Eurasia, without Central Asia

in 10th Eurasia International Film Festival Almaty

by Birgit Beumers

Of the 10th jubilee edition of Eurasia International Film Festival one might expect a lot in terms of special events and programs. However, this edition had been pruned rather than expanded, and did not include a Central Asian Panorama, which is the main reason for the FIPRESCI jury at the festival. The absence of the Central Asian Panorama may be explained by the abundance of other special programs, such as 30 years of the Kazakh New Wave; 70th anniversary of Sergei Soloviev; and centenary of Shaken Aimanov, listed — and the festival could not stress this often enough — in the UNESCO calendar of memorable events. On the other hand, it shows the lack of a firm artistic concept behind this edition of the festival, run by Diana Ashimova, who has no experience or qualification in cinematic matters, since — by request from the ministry — the festival’s founder and artistic director for the previous nine editions, Gulnara Abikeyeva, was not invited to head this year’s event. Indeed, the “Dynamic Kazakh Cinema” sidebar, which presented six new films (discussed here by Nigora Karimova), was added to the program in the last moment, and only following criticism voiced on various social media platforms.

Moreover, this edition abandoned the pitching of new projects, held for the past five years and last year awarding the young, promising and talented directors Serik Abishev and Adilkhan Erzhanov (whose The Owners ran in competition at Edinburgh IFF this year) — with the invitation to produce their next projects at the studio and guaranteeing part of the funding; and yet nothing seems to move in this direction at all. Instead, Kazakhfilm is eyeing Costa Gavras’s son Romain as a potential candidate for a joint project and insists on its co-production efforts with Gerard Depardieu. The latter’s joint directorial project with Ermek Shinarbayev is a sad attempt to paste Kazakh national pride and the call for a return to the motherland upon a script that has the potential for a short film, but no more. The only compensation the viewer is offered are the majestic shots of the Kazakh steppe and the Charyn canyon, where much of the film was shot, and the admirable cinematography of Eric Guichard (Paris, je t’aime). Meanwhile, the support for the great art-house projects, which Kazakhfilm has made with European co-producers — notably Guillaume de Seuille’s Arizona Films, seem to be the step-children when it comes to their presentation at home: Emir Baigazin’s Harmony Lessons, which had won a Silver Bear for Cinematography in Berlin, was not shown at the festival’s edition in 2013; and Nariman Turebayev’s The Adventure, which has just screened in Karlovy Vary’s competition, was relegated to the Dynamic Kazakh Cinema program, with the feeble excuse that Turebayev served on the selection committee (as if one had not known that his film would be a potential candidate for the competition and there would be a conflict of interests). Those are some of the Oriental tales of a festival that would like to be a major international event where a Kazakh film must win rather than a Kazakh-European co-production.

A propos jubilee: the celebration around Shaken Aimanov took place in the form of screenings of his films; a special edition of the films in which he acted and which he directed; a book about the legendary founder of Kazakh cinema; a reception at the studio; and a special memorial evening. At the same time, the celebration of the 70th birthday of Russian filmmaker Sergei Soloviev, who is considered the founding father of the Kazakh New Wave that emerged from a group of Kazakh students he taught at the Moscow Film Institute VGIK in the 1980s, seemed to begin and end with an award presented to him at the opening ceremony. It was sad to see that the organisers had not even managed to get those of his former students up onto the stage to offer congratulations who were, in their turn, celebrated in the 30th anniversary retrospective of the Kazakh New Wave: Rashid Nugmanov (director of the cult film The Needle), Serik Aprymov, Darejan Omirbaev, Abay Karpykov, Talgat Temenov, and others. These — apparently small — things make the difference between a festival that runs mechanically and one that has an artistic director who cares for concept and detail.

In the absence of the Central Asian Panorama the FIPRESCI jury watched the “Dynamic Kazakh Cinema” (with enormous patience and enthusiasm from our non-Russian-speaking members, since the prints were not subtitled!) and a selection of films from the region which screened in the main competition: Pouran Derakhshandeh’s Hush… Girls don’t Scream (Iran), Shawkat Amin Korki’s Memories on Stone (Iraq/Germany), Zaza Urushadze’s Tangerines (Georgia/Estonia), Anna Melikian’s The Star (Russia) and Ermek Shinarbaev and Gerard Depardieu’s The Voice of the Steppe (Kazakhstan/France). From this “regional” selection, the film Tangerines clearly stood out: it has already been noted at a variety of other festivals (Warsaw, Jerusalem, Tallinn, to name but a few) and is Estonia’s entry for the Academy Award selection. The film tells, with a fine sense of humour, about two soldiers — the Chechen mercenary Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze) fighting for the Russian army; an the Abkhasian Niko (Mikhail Meskhi). Both are saved by two Estonian settlers, who have for a long time lived in Abkhasia: Margus (Elmo Nüganen) wants to harvest his tangerines before leaving the place to join his family that is already back in Estonia; and Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) who stays — because here is the grave of his son, who perished at the very start of the war in Abkhasia in 1992.

The films from Iran and Iraq were quite different in their pitch. The Iranian film left the viewer unimpressed cinematographically, while touching upon an important social issue: the shame that makes women hide the fact that they have been abused as children. But that worthy topic alone does not make a good film, and the script falls back into genre clichés too often to merit real attention. By contrast, the Iraqi-German co-production, directed by Kurdish director Shawkat Amin Korki, tells a gripping story that is not void of humour. It revolves around a film being made about the Kurdish genocide Al-Anfal, filmed by a Kurdish director who lives in Germany (in an obvious parallel to Shawkat Amin Korki himself), and who finds no woman willing to take the female lead. The complications that the crew encounters may be a little overdone, but this precisely adds to the irony that culminates in the film’s premiere to an audience that runs away following a downpour and a power cut, ending in a cynical statement about the role of cinema in social and political conflict and underlining the difficulty of showing films in the remote locations where they have actually been filmed. The art-house movies that we are watching in festivals often remain unseen by the people they tell about.

Indeed, this leads to a final comment about Eurasia. This year, the festival has used the new Bekmambetov Cinema multiplex (named after the Kazakh-born star director Timor Bekmambetov) for the competition screenings. The hall which the cinema they allocated to the International Competition seated around 30 people, including five jury members and six critics from the NETPAC and FIPRESCI juries, who thus took up a third of the space. The screenings (one only of each film) had been well advertised and there was no admission fee, which is great. Therefore, however, people could not get into the hall to see the films, or had to sit on steps and the floor (we will not talk about Health and Safety issues here) — so that the organisers could claim full halls? The Dynamic Kazakh Cinema programme, on the other hand, was shown in another multiplex (the “Chaplin”) in another, more distant shopping mall which had set aside a large hall (and, one should add, was most accommodating and professional in its management) — but hardly anyone attended the screenings, except for one film where the filmmaker had brought friends and crew to what appeared to be a first screening.

There is a lot to think about here for Eurasia’s management for the next edition, should there be one. I am probably one of the few international guests who still remembers the first edition in 1998 (followed by a break of seven years, when Sergei Azimov, the then head of Kazakhfilm, revived the festival), when filmmakers and critics from Moscow were flown in on a specially chartered plane to join their colleagues from Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, to see what had happened in the cinema in these republics during the first six years of their independence. It was a unique opportunity to see films which, in a film market that had collapsed not only in Russia but also in the former Soviet republics, had no distribution and no way of being seen by a wider audience. And there were documentaries, cartoons, feature films, and the directors and producers all together in Almaty. All that has gone: no scholars or critics from Russia, no films from Central Asia, and instead some international movies which are of interest mainly for the local movie-goers — and they cannot get into the small auditorium.

The “ditching of the pitching” is sad, as is the absence of a short film competition. But Eurasia runs risk of losing its originality which has been precisely in the Central Asian panorama (that once upon a time was a competitive programme), where — especially this year — it could have shown the rich cinematic harvest of neighbouring countries and boasted of its own gems, such as Turebayev’s Adventure (about which Andrea Martini has written) and Erzhanov’s The Owners, alongside… Marat Sarulu’s new film The Move, which will screen in Pusan; the Kyrgyz epic Kurmanjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains by Sadyk Sher-Niyaz; or Ernest Abdyjaparov’s sequel to his Saratan: Village Authorities, titled 5,000 Som from Kyrgyzstan; from Azerbaijan, Ayaz Salayev’s new film and Elchin Musaoglu’s Nabat, which screened in the Venice Days; from Tajikistan, Nosyr Saidov’s new film Mirror Without Reflection (likely to screen at Didor IFF in Dushanbe in October); and from Uzbekistan/Tajikistan Saodat Ismailova’s 40 Days of Silence, which screened in the Berlinale Forum earlier this year, along with the Buryat director Bair Dishenov’s new film Steppe Games, which has screened in Montreal. These films would have made great company for the Kazakh selection and created a panorama of the region that would have outdone many previous editions. What a missed opportunity!

Birgit Beumers