Film Scouts Diaries

1998 Kazakhstan Film Festival Diaries

by Henri Béhar

"You're going *where*?
― Kazakhstan.
― When?
― October 3rd to 13th.
― What for ?
― Film festival.
― Oh."


"Where is Kazakhstan?"

Good question. For most of us it's, you know, "over there". Kinda north-west of China, sorta bordering Russia - or is it Siberia? Thanks to the 'Net, a couple of mouse clicks and voilà: a map and statistics.

Kazakhstan is a wide, CinemaScope-ish country west of Mongolia with which it forms a sort of necklace. Above it are Russia and a bit of Siberia, below is a Lego-like assemblage of former Socialist republics (Afghanistan, Kirgyzistan and what have you). To the left, the Caspian Sea; to the right, China. Formerly known as Alma-Ata, the traditional (but no longer administrative) capital, Almaty, is way east, barely a hundred miles from the Chinese border. It takes about seven hours to fly there from Amsterdam (three times a week), and between twelve and fifteen from New York.

Exotic as it may seem, it makes sense to try and have a film festival there. Despite the odd picture from Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, India, Japan and (still) the Philippines surfacing on the festival circuit - notably in Cannes, Toronto and Rotterdam - Asian cinema is largely ignored. As is the potential (re-)emergence of film-making in Central and Eastern Europe, although the last Toronto Film Festival had a tribute to Kazakh director Darezhan Omirbaev, whose "Killer" was a surprise hit (and awardee) at Cannes '98. Geographically, Kazakhstan is "a crossroad of cultural flows" as the Festival catalogue puts it. The organizers aim to turn it into an annual meeting point.

X ------------------------- x

A whole bunch of foreign guests, yours truly among them, land in Almaty around 2 AM. Followed by a Kazakh TV crew, French star (and Gene-Wilder look-alike) Pierre Richard is picked up in a limo right off the plane, whisked through customs at the speed of lightning and probably fast asleep in his super-palace by the time most of us get to our hotel. The first thing that strikes you: there are practically no lamp posts in the streets. Save for the headlights of our luxury van, everything around us is pitch black.

The major surprise when you wake up after what can only be called a nap is that everything around you is so green. Where you expected steppe, taiga, tundra or desert, you have streets, buildings and parks. Lots of parks. The air is crisp, the sun is shining and the mountains impressively delineated against a sapphire sky (PHOTO). The city is sprawling and, a bit like Los Angeles, doesn't have a discernible center.

A few things begin to register, only to be processed later: there are practically no single-family houses, only apartment buildings. Architecturally, that makes for a low skyline. Apart from an Internet Cafe sign (PHOTO), there are very few billboards - which is rather soothing to the eye - and no one wears promotional tee-shirts or jackets - which is refreshing. When you live in New York, you forget what "normal" clothes are...

x ------------------------ x

Time to get one's accreditation and off to the movies. The theaters are practically all within walking distance. The films are shown in Kazakh, Estonian, Uzbek, etc, with voice-over translation in Russian. Live. Meaning, someone is sitting next to you in the theater with the dialogue list and a microphone and translates through the PA system. Meanwhile, someone else, sitting in a cubicle near the projection booth, translates it into English (earphones). You end up not knowing who says what to whom, but it doesn't matter: there is some pretty interesting stuff happening on the screen, visually.

Having missed opening night - the screening of a new print of Eisenstein's "Potemkin", complete with live orchestra - we spend part of the day poring over catalogue and schedule. There are two competitive sections: one for fiction, one for documentaries. The films in the official selection come mostly from Estonia, Ukraine, Georgia, Russia and Kazakhstan. Most notable are:

― "The Lake", a first feature by Georgian director Kakheber Kikabidze. A young boy's father is brutally killed before his very eyes. His mother takes him to the city, but the tragedy has a deep impact on the boy's psyche...

― The story of a young man coming back from the city and taking refuge in his elder brother's village, "Aksuat," by Kazakhstan's Serik Aprimov is about rural values vs. city's looseness.

― Finally, and eminently, Darezhan Omirbaev's "Killer". Marat is a driver for an eminent scientist. Elated at having just had a baby, he accidentally hits the rear bumper of a Mercedes. A small accident that triggers Marat's descent in hell: to avoid any trouble, he decides to pay for the repairs, but he can't, he borrows from local loan sharks, loses his job, and in order to wipe off his debts, is ordered by the mob to execute a man... Keep that director's name in mind, he might be the Abbas Kiarostami of the next decade. Incredibly rigorous, "Killer" is fascinating from beginning to end. All it takes director Omirbaev is one silence, one gesture, one attitude, one *look* to unsettle you... A watchman by night, actor Talgat Asetov definitely has star quality. Think early Alain Delon...

x ---------------------------- x

The meeting point / hospitality suite is the lobby of the Kazakhstan Hotel. They serve a decent expresso at the bar, and American director Godfrey Reggio, in town for "Anima Mundi" (in the Info section), is giving all his interviews there. (PHOTO)

"That boy is *sharp*," he whispers after a Kazakh TV interview. "That boy" is Nikolay Shugailov. Along with a Kazakh ace-cameraman, Shugailov, barely 24, went to the Cannes Film Festival in the spring of 1998 and survived to tell the tale. It was probably the first time a Kazakh journalist hit the Croisette in the history of Cannes. Imagine being a rookie TV crew from Asia trying to get to the Sharon Stones of this world... Well, they did. Watching Shugailov operate, listening in on the interviews he was taping, it slowly dawned on us all that, relatively speaking and all things considered (entertainment, you know), he could be of "Charlie Rose" / "60 Minutes" caliber. We wouldn't be surprised if he were to resurface at most major international festivals.

X -------------------------- x

As is usually the case at a festival, there is no way you can see everything. Assuming that one can possibly catch up with Georgian and Ukrainian films at other film events (Locarno and the Three-Continents in Nantes come to mind), a group of us decide to forsake the competition and focus on the sidebars. "Ten Years of Kazakh Cinema" allows us to see Omirbaev's previous feature films, "Kairat" and "Cardiogram" and to (re)discover Satibaldy Narimbetov's "Young Accordion Player's Life"... Another section is dedicated to films made in the former Soviet Republics after the fall of the Iron Curtain, when the post-perestroika funds were dwindling, but a sense of freedom of speech prevailed. Some good stuff, some not so good. Freedom of speech is one thing; having something to say quite another...

To see a documentary we missed the first day, three of us go to the Kazakhstan Studios (PHOTO). Co-directed by Sergei Asimov and Sergei Rusakov, "A Roadside House" is about a couple - she is Russian, he is Kazakh, they live in Moscow. Beside having five children of their own, they have adopted nine orphans of all colors and origins, some 100 per cent healthy, others physically or mentally challenged. The film is calm, quiet, but pretty darn incisive...

The nice, contrasty thing about the Kazakhstan Studios is the presence, in the park, of an "urta", the traditional Kazakh tent. (PHOTO) I stepped into it, sat in it. How quiet...

x ------------------------- x

Back to the hotel, catching a documentary on television, hosted by star-director Nikita Mikhalkov ("Dark Eyes"), about himself, his brother (director Andrei Kontchalovsky), his father and grandfather who were both famous in the arts. (PHOTO)... Then off to the theater again for a smashing documentary called "Eisenstein in Alma-Ata".

Which leads us directly to a whole section of the program, focusing on films made in Alma-Ata between 1942 and 1944. Here is what it is about. With the Battle of Moscow raging and Leningrad under siege, the two major Soviet studios - MosFilms and LenFilms - set up shop in the safe haven of the Kazakh capital. For two years, the Alma Ata studios were buzzing, as films were made there by the likes of Dziga Vertov (his last film), Pudovkin, Kozintzev, Barnet Vassilievich - and Eisenstein ("Ivan the Terrible")

Wearing a thick coat and a fur hat, a woman crosses the lobby of the Kazakhstan Hotel, sits down on one of the comfortable couches and quietly observes the scene, totally unnoticed. Yet, that woman is part of film history. At the age of 20, Elena Belokon (PHOTO) became the first woman involved full-time in what was then called "pyrotechnics", but would be known today as "Special Effects - Explosions". Teamed up with her husband Umankov, chief-pyrotechnician at the Leningrad Studios, she supervised the special effects on all of Pudovkin movies. When LenFilms retreated to Alma-Ata, she began working on the battle scenes of Eisenstein's two-part masterpiece "Ivan the Terrible".

"I was so nervous when he first walked into the studio!" she reminisces through an interpreter. "He must have sensed it, because he came straight at me and said, 'Don't worry, girl, it's going to be okay.' .. There were no lights, no costumes, we were hungry, we were tired, we were cold, but boy, we went for it! Everything was to be shot on location. Eisenstein was everywhere, paid attention to every single detail. We had one month to prepare for the major battle scene, we knew there was no room for mistakes: we couldn't afford to redo it. And he shot it. With three cameras. One take."

That woman made my day - and my festival.

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