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The Kazakhstan filmmaking tradition, though largely unknown to the wider world, can be traced back to the early 20th century when Almaty serving as an industry hub in Central Asian. Throughout the Soviet period, and the subsequent perestroika and post-independence era, Kazakh cinema has become a peculiar mix of big-budget blockbusters and intellectual dramas shown at international festivals and art-house cinemas. Here are the ten of the best.
One of the best-known Kazakh films, Tulpan (2008) is a sweet and funny tale of a young Kazakh man, Asa, who has been recently discharged from the Russian Navy and lives in the remote steppes with his sister and her family. While he dreams of becoming a herdsman, he is also actively looking for a wife and has his eyes set on Tulpan, the daughter of a neighbor, who is also the only eligible young woman in the area.
Set in 1949, The Gift to Stalin tells the story of an eight-year-old Jewish boy, Sasha, who is deported to Kazakhstan with his elderly grandfather. After the death of his grandfather, Sasha is rescued by an old Kazakh railroad worker, Kasym. The man restores Sasha’s strength, gives him a different name, and moves with him to a dusty village on the fringes of the steppes. After seeing a newspaper story about a nationwide contest to find the perfect birthday present for Stalin, Sasha decides to participate, in the hope of meeting him. and asks to see his parents again – he doesn’t realize, however, that they are no longer alive.
A co-production between Russia, Germany, and Kazakhstan, Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan (2007) depicts the early life and rise to power of Temujin, the founder and Great Khan of the Mongol empire in the 12th century. The film is an engaging mix of action-packed battle scenes, a love story between Temujin and his wife Borte, family drama, and historic epic. Directed by Russian filmmaker Sergey Bodrov, the film was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film and won Nikas (Russian Oscars) for Best Picture and Best Director.
Kelin, which translates to “daughter-in-law”, tells the story of a young woman living in the 2nd century A.D. in Kazakhstan, a setting in which traditional notions of womanhood and family life at the time are explored. Directed entirely without dialogue and with very little music, the film revolves around the young and beautiful Kelin, who is given away in an arranged marriage despite being in love with another man. While her married life turns out to be more blissful than she anticipated, as demonstrated by uncensored erotic scenes, Kelin’s life changes course once again when her first lover returns to claim her. The film focuses not only on the love story but also on the relationship between Kelin and her mother-in-law, with elements of mysticism thrown in for good measure.
The most recent addition to this list, Harmony Lessons debuted at the Berlinale where its cinematographer won the award for an outstanding artistic contribution. The film focuses on the life of a smart, diligent 13-year-old boy, Aslan, who lives with his grandmother in a small rural village surrounded by the harsh landscape of the steppes. After being bullied by a gang of older boys and ostracized by their leader, Aslan begins to plan his revenge. The film examines the teenage psyche and relationships, while maintaining a beautiful and somehow surreal visual style.
Starring Russian actor Oleg Menshikov and Sergei Bodrov, Jr., Prisoner of the Mountains is a must-see for their outstanding performances. Partially filmed in Kazakhstan, the film tells a tale of two Russian soldiers who are ambushed and taken captive in the Chechen Mountains. While one of the prisoners continuously searches for a way to escape, the other explores Chechen lifestyle and culture and slowly falls in love with his captor’s daughter. After they make a failed attempt to escape, the contradictory personalities of the two prisoners seal their fate. The film provides a valuable insight into the roots of the First Chechen War.
This French-Kazakhstani thriller drama Killer tells the story of Marat, a young Kazakh chauffeur, who, following a traffic accident involving a flashy Mercedes-Benz, finds himself in debt. When the situation is further aggravated by his child’s sudden illness, Marat agrees to murder a journalist in order to make some much-needed money. The film takes a cold and harsh look at the emerging social divisions and prevailing indifference in Kazakh society following the fall of the Soviet Union.
The Old Man is an engaging Kazakh interpretation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. The film’s main character is an old shepherd living with his daughter and grandson in a remote village on the fringes of the Kazakh steppes. The old man — an avid soccer fan who names his sheep after famous players, such as Maradona — has a somewhat strained relationship with his grandson, who is disinterested in old customs and traditions. The situation changes when the old shepherd is caught in a winter storm and must face the battle of his life against a pack of blood-thirsty wolves.
The Fall of Otrar, inspired by a historic and bloody chapter in 13th century Kazakhstan, offers much more insight and beauty than is normally expected in this genre. It is a vivid and historically accurate account of the events preceding Genghis Khan’s attack on the Central Asian civilization of Otrar after the slaughter of his ambassador by the city’s governor. Though occasionally gruesome, the film is visually splendid, showing breathtaking landscapes of the Kazakh steppes as well as the ornate palaces of the time.