Sartay’s is a peace-loving village. But when marauding Mongolian Dzungars brutally slay most of the inhabitants, including his parents, the Kazakh youth has no choice but to raise an army of teenagers to fight back, courageously attacking the Mongolians and rallying other youths to the cause.
Across Kazakhstan, an epic historical movie with an unabashedly patriotic tale is playing to packed theaters.
Directed by Akhan Satayev for the state-run Kazakhfilm studio, “Myn Bala: Warriors of the Steppe” opens with the Dzungars’ vicious attack and the making of our hero. Myn Bala in Kazakh means 1,000 children – Sartay (played by Asylkhan Tolepov) actually raises an army of 100, but he tells them before the final battle scene that together they are worth 1,000 warriors.
Director Satayev is better known for making movies with subtle plot twists that tackle modern-day problems such as organized crime, but audiences don’t seem to mind the black-and-white approach to history in his latest film. At a recent showing in Almaty, viewers applauded at the end. As Tengri News reported, Myn Bala is proving a blockbuster, taking a million dollars at the box office in the first weekend after its release on May 3, a Kazakh record.
The film’s success is notable since it was shot in Kazakh (with a bit of Mongolian). Films in Kazakh often struggle in a country where only about two-thirds of people speak the language, but the movie (called “Zhauzhurek Myn Bala” in Kazakh, or “The Brave Thousand Children”) is showing in the original language with Russian subtitles in many theaters.
Myn Bala’s $10 million budget may be small by Hollywood standards but is significant by Kazakhstan’s. As EurasiaNet.org reported last year, Astana is keen to harness the power of the silver screen to promote Kazakhstan, and it’s prepared to cough up the cash to do so.
There are hopes the movie will play well with art-house audiences in the West. They will certainly enjoy the sumptuous scenery. But they may not appreciate the quotes about Kazakh statehood from President Nursultan Nazarbayev featuring at the beginning and end. The quotes appear to suggest that Nazarbayev courageously managed to finish what the hero Sartay started in the 18th century. For some viewers, that might require a leap of imagination to swallow.