CES On the Ground: A conversation with Kazakh director Ermek Shinarbaev, Steven-Charles Jaffe and Gulsara Mukataeva

CES was lucky enough to be able to discuss Kazakh film with the noted Kazakh director Ermek Shinarbaev, Producer Steven-Charles Jaffe and Sound Engineer Gulsara Mukataeva prior to a screening of the Kazakh film, Kelin, which is a story set in pre-historic Kazakhstan told without dialogue. It is not a silent film, rather dialogue simply isn’t a part of the story. It was a unique and interesting film experience, and highly recommended by all of us at CES. Kelin was directed by Ermek Tursunov. Thanks to the Ballets Russes Cultural Partnership for setting up the interview. Information on the organization available after the interview. 

Ermek Shinarbaev has a long history working with Kazakh film and has directed some of the most-watched Kazakh films, both in Kazakhstan and internationally. Steven-Charles Jaffe has worked as a producer in Hollywood and more recently began to work to promote and distribute Kazakh film in the United States. We asked them about the current reception of Kazakh film and what a western audience should understand about Kazakh film. They had a wonderful conversation about Kazakh film, which we are eager to share with our readers.

To replicate the authenticity of the interview, the answers have been transcribed below, with some edits for length. Topics of discussion have been highlighted throughout as a guide to the conversation. Enjoy! 

The newfound appreciation for Kazakh films in Kazakhstan

Central Eurasia Standard: Thank you so much for talking with us. We’ll jump right in. Is there a local market for Kazakh films, or are they primarily consumed outside of Kazakhstan?

Ermek Shinarbaev: It is a very good question, because it is my favorite topic right now. Kazakhstan, for almost 400 years, was a colony of Russia. That’s why [we felt] we had no history. That’s why [we felt] our culture was very inferior to Russian culture. We felt ourselves inferior and we accepted it. Only with independence we began to understand that we have history, we have culture and we can respect not only our past, but maybe our present and our future. In the last ten years, something miraculous is happening in Kazakhstan. Now, I am so proud, we have a lot of names. For example, my beloved friend, an outstanding pianist, Janelle Bakura, she is really great. Some days ago, I was at her concert. She played the first concert of Brahms. It was an event. She is really genius. I couldn’t imagine that Brahms could be so powerful, so profound and so appealing. It is fantastic.

Steven-Charles Jaffe: You know, I have to ask you (Ermek) a question. On one of my film projects I am still hoping to do, one of the ideas I had was to come to Kazakhstan and score it. Because I thought, you know, Kazakhstan has some of the greatest musicians, why aren’t people making movie stores? Years ago we’d go to Berlin, we’d go to Prague.

Ermek: You will be surprised. It will be one of the greatest surprises, because Kazakh music, it is fantastic.

Steven: Yes, even Kazakh film directors, we haven’t talked about this, many of them go out of Kazakhstan to score their films and I don’t understand it.

Ermek: I did it. I did it. I worked with the best Russian composers.

Steven: But where did you do the score?

Ermek: In Moscow.

Steven: But why not Kazakhstan?

Ermek: That was the question. Do we have an audience or not? For many years, we did not. No history, no culture, no self-respect. But now, everything is changing extremely quickly. Now, the [local] audience says, “where is Kazakh cinema? We want to see this Kazakh cinema.” On top of that, two years ago, President of Kazakhstan visited Kazakhfilm Studios and told us “I will see all your films, and it will be my duty to see all your films, but not alone. With my government, with members of parliament and then after that the whole population of Kazkahstan will be aware of your films. Be aware of that, that I am aware of you and that it is my duty to push your films.”

That’s why Myn Bala, the new film that is an Oscar contender, made a million dollars in one week. It is a miracle. Miracle. That never happened. Right now, Kazakhs, they want to see Kazakh film, they are interested in Kazakh film.

Steven: I’ve seen it (Myn Bala) because I’m on the committee (Film Academy committee) for international films, and in a way it’s a parable for the Kazakh youth of today who want to say ‘hey look at us, we are independent and we are proud.’ That is one of the big themes for that movie and I can totally understand why its made so much money.

Ermek: Ten years ago, it was like that ‘No we don’t want to see Kazakh films’ and now it’s like ‘Where are Kazakh films?  We see American, Russian offerings, but where are Kazakh films?”

A brief discussion Ermek’s film, Revenge, which was censored in Russia

CES: Let me ask you about the President viewing all the films. Your film, Revenge, was censored in Russia. Was there an issue with censored films?

Ermek: The film Revenge, when we created the script, was at the end of communism, it was the end of Sovietism. This script [portrayed that]. The studio said, no, we don’t want to make this film, but finally they put some money forward and we made the film and finally we showed [it] at Cannes, and it became very popular. But it was never shown in Russia. Neither in cinema nor on television. It is an absolutely unknown film for Russians.

CES: Is it unknown for Kazakhs as well?

Ermek: No, in Kazakhstan its frequently on TV, it was shown in cinemas, and now it’s one of the best examples of Kazakh cinema that exists.

Steven: This [film] is how we ended up meeting each other. I organized the first Kazakh film festival in Los Angeles and when someone told me about this movie, and that Martin Scorsese had helped [Ermek] to restore it, I saw this movie and I realized why it is special, but no one had ever seen it in Los Angeles, ever.

Ermek: Now the [local and international] audience has the greatest demand for Kazakh films, but until now, we had no experience in promoting and distributing our films. It is in process. And now thanks to Steven, Kelin (the movie screened at the Goethe Institut the night CES met Ermek and Steven) is being distributed.

How Kelin came to be distributed in the United States

Steven: This was a movie that was going to be thrown away. The studio didn’t like it. To say that they didn’t like it was an understatement. They hated it. It was only by a fluke I ended up seeing this at 10 in the morning in Almaty.

What attracted me to [the movie, Kelin] out of my own cinematic perversity was that I heard there was no dialogue in the movie, and I thought “this is for me. This is pure cinema.” Also, because I’m always asked this question, and I was asked it when I did a master class on filmmaking in Kazakhstan, was “how do we make movies that will go beyond the borders of Kazakhstan?” I said well this is a movie that really should [be distributed] because it avoids the language barrier. No needs for subtitles, so it can be shown and understood anywhere.

I was shocked that they were going to throw this movie away, and there’s another reason why that happened, and it’s a cultural thing. Because of Borat, everybody involved with Kazakh cinema, even if you’re just a movie viewer, is extremely paranoid and uptight about perception of Kazakhstan in the world, and there is one scene that many Kazakhs took particular umbrage to because they thought it would represent Kazakhs in another horrible way, the way that Borat did. But there’s no comparison. [The film, Kelin] became a political hot potato, and the director, who’s a friend of ours, was threatened and harassed.

It reflects the struggle of a young democracy, having to decide, do we let our artists, our filmmakers, say and portray anything they want, or do we have a right to censor what they do or say. What I said, when this question was posed to me, was that democracy, for good and for sometimes bad, show the country, warts and all and that’s what Kazakhstan has to get over. [The reaction to this film] was a particularly interesting example of the public wanting to censor a film for fear of how it would be perceived elsewhere, which sounds crazy to us (as US citizens) because we have the freedom to do what we want here.

The lack of dialogue in films, and what it means for the director and producer

CES: One thing that I’m curious about is that lack of dialogue, which, Steven, you said intrigued you about the film. How are other cinematic elements best used when there is no dialogue, to help tell the story in a film?

Steven: It puts the onus on the director to make it as visual as possible, and we are in a visual medium. If you go back to great silent films, such as Abel Gance’s Napoleon, it is purely visual. We had an interesting discussion about the lead actress [in Kelin]; I think she is quite remarkable. [Ermek] is a brilliant director of actors and a brilliant director period, but I thought this woman was remarkable. She was not a professional actor, never acted before and will never act again. She’s gone off to her village.

Ermek: It was hard labor for her.

What Kazakh films and directors are a ‘must see’

CES: What are your recommended Kazakh films for that someone has no prior experience with Kazakh film?

Ermek: I could make you a list of films. Many films, which must be seen. One of them in a new film, by this young director, Zhanabek Zhetiru, it is nine minutes long, made by him in Italy. It is breathtaking. I don’t know the name, I have seen this film and didn’t have permission to show it here, but it is one of the best films ever made. The director is quite well-known because of  his first two films, Notes on a Railway Inspector, and Akkyz. He is extremely talented.

Steven: I have to say, Ermek has made some of the greatest films. Letters to an Angel is extraordinary. It has some of the most beautiful dialogue, it’s poetry. It’s a very sensual, very sexy movie. It’s romance.  It’s fabulous. It’s really great.

CES: What film are you (Ermek) most proud of, that you have made?

Ermek: My second film. Out of the Forest, Into the Glade. It was only showed once in Italy, Torino. Gulsara did the sound engineering; she did almost all my films. It was amazing to work on. I am so proud of it.

CES: Is it available in the West at all?

Ermek: No.

CES: Well, that will be frustrating for all of us trying to learn more. Thank you so much for your time, it was wonderful to chat with all of you.

CES would like to thank Anna Winestein of Ballet Russes  Cultural Partnership and Nick Marmet of the Eurasia Foundation for their help in organizing this interview. The Ballet Russes is a cultural partnership out of Boston University “devoted to supporting cultural exchange and creative collaboration between the US and Russia, as well as other countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, such as Kazakhstan.”

More information, including extensive biographies on the participants of the Kazakh film festival, are available here

Additional thanks to the Goethe Institut for their generous reception of Central Eurasia Standard and helping to facilitate the interview. 

One comment

  1. […] was tasteless, and it’s reviled in Kazakhstan. In an interview with a prominent Kazakh director, Ermek Shinarbaev, expressed his deep distaste and anger for the now-prevalent view in the Western world that […]

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