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Kazakhstan seeks identity on the big screen

The Central Asian nation throws Borat a counterpunch.

(Page 2 of 3)

Sarsenova briefly attended the prestigious Russian State Institute of Cinematography in Moscow, but her father didn't tolerate her flight of fancy for long and ordered her back to Almaty, to "get a legitimate degree." She settled for a journalism degree from Kazakh State University.

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Kazakhstan's independence opened the door to private enterprise – and the glamour Sarsenova craved. A self-described "pioneer" of Kazakh commerce, she built an empire of two-dozen luxury boutiques across the country, known as "French House." Her flagship Almaty store is fronted by a glitzy replica of the Eiffel Tower, emblazoned with interlocking neon hearts.

When Sarsenova was approached in 2004 to sponsor "Mongol," she says, the script plucked at her patriotic heartstrings: "It was a question of fate." She became one of five producers.

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Early on, the Soviets appreciated film as a tool for shaping identity. With so many ethnic groups in its yoke, Moscow steered clear of anything that might kindle national sentiment. In Central Asia, Soviet-controlled film studios in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan produced work that praised Stalin, promoted the notion of "Soviet man," or prodded Islamic women to lift their veils. The Kazakhs themselves were portrayed as rescued from a primitive existence. Meanwhile, they also endured a unique trifecta of trauma at Moscow's hands: the famine of Stalin's forced collectivization that killed a million Kazakhs, a network of concentration camps that constituted the southern flank of Stalin's notorious gulag, and four decades of above-ground nuclear testing that turned Kazakh farmers into human guinea pigs.

As the Soviet empire began to crumble, Kazakhfilm was among the first to find its voice, delving into Kazakh history. This was further fueled by the fact that Kazakhs didn't have to fight for independence, as other ex-Soviet republics did, says Kazakh film critic Gulnara Abikeyeva.

"We had to look for the roots of honor and bravery, through films about our national heroes," says Ms. Abikeyeva. "We received independence, but not in our minds or in our culture."

The pinnacle was the 2005 film "Nomad," a pet project of the authoritarian president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. The government shelled out $37 million for the film, an unheard of sum in these parts. Marked by lush cinematography, it opened and closed with commentary from Mr. Nazarbayev himself.