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Festival films at the heart of cultural controversy in Kazakhstan

27 july 2015, 16:05
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Still from Adilkhan Yerzhanov's "Realtors."
Still from Adilkhan Yerzhanov's "Realtors."

Kazakhstani cinema has seen an incredible rise in the past few years with several pictures being recognized by international critics and movie lovers as exceptional in their artistry, craft and depth.

Among these, pictures that have gained the most praise are Emir Baigazin’s “Harmony Lessons” and Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s “The Owners.” The two directors achieved something no other Kazakhstani director had managed before.

“Harmony Lessons” is Baigazin’s debut work. It became the first film in the history of Kazakhstani cinema to enter the main competition program of the Berlin International Film Festival and win a Silver Bear. Overall, the film has won 30 awards and  participated in more than 60 film festivals around the world.

Yerzhanov’s "The Owners" entered the program of the Cannes Film Festival, where it gained high praise from critics. Later, the motion picture was screened at festivals in Slovakia, the Netherlands, Poland, Singapore, South Korea, Russia, Canada, France and Finland. Moreover, "The owners" has been nominated for the prestigious annual award Asia Pacific Screen Awards, known as the Asian "Oscar."

Nevertheless, nominally the main man of culture in Kazakhstan – Minister of Culture and Sport Arystanbek Mukhamediuly – was indifferent to these accolades. He said these movies, along with Yerzhanov’s other film “Realtors,” were a disgrace to Kazakhstan. These remarks were not made in a narrow circle of close friends, but rather during a session of the Council for Culture and the Arts last month. The main offense of the films, in his opinion: showing Kazakhstan from an unsavory perspective.

Minister of Culture and Sport Arystanbek Mukhamediuly ©Turar Kazangapov

The response of director Yerzhanov was swift. He said that he hoped the words were spoken by virtue of “minute emotions.”

"Also, I am sure that the Minister should look to the works of the classics, such as Abay (a classical Kazakh writer), who is also a disgrace to the people, according to the logic of the recent statement. Third, the flag of Kazakhstan, which has been raised in Cannes thanks to “The Owners" had shamed the country no more than the officials of our country would like. And fourthly, we must admit that the only disgrace to the people is the lack of truth in the cinema. Art is not a disgrace to the country, just as Don Quixote was not a disgrace to Spain ridiculing chivalry, and just as Pasolini was not a disgrace to Italy showing vagrants and prostitutes," Yerzhanov said.

Adilkhan Yerzhanov. Photo courtesy of almatylife.kz

On his part, Emir Baigazin said that he would not comment on what the Minister said. "I'd better thank everyone who supported us, the young filmmakers. The precedent only strengthened my desire to continue to live and make films in my home country, films that meet the basic criteria of art, films that, as it turned out, are well understood at home," he added.

Emir Baigazin ©Aizhan Tugelbayeva

The Minister, nevertheless, considered it necessary to explain his meaning again on July 22 and assured that he did not doubt the talents of the young filmmakers, only their intentions.

“Have you seen these movies? Why were they not shown in our cinemas? At the time,  KazakhFilm (Kazakh national studios) ran them for one or two days and then quickly removed the films to avoid public anger. I respect Emir Baigazin, adore him, I handed him the diploma myself (when he was graduating). Adilkhan Yerzhanov is a unique guy. I wish that these guys used their talents for some constructive activity. When a film is made to show paltry human qualities, of course it causes outrage. Especially considering the fact that at international film festivals they are representative not of themselves alone but of Kazakhstan," the Minister said.

He also downplayed the importance of awards that the two directors had received, saying they were not given for “high artistry.” Instead, he asserted: “We know that there are international grants, which are aimed, how to say, to support only the films that show 'specific' aspects. (...) There are targeted programs that support such films, to stimulate the directors driven by ambitions.”

He concluded by saying that it is better to make movies similar to “Argo” or “Slumdog Millionaire,” instead of using the tax payers’ money to make movies “that cause a negative reaction in the society.”

By Dinara Urazova (Aizhan Tugelbayeva and Assemgul Kassenova contributed to the story)


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