Considering Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country in the world (with a land mass larger than western Europe), with a burgeoning film industry that has been alternating between large co-production spectacles like Mongol, and personal, contemplative, director-driven cinema, it’s a bit surprising that Kazakh films have retained such a low international profile in recent years. While the work of the following five directors has been greeted with much critical acclaim on the film festival circuit, the films have had little or no success securing distribution outside of Kazakhstan. Sadly, Kazakh films don’t play well at home either. Only producing approximately 15 features per year (more than Latvia, Estonia, or Tajikistan, but less than Serbia, Finland, or Uzbekistan), Kazakh films account for only 6% of the titles that screen in theaters there. In 2013 not a single Kazakh movie cracked the country’s box office top ten, which is often heavily dominated by Hollywood blockbusters.
Auteur-driven Kazakh cinema, often made possible through a mixture of state ministry of culture funding and financing from French producers, is clearly made with a principal eye on overseas exposure, yet it’s lamentable that they so rarely find any life past their initial film fest screenings, particularly when the intermittent and uneven current offerings from Romania have been hailed as a “new wave” in western critical circles. Soviet-era Kazakhstan had its own “new wave” in the 1980s and early 90s, led by director Rashid Nugmanov and his seminal works The Needle (1988) and The Wild East (1993); Nugmanov relocated to Paris in the 90s and shifted his focus from cinema to political activity. Following that period, it is difficult to find a cohesive cinematic movement at work among the current group of Kazakh directors. Yet the following directors share uncompromisingly austere formal approaches, even when dealing with comedic material, as well as thematic concerns, as many of the key current Kazakh films explore, with unsparing realism and detail, the effects of crippling poverty in post-1991 independent Kazakhstan. While there are numerous directors also worthy of international attention, the following five filmmakers represent a handful of the most intriguing figures working in Kazakh cinema today.
Arguably the father of the current Kazakh rise of auteur-based filmmaking following Nugmanov’s emigration, 57-year-old Darezhan Omirbaev has seen the most acclaim and distribution outside of his home country — his work has screened repeatedly in fests like Cannes and Toronto, and has found some scattered US exposure — but his rate of production is also frustratingly sparse: since his 1982 debut, he has only directed six features, with lengthy gaps between projects. Omirbaev’s work is often dour and pitiless in its dissection of conflicted souls thrust into grim situations, and it displays a formal rigour and measured pacing (reminiscent of his contemporaries Haneke and Dumont) that some viewers might find oppressive, but his best films can be mesmerising. His initial two features, Kairat (1992) and Cardiogram (1995), were modest but promising, but it was with 1998’s Killer — still arguably his most accomplished film — that Omirbaev’s work really made an impact for director-driven Kazakh cinema. The hypnotic, minimalist Bressonian portrait of a financially crippled Almaty chauffeur who turns to murder to clear his debts, Killer deservedly won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes. Omirbaev’s post-millennial work is not as bracing, as films like Shuga (2007) and Student (2012) find him pursuing a more conventionally prestige-oriented path by adapting (albeit loosely) Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment. But his importance to the new Kazakh cinema cannot be overstated.
The career of Zhanna Issabayeva would be notable simply because she is apparently the only woman directing personal films in Kazakhstan today (one of the country’s only other prominent female filmmakers, Marina Kunarova, has taken a more commercial international route). But her ascension to the ranks of premier Kazakh directors is also striking for its unique progression — Issabayeva began in the industry as a producer before moving into financing, writing, and directing her own projects — and also for the remarkable empathy and sensitivity she has displayed in the features she’s made in fairly quick succession since her 2007 debut Karoy. This is a despairing study of a violent, ethically bankrupt sociopath that provided a hint of Issabayeva’s recurring sobering worldview, which has recently focussed on the lives of economically disenfranchised young people facing impossible circumstances. Talgat (2012) chronicles the life of an 11-year-old Almaty boy living in poverty and trying to care for his little sister, while the masterful Nagima (2013) — easily one of the best Kazakh films of the past few years — is a heartbreaking portrait of an orphaned young woman battling her landlord and her employer while trying to help her two roommates, a garrulous prostitute and a critically ill pregnant girl (all three characters are portrayed by non-professionals who did, in fact, grow up in orphanages). Nagima’s plight is depicted in the starkest, most harrowing terms imaginable, and the film will do little to dispel Issabayeva’s reputation as a pessimistic filmmaker. But Nagima is an unforgettable film, and one of the truly great achievements in contemporary Kazakh cinema.
On the surface, the three features directed by Nariman Turebaev seem somewhat slight and frivolous when compared to the works of filmmakers like Omirbaev and Issabayeva, but he also frequently deals with issues of economic strife, and the pessimism and solemnity of those older directors’ work is replaced with dry, deadpan humor, and a gentler affection for his characters. It’s ironic that Turebaev’s most recent film Adventure (2014) is based on a classic Russian text (Dostoevsky’s White Nights, previously adapted into films by Visconti and Bresson), since, out of all the current Kazakh films, it seems to have most in common with the American independent film movement of the 1980s and 90s: with its poker-faced comic sensibility and spare visual style, Adventure actually recalls the early work of Jim Jarmusch or Hal Hartley (or, closer to home, Aki Kaurismaki). The droll, low-key tale of a lonely, lethargic night watchman dragged into a series of nocturnal adventures by a beautiful woman he “rescues” while on the job, Adventure finds Turebaev exercising the same laconic wit he displayed in his previous two films, the small-time hustler/buddy movie Little Men (2003), and the ironically titled character study Sunny Days (2011). If Turebaev’s films seem modest and even minor when judged alongside the other Kazakh films here, this point could be to his advantage when it comes to securing eventual international distribution, as light comedy tends to play more successfully with wider audiences.
31-year-old director Emir Baigazin only has one film to his name, but it’s a remarkable one, and a title that will surely cement his name in contemporary international cinema. Indeed, Baigazin’s Harmony Lessons could be considered the closest thing to a breakout success in new Kazakh cinema. Although it has yet to find distribution in the UK or US, the film has had a release in France, following a massive film festival tour that found it screening at such prominent events as Berlin, Locarno, and Karlovy Vary, reaping overwhelming critical acclaim and a slew of fest prizes in the process. While the demanding, disciplined approach of Harmony Lessons recalls its Kazakh auteur film predecessors, Baigazin’s movie also has a more visceral quality that distinguishes it from the cerebral exercises of Omirbaev and the admittedly depressing work of Issabayeva, and subsequently its comparative popularity is more easily understood. Chronicling the relationship between outwardly timid 13-year-old science student Aslan and his rural school’s reigning thug Bolat amid an environment of dehumanising bullying and violence, Harmony Lessons shares some thematic affinity with Ukrainian director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe, although Baigazin’s is actually the superior work. Baigazin is currently putting the final touches on his second film The Wounded Angel, but his placement as the most prominent filmmaker of new Kazakh cinema is already assured.
Quite possibly the most interesting young director in Kazakh cinema, 33-year-old, New York-educated Adilkhan Yerzhanov has also adopted one of the strangest career moves. After creating Kazakhstan’s first animated series, Kozy-Korpesh and Bayan-Sulu, and making his feature directing debut with Rieltor (2011), Yerzhanov then made Constructors (2013), the story of two brothers — one in his twenties, one in his teens — and their kid sister, who find their dreams of building a new home on a plot of family-owned land threatened by local law interference. A sombre piece of black-and-white minimalist miserablism, Constructors displayed Yerzhanov’s gift for directing actors and feel for landscape, but was otherwise a rather minor work. The following year, for his third film The Owners (2014), Yerzhanov did the bizarre and unimaginable: he simply remade his previous film Constructors, only now in the hugely improved style of colourful and grotesque black comedy, complete with outlandish supporting characters, bursts of bloody violence, and, yes, a climactic song-and-dance number. There are slight story alterations: while in the original film, the fight is over a barren plot of land, this is changed in The Owners to an actual house, and now the villain is more the squatter brother of the police chief rather than the law itself. Yet Yerzhanov retains the general structure of the first film (as well as several of its key actors), while shifting all of the stylistic specifics 180 degrees for the second work. What could have been a self-indulgent redundancy is instead a transformative burst of absurdist creativity. In The Owners, Yerzhanov — currently at work on his next film, Aliyushka — has emerged as one of Kazakh cinema’s most promising figures.