oDR: Feature

Is Kazakhstan’s film industry on the brink of international success?

Netflix has shown interest in films made in Kazakhstan, but the industry needs to win an audience at home too

Eric Song
22 September 2022, 10.45am

Sea tomorrow (2016)

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Katerina Suvorova

When most people hear the word Kazakhstan, they probably think of ‘Borat’. The eponymous 2006 British-American comedy introduced much of the world to a fictional – and offensive – depiction of Kazakhstan.

This Western-made film, produced with no consideration of the real Kazakhstan, inflicted lasting damage on the ex-Soviet republic’s global image and representation. The equally controversial sequel to ‘Borat’ was released in 2020.

But what of the films made in Kazakhstan by Kazakhstanis?

The country’s film industry possesses a rich history almost as old as Hollywood, which was aided during the Soviet era by access to Soviet filmmakers and technologies.

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But it remains elusive to much of the world.

Like South Korea and Hong Kong before it, the Kazakhstani film industry is ready to change its reputation, post-’Borat’, and regain control of and rebrand Kazakhstan’s international narrative.

Yet three obstacles remain: the need for international recognition; the Kazakhstani audience; and Russia.

Netflix and commercial success

According to most industry insiders, international recognition and access is vital for Kazakhstan’s cinema to succeed.

“If we were able to improve our professional skills, and increase the quality of production, maybe in five years we could start making content for the likes of Netflix or HBO,” said film industry veteran Baurzhan Shukenov.

“Right now, not many people know about Kazakhstan. Once our local stories are interesting for other people, then maybe we will be able to expand from post-Soviet countries into international markets. That's a very optimistic way of thinking,” continued Shukenov, who is deputy chairman of Kazakhcinema, the State Center for the Support of National Cinema.

Last November, Katerina Suvorova’s debut documentary ‘Sea Tomorrow’ (2016) was selected by Netflix Europe. The first Kazakhstani feature film to appear on the streaming platform, it chronicles the environmental impact of the fast disappearing Aral Sea.

Celebrated as a major victory for Kazakhstan’s film industry, especially for privately funded independent filmmakers as well as smaller, self-funded arthouse filmmakers, this news came much sooner than Shukenov’s five-year prediction.

Overall, while the Kazakhstani film industry appears poised to bounce back from the global pandemic, a dissonance remains between those who are driven by artistic approval and those who desire profitable business. The one element that these two groups share? The audience.

To understand the audience, try and understand their reality. Kazakhstan is the ninth-largest country in the world with a population of approximately 19 million, which means it’s also one of the least densely populated. Despite ongoing rural-to-urban migration, around 40% of the population live outside urban areas.

And there are hardly any cinemas to cater to that population. According to Shukenov, Kazakhstan has about 100 movie theatres containing a total of 350 screens, mainly within Almaty, the capital, and the largest cities. That’s one screen per 54,000 people.

The median monthly income in 2020 was 83,000 tenge ($175). If the average Kazakhstani family of four went to the movies, it would cost them 12,000 tenge ($25) on tickets alone – 15% of their monthly earnings. So it's understandable that Kazakhstanis in rural areas would choose not to go at all, especially when piracy remains an option.

Until a decade ago, the overwhelming majority of domestic releases were made by the oldest, largest and historically state-backed film studio Kazakhfilm.

Change occurred in the mid-2010s, according to film critic and historian Gulnara Abikeyeva. The number of annual releases began to rise, as did the proportion of films produced by commercial companies. Most important of all, the domestic box office gross also rose – gradually but steadily.

Abikeyeva cited three commercial films, all comedies, as highlighting this change: ‘Kelinka Sabina’ (2014), ‘Kazakh Business’ (2016) and ‘Brother or Marriage’ (2017), each of which spawned sequels. Now, only 10% of the 60 domestic films released each year are funded by the state, according to Abikeyeva.

Commercial films started generating massive revenues in 2019, when ‘Kazakh Business in Korea’ (the fourth instalment in the ‘Kazakh Business’ franchise), made by popular actor/producer Nurlan Koyanbayev, grossed around 1bn tenge ($2.1m).

The films that win the love and money of the Kazakhstani people tend to be lighthearted, comedies offering an escape from daily life. Arthouse or auteur films are not so popular – maybe because these are more concerned with depicting reality and providing social commentary.

Collage Maker-22-Sep-2022-11.31-AM (1).jpg

Kazakh Business (2016) and Kazakh Business in Korea (2019)

Making it abroad to be recognised at home

In response to tepid audience interest at home, arthouse filmmakers are writing, directing and producing films on a small budget and showcasing them abroad, firstly in international film festivals.

Filmmaker Alisher Jadigerov explained: “It’s like Dimash Kudaibergen [a well-known Kazakhstani singer]. Nobody knew him, but when he started singing in China he became famous [in Kazakhstan]. When I talk to my friends, we all say the only way to become famous is to do something abroad and then come back.”

The film industry, cinemas and the state feel little incentive to promote arthouse films within Kazakhstan, and the public largely misses out on such work. While arthouse filmmakers acknowledge the goal is to make art that can be consumed by all, the majority of their domestic audience comes from the urban cultural elite.

When I mentioned my interest in the Kazakhstani film industry to residents of Almaty, most replied, bewildered: “We have a local film industry?” Even the urban cultural elite still prefer Hollywood blockbusters to home-grown ones and definitely to Kazakh arthouse fare.

The role of ‘foreignness’ is a double-edged sword: international success provides a career boost for auteurs and is a prerequisite for local interest, but local filmmakers also have to compete with foreign content.

Potential strategies

To bolster domestic audience engagement, Kazakhstan’s film industry could pursue three avenues.

First, retain distribution rights on imported foreign films to secure revenue. Most foreign films, including from Hollywood, are dubbed into Russian and distributed by Russian companies (though there’s a recent movement to dub more into Kazakh).

Given the ongoing war in Ukraine, and the substantial portion of native Russian speakers in the country, the Kazakhstani film industry could secure deals to import foreign films and dub them into Russian themselves. The key issue here is not the hypothetical collapse of the Russian film industry, but to pivot away from Russia and secure an autonomous film identity that could thrive.

Kazakhstan’s government has been working exhaustively to export the country’s identity, brand and products abroad, but has been unable to break the country’s perpetual association with Russia. As long as the war in Ukraine continues, Kazakhstan will experience its reverberating consequences.

Second, it is essential to export Kazakhstani films to as many foreign markets as possible. Kazakhfilm has already been chasing distribution deals with countries such as South Korea and Qatar, and submitting its movies to international film festivals. But they must be high-enough quality – Hollywood quality. In 2019, the government established Kazakhcinema, to help develop higher-quality films and promote Kazakh cinema abroad.

Third, the number of foreign blockbusters shown in Kazakhstan could be reduced. This is a far more radical strategy, but maybe not impossible. This would allow more opportunities for home-grown productions to be seen.

One foreign film won’t be shown this year. In July, prominent comedy actor/producer Nurtas Adambai persuaded the Minister of Culture to ban the Disney-Pixar film ‘Lightyear’ on the grounds that it was promoting “LGBT propaganda” to young people and violating Islamic values. It’s also been banned in other conservative and mainly Muslim-majority countries such as Egypt, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Adambai will probably benefit as a result. His latest film, the comedy ‘Kelinka Sabina 3’ (in which he again portrays a woman, the titular Sabina) is expected to premiere this year. Conservative Kazakhstanis who share his views on ‘Lightyear’ are also among the target audience for his film, and the media coverage around the ban has only raised his profile.

Controversies aside, while the Kazakhstani film industry has come a long way, it still has a long way more to go. In describing her dealings with local producers and businessmen following the news of the Netflix deal, ‘Sea Tomorrow’ director Suvorova bemoaned: “[They] just need to know how it all works. If we don't have the kind of local distribution system we had in the Soviet times, then they should learn how international distribution works. It works for the Philippines – why doesn't it work for us?”

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