Kazakhstani Movies No Longer Playing Just a Supporting Role

Dastur; image: kino.kz

Until recently, the idea of Kazakhstani movies grossing a billion tenge ($2.5m) was a pipe dream. But in the last two years several films have earned this amount. The number of films being co-produced with world-leading studios is growing. However, domestic cinema still struggles to overcome funding and content quality problems.

At the end of last year, the romantic comedy Taptym au seni (I Found You) earned more than a billion tenge in just 10 days of screenings. But the real shock came later, when the box office receipts of the suspense film Dastur (Tradition) exceeded a billion tenge after only a week of distribution. In one weekend alone it significantly outperformed Hollywood’s Aquaman.

In just the second half of last year, Kazakhstani films at the domestic box office earned over $14 million. One of the highest-grossing films was Kazakhstani Business in India, directed by Nurlan Koyanbayev. The film grossed over 1.25 billion tenge, and it was followed by Maghan Nazar Audar (Look at Me). The top ten includes Zhaidarman (Cordial), Zhynim Sol (My Gene) and Azhyrasam (Divorced).

Domestic films now account for 30% of total box office receipts in Kazakhstan. Domestic analysts are confident that in the near future Kazakhstani cinema will overtake Uzbekistan to become the leader in Central Asia.

In addition to the national Kazakhfilm studio and private studios, production is being driven forward by the State Center for Support of National Cinema. The Center allocates grants to industry figures on a competitive basis, and although there are heated discussions around the terms of the competition and the awardees, state support has a significant impact on the release of films.

As for the subject matter, comedies are usually the leaders at the box office. They are often devoted to crime, drug trafficking, fraud, dishonest business, and corruption. Romance and historical figure movies remain popular as well. There is also a growing trend of condemning violence against women in the industry. Dastur, for example, tells the story of a rape victim who violently avenges not only the offender but also his neighbors, with whose tacit consent her life and dignity were devalued. Some sources are speculating that there will soon be a film adaptation of the story of the murder of Saltanat Nukenova by former minister Kuandyk Bishimbayev, which has attracted worldwide attention.

A decline in the popularity of western and Russian films, which have led the box office in past decades, is also helping the growth of domestic movies.

The share of international projects in the Kazakhstani film industry is growing. In March, the series Assassins Beginning, produced in Egypt, showed spectacular locations across Kazakhstan, including Charyn Canyon and Kolsai Lakes.

In January Kazakhstan and Nigeria’s ‘Nollywood’ joined forces for the first time to create a movie called Adam Bol. The film will be shown in both countries, with Nigeria steadily taking over movie markets in Africa and Asia.

Joint production helps to not only create jobs in the film industry, but to support businesses as well. At the end of last year, it became known that the American company Wonderhill Studios would launch its first feature film project in Kazakhstan, about a Kazakh girl rider who won a men’s race. Said American screenwriter Tom Nichols: “I was in Astana, traveled around Kazakhstan, talked to the locals. From them I learned about traditions and ceremonies, and it was all so delightful and rich that it gave me all the materials I needed to write the story. The richness of Kazakhstan’s culture impressed me. The tradition of horse racing and the people’s values — I thought this is a story we could show in the United States, and Americans would love it. They will really love the story of a Kazakh girl winning a horse race in the US.”

Kazakh actress Ayanat Ksenbai, known to viewers from the films Nomad and Leila’s Prayer, will play the lead role. The film’s budget will be $45 million, and it the movie will create 2500 jobs in Kazakhstan.

The Kazakhstani movie industry does however still have many problems. Foremost among them are the lack of funding, distribution difficulties — including a shortage of cinemas — and administrative issues. Nevertheless, over the last couple of years, most Kazakhstani films have been breaking even; this is a big step forward.