The literal translation of Kazakhstan is “Land of the Wanderers” – reflecting the nomadic origins of the Kazakh people – and if the folks behind the soon-to-be-launched Almaty Film Festival have their way it’ll become the destination of choice in Central Asia for itinerant international producers seeking a partner in the region for their projects, or dramatic locations for their shoots. The first edition of the festival will run Sept. 15-19.
The land-locked country, sandwiched between China and Russia, has a modest population, 18.6 million, in relation to its huge size – almost four times the area of Texas. Contained within that vast space are a variety of natural terrain – predominantly grassland plains, the Steppe, but also the Altai Mountain in the East, deserts in the South, lakes and inland seas, like Caspian and Aral, forests and canyons.
For the past two decades the capital has been Astana, but before that it was Almaty, and that remains the cultural heart of the country, and home to its film industry. Its status as a regional production hub dates back to World War II, when film folk from Moscow were forced to flee from the Nazis, and set up base in Almaty. The two main Soviet film studios, Mosfilm and Lenfilm, were among those temporarily evacuated to the city, which was then called Alma-Ata. They turned it into a filmmaking center, and for the rest of the war, 80% of all Soviet films were shot there.
In the post-war decades it continued to be a major movie production city, but during the Perestroika era in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, a new wave of young Kazakh filmmakers emerged, ready to challenge the cinematic establishment. Released in 1988, “The Needle” provided a catalyst for this new movement in Kazakh film. The film, directed by Rashid Nugmanov, starred Viktor Tsoi, the frontman of popular Soviet rock group Kino, and a hero among the disaffected Soviet youth.
There are several major film production companies in the city. Kazakhfilm Studio is a state-owned company, financed by the Ministry of Culture, which has been in Kazakhstan since Soviet Union times. Eurasia Film Production is the leading private film production company in the country, led by Gulnara Sarsenova. Her film “Mongol,” directed by Sergey Bodrov, was nominated for the best foreign-language film Oscar in 2008, and in same year another of her films, “Tulpan” by Sergey Dvortsevoy, received the Grand Prix in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard.
This year, Sarsenova’s “Aika,” also directed by Dvortsevoy, was in Cannes’ main competition and its star, Samal Yesliamove, received the best actress award. Dvortsevoy is an ethic Russian but was born and raised in Kazakhstan, although he now lives in Moscow, while Yesliamove is pure Kazakh and still lives in Kazakhstan.
Sarsenova is the only Central Asian producer to receive the Best Asian Filmmaker award at Busan Intl. Film Festival, in 2008. Sarsenova will be a member of the jury at Almaty Film Festival this year.
Satai Film is another leading film production company in Almaty, launched and run by Akan Satayev, one of the top film director in Kazakhstan, and president of Almaty Film Festival. Satayev is also a partner of Astana Film Fund, which is the official organizing company of the festival. Astana Film Fund is the producer of “The Gentle Indifference of the World,” directed by Adilkhan Erzhanov, which premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard this year and played in Karlovy Vary Film Festival. The film will be included in the main competition at Almaty Film Festival.
Foreign films and TV series that were shot in Almaty and the surrounding region, include “Voice of Steppe,” co-directed by Gerard Depardieu and co-produced by France’s B-Tween Company, “Marco Polo,” which was produced by The Weinstein Company, and “Ivan the Terrible.”
The main competition section of the Almaty Film Festival, titled “Rapprochement of Cultures,” is dedicated to international co-productions, and the festival hopes that when international producers come to the festival they’ll also grasp the opportunity to talk to their local counterparts about co-production opportunities, and look at some of the locations on offer nearby.
Another section, organized in co-operation with UNESCO, is titled “Cultural and Natural Heritage, Tourism and Sport.” The films in this section will focus on cities that “demonstrate the role of culture as a tool for sustainable urban development.”
Another section is titled “City in Motion,” and this will be devoted to films from major international cities. The aim is to “develop cooperation between these cities and Almaty, as well as cooperation between the countries of these cities and Kazakhstan as a whole.” The cities will only be those with direct air routes with Almaty, like Paris, Istanbul, Moscow, Seoul and Beijing. There is also a section called “Children and Family Films,” which is supported by Disney.
The Almaty Film Festival Business Forum will hold a series of round tables, panel discussions and master classes. Among its aims are to “attract foreign filmmakers and establish partnerships between them and local film production companies,” according to a statement, and “create favorable conditions” for the production of foreign films in Almaty and the region. The festival will invite 10 projects to pitch for support from the Astana Film Fund. The director or producer must be a resident of Kazakhstan.
The festival’s program director, Elena Larionova Haug, who previously held the same position at Eurasia International Film Festival, and before as the liaison in the international program department of the Dubai International Film Festival, says: “The main aim of the festival is to expand the cooperation with foreign filmmakers and organization.”
The land that is now Kazakhstan used to be part of the Silk Road, the ancient trading route from East to West. If the Almaty Film Festival is a success it will help Kazakhstan become a destination for foreign film producers and movie traders of all kinds for decades to come.