Welcome to the USA: Assel Aushakimova on making Kazakhstan’s first lesbian film

24 February 2021

Assel Aushakimova’s debut feature, Welcome to the USA, treads uncertain grounds. The film follows the life of Aliya, a 36-year old bank employee who wins the green card lottery and prepares to leave for a new life in the United States. It should be a joyous moment. A new freedom beckons for Aliya, a lesbian forced to navigate life in conservative Kazakhstani society. As we glimpse her day-to-day errands, viewers come face to face with the very problems Aliya wishes to leave behind: corruption, domestic violence, sexism, homophobia, and the president’s omnipresent cult of personality. But still Aliya hesitates, reluctant to leave her ill, ageing mother, or her sister trapped in an abusive, bigamous marriage.

It isn’t surprising that Welcome to the USA has received accolades in the West. The movie first premiered in 2019 at the AFI Fest in California, before scooping a nomination for Best International Narrative Feature at New York’s NewFest LGBTQ Festival in 2020. Aushakimova’s work has been hailed as something fresh. “My American audiences told me: finally, there was a Kazakhstani film that wasn’t about villages and sheep,” the director told The Calvert Journal.

A still from Welcome to the USA.

Yet despite succeeding globally, Welcome to the USA has received little in the way of acknowledgement at home. Most large media outlets ignored Aushakimova’s accomplishments at international festivals: “the reaction to my film from local audiences has been very quiet,” the director says. The film ran in Almaty throughout November, but even after the city’s Covid-19 restrictions were lifted, citizens did not seem hungry to see queer characters on the big screen. One viewer told The Calvert Journal that the theatre where they watched the film was mostly empty, apart from a few other women.

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LGBTQ+ topics are still taboo in Kazakhstan, and Aushakimova felt a backlash throughout production. “Gathering a crew was a challenge. Many actors refused to play homosexual characters,” she recalls. “One actor even asked me to change the script and make his character straight.” Securing funding was also difficult, with local organisations declining to sponsor the project. Ultimately, Aushakimova was forced to use her own personal funds to make the film a reality. “Independent films in Kazakhstan don’t receive funding, because sponsors are only interested in commercial movies,” Aushakimova explains. “Then, the State Center for Support of National Cinema is only willing to fund films on certain, limited topics. It’s censorship, basically.”

Yet Aushakimova does not class her movie as an “LGBTQ+ film”. “This film is about a person struggling to relate to the cultural reality around her, and she just happens to be a lesbian,” Aushakimova says. “We don’t call movies with straight protagonists ‘heterosexual films’. So why should we have a special label just because a main character isn’t straight?”

Aushakimova does not shy away from the realities of queer Kazakhstani life in her film. Characters in Welcome to the USA are forced to hear homophobic comments from relatives; some seek out sham marriages in order to “save their reputations”.

A still from Welcome to the USA.

But the film also uses events and images that all Kazakhstanis will recognise. There are no panoramic views of the steppes or distant mountain landscapes, nor the glamourous buildings of Almaty’s city centre. Aushakimova depicts the backdrop that accompanies most urban lives amid the inner-city: a patchwork of dingy, Soviet-era statues, peeled paint in tower block hallways, and discoloured wallpaper in mass-built flats. The lack of soundtrack, too, contributes to the naturalistic feel. We only hear that familiar buzzing of vehicles on the streets, or the awkwardness of mid-conversation silence.

Other issues are woven among the dialogue. The presence of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev appears in the unexpected crevices of everyday life; in one scene, Aliya sits in a taxi and listens as one of the city’s main thoroughfares, Furmanov Street, is renamed in his honour. The painful issue of bigamy — illegal in Kazakhstan, yet still widely spread — also appears in the life of Aliya’s sister.

A still from Welcome to the USA.

This sense of realism is carried through to the very end of the film. There are no storytelling clichés which see Aliya achieve her dreams, few resolutions are offered to any of the spiraling plot lines. Problems are introduced, but not solved. Aliya’s sister seeks refuge from her husband in Aliya’s apartment, but we don’t get to see her leave her abusive marriage. Aliya has sex with an ex-girlfriend, but it’s unclear if they’ll continue to rekindle the bond. We never find out if Aliya decides to stay in Kazakhstan, or leave for her new life in the West. For Aushakimova, it is an issue which doesn’t just reflect the reality for many Kazakhstanis, but also a very personal dilemma. “The question of emigration still remains unresolved to me personally,” Aushakimova admits. “I don’t see any prospects in my home country. But I haven’t resolved to leave yet.”

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