The set for Berkutchi, a movie production about the manmade famine that gripped Kazakhstan in the early 1930s, was not easy to reach.
“You’ll need an off-road vehicle to get here,” Kanat Kairgazinov, company director of privately owned MG Productions, warned Eurasianet in late February.
The movie’s backers chose the spot, a deeply scenic, snowbound location in the foothills of the Dzungarian Alatau range along the border with China, 400 kilometers from the business capital, Almaty, in the pursuit of absolute historical accuracy. The subject deserves verisimilitude, the film’s creators argue.
From 1930 to 1933, the Kazakh Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic was utterly devastated by an unyielding campaign of social engineering undertaken by Josef Stalin to break the back of an ancient nomadic culture and force through collectivization through sedentarization. The murderous consequences of a parallel undertaking in Ukraine are reasonably well-known and are subject of a fast-growing body of scholarly works. The Kazakh collectivization campaign, which may have claimed up to 1.5 million lives, a full quarter of the Kazakh population of the time, languishes in relative obscurity.
“There are few who know about this in modern Kazakhstan. This subject was a taboo for the Soviet authorities. We want to fill in this gap in knowledge and tell this story,” Yernar Malikov, the owner of MG Productions, told Eurasianet at the set in the village of Suyksay.
The Berkutchi crew set up camp in a local school, where they assemble for the daily planning meeting after a 6 a.m. start. Staying at a more comfortable location and traveling to the set daily was not an option. The only road lies along a series of rutted, steep, twisting climbs that require a driver’s robust concentration.
It was there that the dramatic culmination depicted in Berkutchi played out in real life. The film tells the story of an eagle-hunter – the berkutchi of the title – whose wife and two young children are forced to flee toward China after he is arrested by Red Army officers. As the family seeks safety and food, they must contend with perils from all sides.
On the day that Eurasianet visited the set, the crew were filming a key scene, in which the family is surrounded by wolves and the mother, played by Sayazhan Kulumbetova, is forced by the situation to decide which of the children she can save. It was the boy whose life was spared. That story was told to the filmmakers by the boy himself, who is still alive today.
“Whenever he upset his mother, she would say to him that she might have been better off leaving him behind. He understood what these words meant and only then did he attain maturity,” said director Marina Kunarova.
Kunarova’s previous credits include drug addiction drama 999 (2010) and low-budget, sci-fi thriller Hunting the Phantom (2015), which was filmed in Kazakhstan and starred US B-lister Armand Assante.
On the day of the wolf-attack shoot, Kunarova appeared to be struggling to marshal the child actors, seven-year-old Aybar Tangyt and six-year-old Rayana Dauletkyzy, who were in an ebullient mood despite the gravity of the scene. At one stage, crew hands wiped something on the children’s cheeks to get the tears rolling.
“They’re crying! Quickly quickly! Or they’ll lose the mood,” Kunarova shouted, prompting the cameraman to go in for a close-up of the trio of actors slumped in the snow in a simulation of despair.
The trained animals — real wolves — were not much more cooperative. To keep their performance sharp, the wolves were deprived of food for a few hours, so that it would look more realistic when they got to mauling the mannequin representing the little girl. But when the animals were released, they ran several hundred meters in the wrong direction and chased an unsuspecting ox instead.
“They don’t usually bite people … but it is best not to get on their nerves,” said a trainer, nodding toward Jacob, the largest in the pack.
Gulzura Aybuzova, the mother of the young girl, Dauletkyzy, was a fretful presence on the set. At one point, she rushed to brush snow off her daughter’s hair, much to Kunarova’s chagrin.
“When I read the script, I cried. It was very hard,” Aybuzova told Eurasianet. “I probably won’t watch the movie. Filming is one thing, but it is quite another matter to see this story with your child on the screen.”
Speaking during a break between scenes, Kunarova said that her team undertook considerable research and spoke to survivors to ensure their account was told without embellishment. The story that people will see onscreen is, she assured, shocking.
“What could be more horrendous for parents than to watch their child die, utterly helpless? One family boiled old skins and bones for something to eat. When there was nothing left in the house, the mother would just boil water in a pot and tell the children that she was making a delicious soup so the children might fall asleep with hope. The mother would apprehensively remain in waiting until morning, afraid that her children might not wake up,” Kunarova said.
Although the period of collectivization left indelible traces on Kazakhstan, the subject rarely gets a public airing.
Anuar Galiyev, a history professor at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, said that one reason for this might be that a large portion of Kazakhstan’s population is ethnic Russian and that certain uncomfortable issues are avoided in the interests of preserving interethnic harmony — a deeply held article of faith for President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
“At a state level, there is not systemic policy of memory aimed at historical enlightenment. Unlike neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where the public actively discussed the tragic events of 1916, when an uprising against the Russian Empire was crushed, more attention is paid in Kazakhstan to achievements of the post-Soviet era,” Galiyev said.
On the international political front, Astana may also be wary of imperiling its relations with Russia, its closest economic and political ally, Galiyev said.
Russia has indeed bristled at Ukraine’s campaign to broaden awareness of its own bloody collectivization legacy. Officials in Moscow often see such attempts to deepen understanding of historic events in lands formerly under their rule as veiled assaults on Russia as a whole.
But Malikov, the head of MG Productions and Kunarova’s husband, said that he had no desire to politicize the project.
“People have asked me: Am I not afraid I could get into trouble because of this film? But I am only afraid of one thing. That people will forget the lessons of the past,” he said.
Historical debates aside, funding has proven the real problem for Berkutchi. The overall budget was set at a reasonably modest $900,000. In May, the European Cinema Support Fund told MG Productions it was willing to stump up 45 percent of the total, but only if the remainder could be raised in Kazakhstan.
The producers touted the project around to local investors, but their pitch was received coolly, perhaps a reflection of the sensitivities involved. A crowdfunding initiative raised only a paltry amount.
“Of course we are disappointed by this level of support,” said Malikov. “We are determined to make this film, even if it means selling off all our possessions.”
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.