Earlier this month, a square in downtown Almaty was a scene of chaos.
A rowdy crowd, some of them carrying flags of Kazakhstan, angrily shouted slogans. Fences had been knocked over and paving stones pulled up. Overturned cars smoldered. The police were nowhere to be seen.
Residents of a nearby high-rise might have been forgiven for reacting with terror. It looked like a reprise of the horrendous street violence in early 2022 that culminated in the death of hundreds.
And in a way, it was. Only the mob was all actors and extras. The scene was a recreation of those events last January. When the director of the scene gave the order to stop, the commotion ceased.
“No one move. Everybody hold your mark! We’re going again!” a young woman barked into a megaphone, at which the crowd resumed bellowing.
This is a major production. The film set is huge and covers an area about the size of two football fields. National Guard troops usefully provided a cordon to keep away the public.
It is rare and remarkable for law enforcement to give a film shoot such generous levels of assistance, which extended to closing off busy Almaty streets for hours on end.
The way the filmmakers and the authorities are working so closely has given rise to many questions about who exactly is backing this movie, and why.
The official narrative for the turmoil, which is popularly known in Kazakh as Qandy Qantar, or Bloody January, is that the trouble was masterminded by power-hungry plotters directing platoons of armed militants. Fully 238 people died and more than 4,000 were injured before law enforcement could restore order, according to this account.
This narrative typically downplays the fact of the anti-government demonstrations that preceded the violence. Officials have never felt the need to explain the rough suppression of well-attended and peaceful rallies, and how the chaos that ensued laid the ground for malevolent third parties to get involved.
Which angle the movie now still in production is pursuing will only become fully clear upon its release. But suspicions are already germinating.
As images of the shoot appeared online, rumors immediately spread that the project – the working title of which is “Qaitalanbasyn” (Let It Not Happen Again) – was being implemented by Salem Social Media, a web series production company owned by Aleksandr Mashkevich, a billionaire with historically cozy ties to the government. Sleuths have pointed to how the producer of the movie is one Anara Zhunusova, who is known for having worked at Salem Social Media.
Many of these allegations are being directed right at the Instagram page for the “Qaitalanbasyn” project. Commenters accuse the filmmakers of planning to provide a distorted version of events at the behest of the authorities.
Speaking to Eurasianet, Zhunusova denied that she and her team were taking their cues from the authorities or that they had got financial backing from the state. The money was coming, she said, from private investors who wish to remain anonymous. As for her links to Salem Social Media, Zhunusova said she no longer works there.
“We are not our own enemies. We have to live and work in this country. We would not misrepresent such sensitive matters,” she said. “The message of the film is to tell the tragic stories of innocent people, that’s all.”
The direction work is being done by a team of five young filmmakers whose previous experience to date extends to putting together web series. This movie will be their full-length feature debut.
“Our guys are fully investing their artistic vision [into the movie] and they are not coordinating the plot with anyone,” she said.
If “Qaitalanbasyn” defies its critics and turns out to contain an unsparing account of the government’s conduct during Bloody January, it could run into trouble, though.
In September, the Baikonur cinema in Almaty was forced to drop the screening of two short films about the events from a festival it was hosting. “Qantar” was directed by Alisher Zhadigerov; the other movie, “The Burden We Bear,” was made by Aruzhan Dosymkozha. Cinema managers cited unspecified “technical problems” right before the screening of the two films, but whatever those issues were, it didn’t stop other movies from being shown.
Zhadigerov’s film, which can be viewed in full on YouTube, dwells on the story of a grieving mother who lost a son during the security operation mounted to quell the unrest. The short contains what can be read as oblique criticism of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s order to authorize government forces to use lethal force in quelling the trouble.
Zhadigerov says he is certain the order to cancel the public showing of his film came from powerful quarters. He insists there was nothing in what he made that could create tension in society.
“The authorities are afraid of even having discussions around this topic in society,” Zhadigerov told Eurasianet. “This only makes things worse. Censorship itself provokes discontent, especially among the relatives of the victims.”
Some creatives are able to talk about Bloody January, though, as long as they toe the line. In December, Russian writer Leonid Mlechin presented a book titled Tragic January at the Russian Embassy in Astana. The book contained a highly positive evaluation of Tokayev’s handling of events.
“In those days, the fate of the country depended on one person: President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev” the blurb of the book reads. “Those who started all this assumed that the president would give up, get scared, and maybe leave the country. And they made a big mistake. He could not leave his country. He did everything he could to save it.”
The parsimonious way in which officials have divulged information about what exactly happened in January 2022 is guaranteed to inspire cynicism and skepticism over any attempt to tell the story. Law enforcement agencies have classified hundreds of volumes of evidence in the case being made against former security services bosses facing trial for allegedly being the ultimate drivers of the violence. The curious public is left with nothing but repetitive and dry figures delivered by prosecutors. Everything else is a state secret.
Filmmakers like Zhadigerov feel this is unacceptable.
“The people have a right to know the truth. But this is unlikely to happen under the current government,” he said.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.