The sparkling azure Great Almaty Lake in the Tian Shan mountains outside Kazakhstan’s commercial capital is usually a tranquil spot, but this summer it is a hive of activity: a film crew has descended to shoot a Kazakh historical epic, a tale of love and war set against the backdrop of some of the country’s most sumptuous scenery.
“He wanted to protect his loved ones, and ended up freeing his country” – so goes the promo for the movie, based on a true story.
Directed by Akhan Satayev for the state-run Kazakhfilm studio with a budget of $7 million (minute by Hollywood standards, but significant by Kazakhstan’s), the film, Myn Bala, or 1,000 Children in English, culminates with hero Sartay, played by Asylkhan Tolepov, leading his army of teenagers to victory in battle in 1729 against the marauding Mongolian Dzungars.
Kazakh moviemaking has been enjoying a renaissance lately – as Kazakhfilm President Yermek Amanshayev put it after the recent screening of another film; “Kazakh cinema has found its place in the sun.”
The last decade has seen a steady rise in the number of Kazakh movies made, rising from only one in 2001 to 22 planned for 2011 – an all-time high since the early 1990s, when Kazakh cinema was emerging from a brief flourishing in the late Soviet era with a genre dubbed Kazakh New Wave.
The mainly Kazakh-language Myn Bala (the Dzungar characters will speak Mongolian) promises to be the jewel in the crown of recent cinematic output – but there is more to the movie than entertainment.
Its stirring account of Kazakh heroism against a backdrop of the country’s stunning natural beauty will also serve to foster a patriotic spirit at home, where the movie will be released on Independence Day, December 16.
“We’ve greatly planned it so the picture comes out in December, for the day of the celebration of the 20th year of our country’s independence,” Satayev told EurasiaNet.org.
He says the film’s patriotic message is aimed especially at young people, “so they know the price our ancestors paid for our freedom, for our independence, and so they appreciate it.”
The movie also aims to burnish Kazakhstan’s image abroad, where it is certain to wow art-house audiences -- and present an image of Kazakhstan far removed from the backward, phony Kazakhstan depicted in the 2006 Borat movie that so irked Astana.
This is not the first time Kazakhstan has used the silver screen as a form of soft power. Nomad (2005) – another historical epic about a Kazakh warrior, Abylay Khan, battling that perennial foe, the Dzungars – was also used to promote Kazakhstan.
This is all part of Astana’s PR drive to polish its international image, for which officials have harnessed spheres such as film and sport as tools for positive spin.
In Kazakhstan itself, feel-good patriotic movies are a popular genre: another recent release, the symbolically-titled Zheruyyk, or Promised Land, directed by Slambek Taukel, looks at Stalin’s 1930s and 1940s deportations of ethnic groups from around the Soviet Union to Central Asia.
The movie, which premiered in May, shows a Kazakh villager taking in deportees at great personal risk – a microcosm of the image of a multicultural Kazakhstan living in ethnic harmony that Astana cherishes and promotes today.
Another director, Rustem Abdrashov, also tackled the deportations in his moving 2008 prize-winning movie The Gift To Stalin, which looks at another topic that was taboo for filmmakers under the Soviets: nuclear testing at Kazakhstan’s Semipalatinsk range.
Filmmaking is “an opportunity to reassess the past,” Abdrashov said in April at the premiere of his latest movie, The Sky of My Childhood, a thoughtful (albeit flattering) portrait of the early life of President Nursultan Nazarbayev set under Soviet leaders Stalin and Khrushchev.
The movie touches on the impact on Kazakh rural life of the deportations and on the Soviets’ ruthless attitude to the lands the local people depended on for survival, a topic which also features in Ardak Amirkulov’s tear-jerker Goodbye, Gulsary (2008), a fictional account of a tussle with Soviet officialdom over a prize horse.
Soviet movies about that period “were done from the point of view of Soviet propaganda,” Abdrashov said. “This is an attempt to reassess, to tell a truth that wasn’t actually often talked about at the time.”
Some critics suspect that films examining Kazakhstan’s past that are funded from the state coffers run the risk of simply replacing one form of historical mythmaking (that of the Soviets) with another (that of Nazarbayev’s administration).
While acknowledging that cinema is an “ideological tool,” Satayev says historical authenticity is paramount in Myn Bala: “We are making a very truthful story,” Satayev says, stressing that there are both good and bad guys among the Kazakh characters.
Kazakh directors say they are making art, not propaganda, and point out that romanticizing the past on the silver screen was concept developed not in Astana but in Hollywood.
No one can accuse Satayev of a feel-good approach to filmmaking: his previous movies – the slick thrillers Racketeer (2007) and The Liquidator (2011) and the spooky drama Strayed (2010), Kazakhstan’s Oscar entry last year – have tackled problems that vex modern-day Kazakhstan, such as organized crime.
Myn Bala will certainly show Kazakhstan in a more positive light, and Satayev welcomes that. “We want foreign audiences to know about our country from a positive point of view,” he said.
But art comes first: “Firstly we want to make a good movie, and as far as I know a good movie knows no borders.”
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.