili, who won the Crystal Globe for best film three years ago for “Corn Island”; “Pomegranate Island,” the second feature from Azeri Ilgar Najaf, which opened East of the West, on which De Seille brought in Dutch co-writer, Roelof-Jan Minneboo, Ovashvili’s regular scribe and a script editor for Miaoyan Zhang.

Baigazin’s “The River” will hit Karlovy Vary on July 3 as one of the most eagerly-anticipated projects to be presented there, receiving a special out-of-competition presentation at Karlovy Vary’s Works in Progress.

Hailed by Variety as “an immaculately executed study of bullying and revenge” in a small town on the steppes of Kazakhstan which “evokes, among others, Kieslowski and Bresson, but still speaks in its own unique voice,” “Harmony Lessons” was the only first feature in competition at the 2013 Berlinale. It went on to win a Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution.

After the four-shorts omnibus “The Wounded Angel” and just completed new opus “Would You Like To Stargaze,” an experimental melodrama which Baigazin produced himself, the Arizona-produced “The River” is a “sharp script about the turmoil of a family of five children in the countryside being troubled by an adolescent from the city,” said De Seille.

Casting is completed; principal photography will take place right after Karlovy Vary through to late August; a sales agent is still to be attached. Variety has had access to a photo of the boys (pictured), which suggests – though admittedly a family portrait – Baigazin’s hallmark bare but redolent formalism.

“The River” won funding on May 3 from Norway’s Sorfund with Hilde Berg’s Norks as its Norwegian producer and Emir Baigazin Production as its domestic producer in Kazakhstan. State agency KazakhFilm has backed “The River” to the tune of 200 million Tenge – about $620,000.

On another Arizona Films production, Beta Film has acquired international sales rights to Bulgarian Milko Lazarov’s narrative feature “Nanook,” a “loose remake” of the Flaherty classic, said De Seille, shot in 35mm in harsh conditions in Yakutsk, Russia. It centers on an aging Inuit couple, Nanook and Sedna, who live in an igloo and refuse to abandon their traditional life for modern mod-cons.

Produced by Bulgaria’s Red Carpet and Germany’s 42Film, “Nanook” was among the winners at the 11th Sofia Film Meetings, taking its Mediterranean Film Institute scholarship and a Synchro post-production services award. With Lazarov currently editing, the drama is backed by the Bulgarian Film Center, Bulgarian National Television, MDM, Aide aux Cinéma du Monde and Arte/ZDF. Its producers intend to show 20 minutes of footage at the mid-August Sarajevo Film Festival CineLink Work in Progress, De Seille said. CineLink previously showcased projects such as “Harmony Lessons” and Lazlo Nemes’ Academy Award-winner “Son of Saul.”

After three films, the last two with Arizona – “Black Blood,” in Cannes’ Acid section, and at Rotterdam; “Corner of Heaven,” at Rotterdam and Goteborg – Manchurian Zhang Miaoyan is currently traveling to Korea, thanks to Busan’s Asian Cinema Fund support, to complete post-production for fourth feature “Silent Mist.” Premiering at Busan next October, Zhang “slightly enters low-budget genre” with “Silent Mist” which revisits Fritz Lang’s “M” in its tale of  a serial rape case at a canal town in Southern China, said De Seille. European festivals have already expressed their interest, he added.

On a further Arizona production, Greek director (“Amnesia Dairies”) and producer (“The Last Resort”) Stella Theodorakis is now editing her fourth feature, “Free Subject,” which tied down Eurimages funding this March. True to its title, it turns on an art school teacher and students sounding off about their country’s political situation, with actors improvising heavily to gain real freedom. Its filmmakers aim to screen excerpts at Thessaloniki’s Works in Progress this November or at December’s Les Arcs European Film Festival, said De Seille.

Laureled at the Transylvania Pitch Stop and also tapping Eurimages funding in June,  “The Man Who Surprised Everyone,” Natalia Merkulova and Alexei Chupov’s follow-up to debut “Intimate Parts,” will go into production at the end of summer. “Intimate Parts” played Karlovy Vary’s East of the West in 2013.

Russia’s New People Film Co. and Irish Film & Music Entertainment, the Republic of Ireland offshoot of London-based F&ME,  are set to co-produce Arizona Films’ “Jumpman,” the third feature from Russia’s Ivan L. Tverdovsky, who turned heads winning a Karlovy Vary’s Special Jury Prize last year with the memorably high-concept allegory “Zoology,” about a woman who grows a tail.

That was a lament for the crushing of individualism under a grossly conformist Russian system. The subject of Cannes’ 2017 Cinando Best Sellers Contest Award, where it was pitched back-to-back by 16 young sales agents,  “Jumpman” weighs in as another fantasy social allegory of bodily singularity, about a man who can’t feel pain – a reflection on an lost generation of young Russians, ethically numbed by corruption and a lack of guidance from their elders.

Among projects still at financing stage, Chile’s Alejandro Fernandez Almendras – a caustic critic of the country’s lack of social reform and Sundance winner for “To Kill a  Man” – looks set to shoot his first film outside Chile, the Czech Republic-set “The Best We Can” (aka “A Work of Love”).

Arizona Films is also backing Ukrainian Eva Neymann’s follow-up to “Song of Song,” a Karlovy Vary 2015 competition entry;

Czech Tomas Weinreb and Petr Kazda’s next after 2016 Berlinale hit “I, Olga Hepnarova,” also produced by Arizona;

and Latvian Juris Kursietis’ second film, after “Modris,” selected for the Toronto in 2014.

In all, half of the projects or productions on Arizona’s 2017-18 slate are first or second features, a reflection not only of De Seille’s career vocation of nursing new talent but also the slow emergence of national film industries in many more peripheral countries in Eastern Europe.

“Karlovy Vary Film festival is becoming the most efficient platform to launch and present new directors in a friendly peaceful and professional atmosphere, especially talents from Eastern Europe. The industry in Eastern Europe and its presence at Karlovy Vary are becoming stronger, while Czech companies are increasingly boarding projects as minority co-producers,” said De Seille.

“To add a few words to Karel Och’s recent statement, now we can only wish to finance and produce faster,” he concluded.