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Kazakhstan seeks identity on the big screen

The Central Asian nation throws Borat a counterpunch.

(Page 3 of 3)

Kazakhfilm, though, is otherwise strapped for cash, deprived of the heavy Soviet-era state subsidies. On its once-proud campus, set against the backdrop of the snowcapped Tien Shan mountain range, the studios are rich with props that constitute one of the largest collections of folkloric crafts in the country – from stacks of colorful handmade carpets to carved furniture and leather containers for kumiss, the national drink of fermented horse milk.

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But signs of neglect are everywhere: marble stairs are chipped, linoleum hallways buckle, light bulbs are burned out or missing. Staff levels are one-quarter those of Soviet times; production costs rarely top $1 million. (A visiting journalist is asked several times, hopefully, if he's a potential investor.)

Still, Kazakhfilm crackles with creativity. In the animation department, a storyboard pasted to the wall tells the tale of an old woman whose lone goat is gobbled by a wolf. Only the tailbone is left behind. On the carpeted floor of their traditional nomadic yurt, that bone turns into a baby boy – delivering a miracle to an elderly couple that had long yearned for a child. It also reminds them of the harmony of nature.

The animator of this childrens' film, Kayergali Kassymol, says there was a time when Kazakh elders on the steppes transmitted such values to their children and grandchildren. "Now it's the television that educates their children, which is why we're bringing our oral tradition to TV," he says. "We must educate this generation that they have their own culture, their own nomadic roots. While religions, states, and countries come and go, culture is what remains."

But, notes the critic Abikeyeva, "if you were to look just at the majority of our films, you'd get the sense we're living in the 19th or early 20th century."

The Ministry of Culture seems to agree and recently told Kazakhfilm to plow new terrain, says Tauyekel, the chief editor. He doesn't share that view, but adds, "Because we depend on their financial support, we have to be very polite."

With the success of "Mongol," there's hope that new oil wealth – Kazakhstan sits atop one of the world's largest reserves – will trigger a flow of petrodollars into the film industry. Not only historical films, but the stuff of 21st-century society – detective thrillers, romantic comedies.

"If Hollywood is an army, then here we have half a battalion," says Vladimir Tatenko, a TV producer and veteran documentarymaker for Kazakhfilm. "So I'd like to ask those now buying yachts or football clubs – why not invest in cinema?"

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Sarsenova is doing her part, she says. The next coproduction of her Eurasia Film Production company is "Tulip," a contemporary film about a Kazakh shepherd who falls in love on the steppes.

Meanwhile, her father's own national spirit has awakened, and he's proud her work "contributes to raising the level of Kazakh self-awareness," says Sarsenova. "Back then, he cared about the future of the Soviet Union – now he cares about the future of Kazakhstan."