Jeremy Irons is guest of honor at Eurasia film festival

Jeremy Irons was the guest of honor at the Eurasia Film Festival in Kazakhstan in September 2008. Jeremy flew to Kazakhstan right after appearing at the Toronto Film Festival where “Appaloosa” premiered.



Monday 15 September 2008

After Borat: what the Kazak film industry did next

The Eurasia film festival is designed to showcase Kazakhstan’s modernity, prosperity and thriving cinema scene. Paul MacInnes made the trip to the Palace of Peace and Consent – and found himself watching an unsubtitled film about sick sheep.

It was perhaps the longest red carpet in the world. Trailing all the way from the street to the portico of a giant glass pyramid, the roll must have stretched for more than 400m. To amble down it proved a challenge that was half catwalk, half workout. For the uninitiated the carpet might even have seemed a touch grandiose, but not here. For this was the Eurasia film festival, a celebration of cinema held annually in Kazakhstan and, to be fair, they do things differently there.

During my stay in Astana, the country’s new capital and venue for the festival, I did not see one mankini. There were no best prostitute competitions, no horses and carts, no faded images of Pamela Anderson but, yes, there was a large sparkling synagogue right in the centre of town. In other words, there was not much Borat about the Kazakhstan I saw. That’s not to say, however, that it wasn’t thoroughly weird in its own way.

Take the opening gala. It was staged in a pyramid designed by Norman Foster, its official title the Palace of Peace and Consent. It is home to an opera hall, a non-denominational religious space and any number of photos of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the beloved leader of 19 years and a man only faintly acquainted with the rigours of the democratic process. Inside, a crowd of VIPs in shiny suits and gowns sipped Johnny Walker and Georgian wines. Outside, lines of locals cheered on Uzbek movie producers, Kyrgyz directors and the odd British journalist (it’s fair to say I worked the crowd like a pro), all the while being almost entirely unaware of who anybody was.

It was at President Nazarbayev’s personal request (or at least that’s how it’s described) that the film festival was moved from its traditional home, the southern city of Almaty, to Astana, an oligarchic equivalent of Las Vegas built slap-bang in the middle of the steppe where nothing is more than 10 years old. That applies to grandiose buildings such as the Palace or the 97m tall Tree of Life, Kazakhstan’s answer to the Eiffel tower. But it also applies to everything else about the city, including its cultural and artistic scene.

So while the crowds gathered to welcome Timur Bekmambetov, director of Night Watch and Wanted and perhaps the most famous Kazakh after Borat, they didn’t follow up by attending the festival itself. And this despite (or perhaps because of) a late change in the festival’s raison d’etre which saw it dump an international competition in favour of concentrating solely on central Asian cinema.

There is a rich tradition of movie-making in this region. Its golden age came at the height of the Soviet era when directors such as the Kyrgyz Tolomush Okeev or Uzbekistan’s Ali Khamraev were first trained at the VGIK school in Moscow, funded by groups like Soviet TV, and allowed to flourish. Like so much else though, when the USSR collapsed so did the entire system by which films were made. Industries across the former Soviet republics shrank and cinema was no exception. It is only in recent years that it has even begun to recover.

So it was with great excitement that the Eurasia film festival was able to open with a gala screening of Tulpan, a Kazakh movie that claimed the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes this year. It was an excitement only marginally dimmed when, in front of an international audience in the Palace, the film played with absolutely no subtitles whatsoever. Most guests chose to persist with the movie all the same and, uncomprehending though they were, left touched by cinematography that brought out the bleak beauty of the Kazakh landscape not to mention the dramatic birthing of a little black lamb. Conversations about what the hell the thing was about, however, were entertaining to hear.

Controversy over Subtitle-gate continued into the next day as westerners berated officials for their failure, ascribed by organisers to a wonky cable. But while subtitles might matter to guest critics it didn’t explain the absence of Kazakhs themselves at the festival.

Some of it might be to do with money. While Forbes lists Kazakhstan as being home to six billionaires (two of whom are Nazarbaev’s daughter and her husband), GDP per capita remains at about $11,000 (compared with $35,000 in the UK). For all the luxurious mega malls, there are very few people who are well off enough to shop in them.

It might not just be for reasons fiscal that punters stayed away from the film festival though. Central Asian cinema has a compelling back catalogue and a crop of talented directors. But these directors struggle to get their films seen. Try, if you can, to spot a copy of Chouga, the latest film by Kazakhstan’s most celebrated director Darezhan Omirbaev ‚Äď you’ll struggle.

What you will find on the screen at the Eurasia film festival, however, as well as in competition, are films such as Uzbekistan’s The Others, a huge hit domestically, but 90 minutes of sub-soap that make you wish for broken subtitles so you could at least invent your own plot. (Actually, the subtitles were probably the most interesting thing about this tale of rich girl meets poor boy, seemingly crafted by an Uzbek recently relocated to Brooklyn: “You’re two douche bags!” “Give it here! Now jet!” “You wear your heart on your sleep!”).

If you’re not trapped in the class struggle of Tashkent it’s difficult to see how a film like The Others could possibly appeal and a less than half-full auditorium seemed to support such an assertion.

“The biggest problem for central Asian cinema is that there is no development,” says Jean Philippe Tess√© of Cahiers du Cinema, a man familiar with the world’s more obscure film festivals. “Someone will make a film like The Others, but will have no idea of what is wrong with it. There is no system to help them improve and no one willing to tell them that what they are doing is bad! My belief is that the organisers of the Eurasia film festival would be better off spending their money on that, rather than trying to attract stars to the festival. I mean, Steven Seagal in Almaty… it just seemed a little out of place.”

That said, there was no shortage of good cinema at the festival; a retrospective of the Kazakh new wave (which took place 25 years after the French one, Jean Paul Belmondo replaced with rock star Viktor Tsoi) was enlightening and the out of competition screenings were lively and varied.

Neither was there a shortage of cineastes. One of the festival’s Guest Service volunteers, Regina Shepetya flew up from Almaty and spent the next two nights getting what sleep she could on airport benches as she waited to greet visitors. She did so because she is a film student who wants to get into the business. But also, she loves cinema and loves to talk about it too.
Jeremy Irons at Eurasia 2008 Jeremy Irons was guest of honour

“Paul, do you like the films of Peter Greenaway?” she would ask and wait patiently as I tried to summon up a half-way intelligent opinion on The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Most of the time she carried with her a thick tome The 1001 Greatest Films. Her plan was to discuss the Lion King with guest Jeremy Irons. If it happened, it might well have been the most considered conversation on the subject he had ever had.

* © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009