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Actor Armand Assante’s documentary about Kazakhstan wins first prize at Florida film festival

06 april 2012, 12:45
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Hollywood actor Armand Assante began falling in love with Kazakhstan in 2007 when the Kazakhstan Film Festival invited him to Almaty to show his new release “California Dreamin.”

A busy work schedule prevented Armand from accepting the invitation from festival president Yermek Amanshayev, whose day job is president of Almaty-based Kazakhfilm Studios.

But before 2007 was out, the Hollywood action-film producer Erken Ialgalshev had brought Armand to his native land – and the actor was blown away by what he experienced.

"The Kazakhs were the original nomadic horse culture,” he said recently. “What impressed me was their indomitable will to survive the cruelest of conditions and a remarkable sense of humor and overwhelming hospitality in the face of it. Today they have emerged as the fastest growing and strongest economy in Central Asia.” 

Armand’s favorable impressions of Kazakhstan and its people surfaced in a documentary film he produced last year that won a first prize at the recent Gasparilla International Film Festival in Tampa, Florida.

The 19-minute “Dialogue from the Steppes” is about The World Forum of Spiritual Culture in Astana, an event that President Nursultan Nazarbayev started in 2010 to bring leaders of the world’s great religions together. It’s held every year at the Pyramid of Peace and Reconciliation in Astana.

In addition to religious leaders, the Forum invites creative people, peace promoters and others deemed to be examples of spirituality. In the inaugural event in 2010 they included Armand and Jonathan Granoff, founder of the New York-based Global Security Institute, which seeks to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

Armand was so impressed with the Forum’s goal of promoting religious and cultural tolerance that he decided to do a film about the event.

The documentary is not just about an exemplary effort to promote tolerance, however. It’s also a glimpse at key moments in Kazakhstan’s modern history and a mini-travelogue. And for that reason, it’s a great film for non-Kazakhs to learn from.

I asked Armand if the film would be posted on the Internet for all to see. Not just yet, he said. It will first be entered in other international film festivals, then shown at theaters and other venues. Then, perhaps, it will go online. I’ll let you know when that happens.

The documentary, which Armand wrote as well as produced, looks at some of the bleakest moments in Kazakh history to suggest why Kazakhs have become so tolerant – and thus why their country deserves to host a tolerance-promoting extravaganza like the Forum.

Armand went to Kazakh archives to obtain stark photo and film reminders of:

-- Josef Stalin’s forced collectivization of agriculture, which led to 1.2 million Kazakhs starving in the early 1930s.

-- Stalin’s forced deportation of millions of ethnic groups to Kazakhstan in the 1930s and 1940s, many of whom perished in the harsh conditions of their new home.

-- Life in Kazakhstan’s gulags, or labor camps, particularly those in Karaganda and what is now Astana.

-- And the 490 nuclear tests at Semipalatinsk between 1949 and the end of testing in 1991.

Former Washington Times journalist Claude Salhani notes in the film that Stalin deported many of those who came to be known as “the repressed” in cattle cars. They were dumped from the trains onto the steppes with nothing.

“Kazakhs welcomed them with open arms – this is the way they treat foreigners here,” Salhani said. The help that Kazakhs gave the newcomers kept many from starving or freezing to death.

Another journalist who appears in the film is me. I offer a few words about a subject I’ve written considerably about: President Nazarbayev’s decision to end nuclear testing in August of 1991, even before the break-up of the Soviet Union.

In his narration of the documentary, Armand discusses the president’s decision to rid Kazakhstan of the world’s fourth-largest nuclear arsenal in the mid-1990s.

As for the travelogue part of “A Dialogue from the Steppes,” Armand included many scenes of Kazakhstan’s wild beauty – such as Charyn Canyon and Borovoe – plus the manmade beauty of Astana’s new skyline. There’s also footage of such cultural symbols as graceful Kazakh dancers and falconry.

But the main message of the film is tolerance.

"What Kazakshstan has endured in the last 300 years and especially in the last 80 years 

is the reason why this country sets a precedent for tolerance and peace initiatives that affect the world,” Armand said after winning in the Gasparilla festival’s “Best Short Documentary” category.

 

Much of the message of tolerance in the film is conveyed by remarkable people such as Granoff; Zhanar Aitzhanova, Kazakhstan’s former ambassador to the United Nations and former economic minister; Bawa Jain, secretary general of the New York-based World Council of Religious Leaders; Feisal Abdul Rauf, a New York-based imam who has become renowned for trying to improve relations between Muslims and the West; and Tolegen Mukhamedzhanov, who not only is a Kazakhstan senator but also a celebrated pianist and composer.

I remember sitting with Armand and Tolegen in Armand’s room in the Rixos Hotel in July of last year, listening to the senator discuss Kazakhstan’s legacy of tolerance.

His musings were almost poetic – and that lyrical tone surfaces in the documentary. In discussing the materialism that has affected much of the world, for example, he says that legend has it that God was once asked to describe someone who is rich. “And God answered: ‘Not he who has plenty but he who does not ask for much,’” Tolegen said.

Armand has told me he admires Tolegen’s creative talents, and the relationship between them has developed into a friendship.

 “I am grateful to Erken Ialgashev and Tolegen Mukhamedzhanov  for introducing me to their country and for being my partners on the film,” Armand said.

 

Another Kazakhstan-related project that Armand has been working on is a movie called “All the World at Your Feet.” He is co-producing and acting in the Kazakhstan-financed film, whose main female role is being played by Tolegen’s daughter Karlygash.

 

Initial plans were for the movie to be dubbed in Russian, English and Chinese to attract a worldwide audience.

 

Although Armand has enjoyed doing film projects in Kazakhstan, he said the people are the main reason he likes coming back.

 

Kazakhs “have been fantastic to me personally,” he said. “I have returned there 10 times and I always will.”

 

Here are links related to this story that you might want to check out:

 

World Forum of Spiritual Culture -- http://astanaforum.kz/en/index.php.

Gasparilla International Film Festival – www.gasparillafilmfestival.com.

 


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