Oliver Stone’s lavish Nazarbayev documentary is just the latest blow to independent Kazakhstani filmmakers

Oliver Stone’s lavish Nazarbayev documentary is just the latest blow to independent Kazakhstani filmmakers
A still from Qazaq: History of the Golden Man (2021)

Assel Aushakimova is an independent Kazakhstani filmmaker based in Almaty. Her first feature film, WELCOME TO THE USA premiered last year — but only after she had funded production from her own savings. In an op-ed for The Calvert Journal, she explains how Oliver Stone’s most recent documentary, Qazaq: History of the Golden Man is just one part of a wider campaign to turn cinema into state propaganda — and how the move hurts both artists and activists.

15 July 2021

On 6 July, Kazakhstan celebrated an official state holiday: Capital City Day. The country’s capital has been renamed several times in its 190-year history, most recently in 2019, when it was transformed from Astana to Nur-Sultan. The change honoured one man: Kazakhstan’s former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled the country from 1990 to 2019. Capital City Day also just happens to coincide with Nazarbayev’s birthday. All Kazakhstanis know which event we are really celebrating.

It is customary for city authorities to mark this day with pomp and ceremony. Even last year, when hospitals were struggling to cope with a second wave of the coronavirus, and pharmacies faced drug shortages, a large firework display was organised in the capital.

The event caused so much indignation among ordinary Kazakhstanis that this year there were no fireworks. Instead, the country unveiled two new monuments to the former president, while the politician himself received a very special birthday gift: a new, eight-hour Nazarbayev documentary, produced by US filmmaker Oliver Stone, and directed by Igor Lopatenok. Named Qazaq: History of the Golden Man, the title references an ancient warrior figure found in Kazakhstan by archaeologists in 1969. It is not officially known how much this “gift” cost, or at whose expense it was made, although many speculate that it was financed either by officials or business interests close to the state.

Found wearing armour wrought from precious metals, The Golden Man has become a symbol around which the Kazakh government has built its own identity. But the name is also intended to flatter Nazarbayev, whom the film almost exclusively focuses on — a new eternal figure to inspire the nation. The production company behind the documentary has kept its budget secret. But as an independent filmmaker in Kazakhstan, it is heartrending to see lavish sums spent on such films while my colleagues spend years hunting for the comparatively meagre funds they need to bring their works to life.

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The public system for financing films in Kazakhstan has never been transparent. In 2019, the State Film Fund was founded, taking over the job of bankrolling movie production. In that time, the fund’s top management had already been changed twice: 2020 saw the organisation rocked by numerous corruption scandals, while directors in 2021 haven’t even had a chance yet to pitch for funds.

I am among those who applied for the 2021 cycle, but I am afraid I won’t be selected even to pitch (not due to excessive demands — the entire budget for my project is less than the scriptwriters’ fee for one of the films previously financed by the fund.)

Qazaq: History of the Golden Man has only shown once again that the Kazakhstani government has its own agenda for filmmaking. The country already has its own “Nazarbayev universe” of biopic films about its former leader. Across six separate films, we follow Nazarbayev from birth to his “rightful place” at the head of the nation. At each step, we are shown Nazarbayev’s importance for the whole of Kazakhstan. Again, the budgets for each film has not been made public, but all are state funded. The saga has seen several directors, one of whom now heads the country’s own state film studio.

Kazakhstan's presidential palace at sunset, from Qazaq: History of the Golden Man (2021)

All of this is done with a set programme in mind. If you look at Kazakhstani movie posters from the last three or four years, you will see that many bear the emblem of a flying eagle and the inscription “Rukhani Zhangyru”, or “modernisation of public consciousness”. This is an official programme based on an article by Nazarbayev and aimed at reviving the “spiritual values” of Kazakhstanis. Our authorities believe that the people of the country simply need an official ideology, as in the days of the Soviet Union. All publicly financed films must comply with this programme. Generally, they are patriotic and propagandistic, with movies about athletes, historical figures, or the Second World War given priority. In this environment, private investors are only happy to finance comedies, which generally screen at local cinemas. They are not used to fund films that raise complex topics, rarely seen on Kazakhstani screens.

It goes without saying that difficult struggles such as LGBTQ+ rights, or diversity, or satire, are certainly not seen as desirable spiritual values by the Kazakhstani government. It means that our country is losing out. Kazakhstani audiences deserve more complex, challenging films: they are tired of the propaganda that lacks diverse, real and complex characters. All of this pushes viewers to watch foreign films instead, where they can escape official ideology imposed by the authorities. But in doing so, Kazakhstani audiences miss seeing themselves on screen: their joys, their challenges, their desires. Kazakhstan is far more than just one person, even if that person ruled the country for three decades. All of the country deserves to take its place on the big screen.

This year, I saw the applause for Oliver Stone at Cannes in a very different light. And I, like many other independent filmmakers, will continue to look for any opportunities to put the real Kazakhstan on screen.

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