Clare Nuttall in Almaty -
Since the success of the historical epic "Nomad" in 2005, Kazakhstan's state film studio Kazakhfilm has been aiming for bigger audience shares at home and more international recognition.
The studio's latest release is "The Late Love", a romantic comedy set in a hamlet near to Almaty, and featuring French actor Gerard Depardieu, who also has a role in the upcoming "My Sinful Angel". He is one of the best known of the international actors and directors the studio president, former deputy culture minister Ermek Amanshaev, has managed to attract to Kazakhstan since taking over in May 2008.
The Kazakhfilm studio, based at a sprawling complex at the foot of the Ala-Tau mountains in Almaty, has come a long way since it was dubbed "the art house reservation of Soviet cinema."
In the Soviet era, Kazakhstan was second only to Russia in cinematography. This was mainly thanks to the decision, made during the World War II, when European Russia was threatened by the Nazis, to evacuate the two main Soviet studios Mosfilm and Lenfilm to Almaty. Posters in the hallways of Kazakhfilm show films from the war years directed by the Soviet greats, including Sergei Eisenstein and Grigery Kopinsov.
Like much of the Kazakh economy, the studio had a hard time in the post-independence period when there was little money available for culture. However, in the last few years an expensive overhaul of the technical equipment has been carried out, in addition to Amanshaev's efforts to draw in international talent. Kazakhfilm has also been gradually reoriented towards more commercial releases. "The art house tradition continued until 2000, but we never showed our films at the class-A international film festivals such as Berlin and Cannes. So we weren't producing films that got a wide audience and were commercially successful, but on the other hand our art house films didn't enter the top film festivals. That's why we drew up plans to attract new internationally successful directors to Kazakhfilm," Amanshaev tells bne. "When I came to Kazakhfilm, I analysed the situation and decided that we would make many genres of films. We didn't want to throw away our art house experience, but we decided to make all genres of films and to focus more on their commercial potential."
Viewing data shows this has already started to pay off. In 2008, 72% of the films released in cinemas in Kazakhstan were American and European, 25% Russian and just 3% Kazakh. The audience share for Kazakh films was 5%. By 2009, the proportion of domestic film releases had more than doubled to 7%, and the audience share reached 9%. Amanshaev forecasts that the audience share for Kazakh films will be over 10% this year.
While the love affair with Hollywood films - comedies and action films are popular in Kazakh cinemas - is by no means over, Amanshaev believes that the Kazakh population also wants to see cinema and television that reflects their own life experiences. "People in Kazakhstan want to see films that reflect their own lives and people like them - their neighbours, their children, their contemporaries. This is more interesting for them," says Amanshaev.
While one of this year's most important releases was the historical film "Munbala", others are set in modern Kazakhstan. "They show our country, how we feel, our hopes for the future," he says.
A successful domestic film industry is also an issue of national pride for the government. Just as Astana wants to boost local content in oilfield services and manufactured goods, it hopes to do the same in the more creative and intangible world of film production, by investing heavily in new technologies and employing international experts.
Kazakhfilm has already increased the number of films it produces. In 2007, seven Kazakhstani films were released, one from Kazakhfilm and the other six from independent film companies. Last year, 17 films were released, of which 11 were Kazakhfilm's.
Today, Kazakhfilm is nearing the end of a three-year technical modernisation programme. Most of the studio has already been equipped with state-of-the art Dolby technology. All that remains to be completed next year is the film archive and library. In addition to raising the technical quality of the films it produces, this will also have financial benefits. Previously, up to 30% of the budget for each local film was spent on post-production abroad. Kazakhfilm can now do this in house, as well as offering post-production services to the less technically advanced film studios in other Central Asian countries.
Amanshaev's main concern has been to raise the quality of films produced - and get a shot at entering the top film festivals. "To this end, we have invited several internationally renowned directors to join Kazakhfilm," he says. "We invited Bakhtyar Khudojnazarov, the Tajik director who has already won a prize at the Venice Film Festival, to join us. Now we have started a project with our own director Darezhan Omirbaev, who is also very well known, and we will soon release a film by Ermek Tursunov."
For the future, Amanshaev is also very keen to find more sources for funding for the studio. Despite being 100% state owned, it has already managed to attract some private investment, though on a small scale; it raised around $3m in the last two years. "When we carry out more successful projects, then the level of investment will be higher," says Amanshaev.
He points to the situation in Russia. There, five years ago, funding from the film industry was 85% from the state; immediately before the crisis, at the beginning of 2008, it was equally split between state and private investors. "The Russian film industry was helped by the country's law to support the industry, which, for example, exempted cinematographers from taxes and customs duties. Kazakhstan also needs a law on cinema," Amanshaev says.
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