Kazakh cinema was born in 1929 with the establishment of the first film studio Vostokkino. Most of the films made here were documentaries about Soviet development. The first feature film with a Kazakh theme and Kazakh actors, Amangeldy, was shot at Lenfilm in Leningrad. Based on the life of the hero Amangeldy Imanov, the film depicts life and suffering in pre- revolutionary Kazakhstan and the Kazakh liberation movement.
Filmmaking in Kazakhstan was given a boost by the dislocations caused by World War II, as the main Soviet studios, Mosfilm and Lenfilm, were both evacuated to Almaty in 1941, where they were combined with the Almaty Film Studio to produce the Central United Film Studio, which ran until 1944. Much of the great Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein's two-part epic Ivan the Terrible was filmed in Kazakhstan. Numerous war films were also made here.
With the experience gained from Mosfilm, Almaty was now able to produce its own films. The first achievement by Kazakh filmmakers was the film version of Mukhtar Auezov's Abai's Way. Since then, more than 100 feature films and numerous documentaries have been shot in Almaty. Both in terms of content and of form, most of them reflected the social development and political conditions of their time. Films like Zhambyl, His Time Will Come (about Chokan Valikhanov), Kyz Zhibek, Sultan Beybar and the award-winning Land of the Forefathers (after a novel by Olzhas Suleymenov) were about the search for Kazakh identity A combination of literature, musical creation and cinematic art has resulted in some high- quality filmmaking.
In the post-war Soviet period, the major figure of Kazakhstan's film industry was director Shaken Aimanov, in whose honour the Kazfilm studios were renamed in 1984. Notable films of this period include a number of historical epics, such as the tragic love story Kyz-Zhibek (1970), and a trio of action films involving a secret agent, played by Asanali Ashimov, who uses all manner of derring-do to defeat the enemies of communism. The first in the trilogy, The End of the Ataman (1970), was set in 1921 and was directed by Aimanov. The second, Trans-Siberian Express (1977), directed by Eldor Urazbaev and set in 1927, featured a complicated plot involving the defeat of counter-revolutionaries planning to kill a Japanese businessman on a train bound for Moscow, on which our hero was masquerading as a cabaret manager. The third in the trilogy, Manchurian Version (1989), was set in 1945 Manchuria. The films, with their central hero played by a Kazakh actor, were, as well as entertainment, part of the efforts of the Soviet establishment to demonstrate that the Kazakh people fully supported communism.
With perestroika in the Soviet Union of the late 1980s emerged a new wave of young Kazakhstani filmmakers, ready to challenge the cinematic establishment. A shot in the arm was provided, quite literally, by The Needle (1989), the first film directed by Rashid Nugmanov, who cast as his central figure Viktor Tsoi, front-man of the rock group Kino and already a hero to disaffected Soviet youth. Kino also contributed to the soundtrack. Tsoi's character returns to Alma-Ata to collect money he is owed, only to find out that his former girlfriend has become a drug addict. He decides to fight against the drug pushers and it all ends badly. Nugmanov's The Wild East (1993), loosely based on Kurosawas Seven Samurai, involves a group of dwarves, runaways from the circus, who bring in the magnificent seven to protect them from the predations of motorbike-riding Mongolian hoodlums. (No, I'm not making this up.) Nugmanov moved to Paris in 1993, where he has been associated with Kazakhstani political opposition groups.
Other filmmakers of post-independence Kazakhstan to have achieved success at international festivals include Satybaldy Narimbetov. His Biography of a Young Accordion Player (1994) is a tale of a small boy growing up in a Kazakh village during World War II. Leila's Prayer (2002) focuses on a girl from a village close to the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, whose mother, father and aunt all die of unexplained diseases and whose prayer is that her baby son should live to old age. Darezhan Omirbaev's Killer (1998), a Kazakh-French co-production, is a tragic tale highlighting the economic difficulties faced by Kazakhstanis in the 1990s. A young Almaty driver causes a minor motor accident when taking his wife and newborn baby back home from the hospital. Unable to pay for the damage, he gets sucked into crime. Amir Karakulov has garnered critical praise for a number of films, including Homewrecker (1991), a tale of two brothers in love with the same girl. Again, it all ends badly. A newer arrival on the scene is Rustem Abdrashev. His directorial debut was Renaissance Island (2004), a tale of the first love of an aspiring poet set against the historical backdrop of the desiccation of the Aral Sea.
One problem is that very few of these films have been widely seen by audiences in Kazakhstan. Domestic distributors have preferred to rely on a diet of dubbed Hollywood blockbusters and big-budget Russian movies, with the result that post- independence Kazakhstani cinema has developed something of a reputation as being more likely to be found in Western art houses and international competitions than on screens in Kazakhstan. One occasion which does offer the opportunity to sec a range of Kazakhstani films is the annual Eurasia International Film Festival, held in Almaty in September. This also attracts a few international stars: guests have included Catherine Deneuve and Steven Seagal. Details of the festival are on www.eurasiaiff.kz.
The biggest recent productions have been two lavish historical epics aimed at fostering national pride – Nomad (2005) and Oscar-nominated Mongol (2007). Nomad, with its international crew and cast, was an officially supported attempt to bring a film based on the exploits of Kazakh warriors of the 18th century onto international screens. Racketeer (2007), directed by Akhan Sataev, about a young Almaty boxer in the tough economic climate of the 1990s, was billed as the first purely commercially oriented film made in post-independence Kazakhstan, and proved a considerable box-office draw.
Globally better known than anyone working in Kazakhstan is Timur Bekmambetov, who was born in Atyrau in 1961 but has made his film career in Moscow and Hollywood, directing international successes Night Watch, Wanted and 9. Bekmambetov is however scheduled to return to Kazakhstan to make a new national blockbuster, The Golden Warrior.
Young Kazakhstani directors are also making thought-provoking movies tackling more sensitive realities. The best include Sergey Dvortsevoy’s Tulpan (2008), about a young man returning from the Russian navy to a shepherd’s life in the Betpak-Dala; Song from the Southern Seas (2008), directed by Marat Sarulu, focused on contemporary Kazakh–Russian interethnic relations; and the Oscar shortlisted Kelin (2009) by Ermek Tursunov, a silent movie whose erotic scenes upset some in Kazakhstan.
Foreign directors to have set films in Kazakhstan include Volker Schloendorff, whose Ulzhan treks the passage across the country of a weary Frenchman, heading for the holy mountain of Khan Tengri. The rural schoolteacher Ulzhan becomes his protector.
Cinemas in Kazakhstan range from draughty Soviet survivals to modern multiplex complexes. Ticket prices are lower than those in western Europe or North America, but there is little shown in English. Films originally made in English are almost invariably dubbed, not subtitled.
The annual Eurasia Film Festival, held in Astana, showcases recent films from throughout Central Asia.