The Guardian (UK)
January 27, 2003
The Kazakhs are coming: Now free of Soviet rule, Kazakhstan is in
the middle of an unlikely cinematic flowering
By Peter Lennon
In the 1940s the mighty men of Soviet cinema - Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Vertov -
and some few thousand film workers descended on Almaty, near the Chinese
border. Stalin had decided during the war to shift his two main film studios
from Moscow and Leningrad to Almaty, then the capital of Kazakhstan, the
Soviet Union's largest republic. One cannot help wondering what, if anything,
of a film industry would otherwise exist in the country today.
When the studios left after the war the seeds of film-making were deeply
planted. There was uncertain progress during the first "new wave" of Kazakh
film makers in the 1960s, but it was not until the late 1980s, when a unit
for developing Kazakh talent was set up in Moscow's VGIK institute (Institute
of Higher Cinema Studies), that Kazakh cinema had its full flowering. Since
independence in 1991 the new republic has been producing up to 10 films a
year. This surge of activity, if nothing else, is indicative of a mood of
reborn national and cultural identity since the break-up of the USSR. One of
the leading figures of this second "new wave" is Serik Aprymov, whose
graduation film in 1989, The Last Stop, was described by Moscow critics as
"the first perestroika film the cinema has given us". More recently he has
completed Three Brothers, which has joined like-minded nonconformist works
such as Satibaldy Narimbeto's Biography of a Young Accordionist (1994). Then
there was Abai (1995), the thoroughly conventional, but visually and
dramatically superb, account of the early life of the country's national
poet, Ibrahim Kunanbaev.
Speaking from Kazakhstan, Aprymov told how he got his graduation film past
the selection committee in Moscow. The Last Stop tells the story of a young
man who returns to his native village after military service to discover
nothing but drunkenness, senseless violence and wretched poverty. It was not
exactly an image the tottering Soviet Union wanted from its territories.
"From the beginning of the production," he says, "our (Kazakh) minister for
culture warned me he would have trouble. But because the material was so
miserable the committee thought the story was set during the second world war
and they passed it."
In The Last Stop a bunch of kids get their sexual education by spying on a
prostitute in action. Youthful voyeurism seems to be the standard local
method of enlightenment, since we have it again in Biography of a Young
Accordionist and in Three Brothers (2000). In this, a group of adolescents
steal an old train to get them to a lake where they have been told soldiers
stash their loose women. They do not realise trains are used by the local
military airbase for moving target practice. All but the young hero, who is
left behind, are killed.
Did Aprymov not have some trouble with this fairly explicit sexual material
in a Muslim state? "Kazakhstan is not a pure Muslim state," he says. "It is
well known that our culture is the closest of all the Asian republics to
Russia. Maybe half of the population are atheist."
Virtually all the performers are non-professional and all Aprymov's films are
set in his home region, an area used for testing nuclear weapons in Soviet
times. This is one of the scourges of the country: the hazard to human and
animal life of toxic waste. But it is an issue film-makers cannot deal with.
"This problem is not reflected in our films," Aprymov says, "because the big
companies prevent people raising such problems. They prevent the information
getting out. This matter is forbidden, closed." But there are some
advantages, he says, under a free market system: "In Soviet times," he says,
"we had no freedom. They had control over plot and script and they could
interrupt a production. Now we have no such controls."
But inducements offered or withheld are a form of control. Officials were so
impressed by Aprymov's success that they now ask him to produce films
supporting the government. "It is important for them that they should have
this support," he says. "So they hint very softly that if you produce films
which they like you will have more support." The forthcoming season provides
a stark example. Three Brothers cost Dollars 110,000, of which the Kazakhstan
cultural bureau provided only 30%. The rest came from the Netherlands and
Japan. Abai, the nationalist epic, was given Dollars 7m.
Kazakh directors also have to compete for audiences with American films. "The
release of the film depends on the price of the ticket," Aprymov explains.
"We opened Three Brothers in expensive theatres, but the price was too high.
The audience prefer to see American films where they are willing to pay
Dollars 3 or Dollars 4. A ticket for a Kazakh film is Dollars 1."
Aprymov actually worked on the country's proud blockbuster, Abai. "I
participated at the beginning in writing the script," he says, "and then I
left the team because I was against the compromises they were making. When
the government puts in so much money they want complete control." Although
it's difficult to judge the finer points of political manipulation, we can
judge Abai as a film: visually and dramatically it is superb in the old
It will be interesting to see how Aprymov deals with the theme of his next
film. It is to be called The Hunter and is, he says, about "the relationship
between a Kazakh man and nature and the initiation of a boy into manhood".
Will this be pollution or poetry? Or both?
Independence Days: New Cinema from Kazakhstan starts on February 2 at the
Other Cinema, London W1 (020-7734 1506), and the Duke of York's, Brighton
01273 602503), then tours. See www.picturehouses.co.uk for details.