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Kazakhstan seeks identity on the big screen

The Central Asian nation throws Borat a counterpunch.

By Michael J. JordanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 8, 2008

Courtesy of The weinstein company

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Almaty, Kazakhstan

If the satirical movie "Borat" spoofed an entire nation, then "Mongol" was a decent counterpunch, casting back 800 years to the glory of a world conqueror, and earning Kazakhstan its first nomination for a foreign-language Academy Award earlier this year.

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But "Mongol" was more than a big-budget Genghis Khan biopic, says Gulnara Sarsenova, the perfume and cosmetics magnate who helped bankroll the $23 million production. It also aimed to bolster the self-respect of a traditionally nomadic people aggressively Russified during 70 years of Soviet domination.

"There's a lack of awareness among Kazakhs of our rich and interesting past," says the flamboyant CEO, who is from the Naiman clan of northeastern Kazakhstan. That's the same clan of Borte, Khan's empress, whose charms in the movie brought out the sensitive side of the Mongol pillager. "I wanted to show that Kazakh history goes much further, is much deeper, than we'd ever thought."

As a coproducer of "Mongol," Ms. Sarsenova is at the forefront of efforts to reconnect Kazakhs to their ancestors, especially through film. While "Mongol" – with its Russian director, international cast, and global audience – is still a rare, privately funded exception, more typical are the dozens of historical films for domestic consumption that state-run Kazakhfilm has churned out since independence in 1991.

Kazakh-language programs face a daunting challenge, though. Stretching across a region the size of Western Europe, this sparsely populated nation is 47 percent Kazakh and 44 percent ethnic Russian. While homes in even the most remote Kazakh villages boast their own television, Russian media and Russian-dubbed Western fare dominate the tube.

Moreover, as roughly half of Kazakhfilm's movies romanticize bygone Kazakh heroes – an answer to the Soviet propaganda that began with the 1917 revolution – some wonder where the need to educate crosses into propaganda of its own.

But, asks Slambek Tauyekel, vice president and chief editor of Kazakhfilm, "what is propaganda? It tries to make everyone think the same way.

"We hope everyone will understand our films in their own way," adds Mr. Tauyekel, a 50-something filmmaker dressed sleekly in black leather sportcoat.

"This isn't about counterpropaganda, but healing and restoring Kazakh souls."

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Sarsenova, herself, once dreamed of a career in movies. Though her father was a member of one of the poorer Kazakh clans he rose to become a high-ranking Communist official.

"He spoke a lot of socialism, and that if it weren't for the Soviet system, he would still have been a shepherd," she says, but adds that he quietly nurtured her national identity. "One thing he always said was, 'One must never forget his ancestors.' "