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Kazakhstan hopes to rebrand through movies

Nation nurtures home-grown films, battles stereotypes from hit “mockumentary”

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BERLIN — If ever a country needed rebranding, it's Kazakhstan.

The Central Asian nation's international identity is shaped - unfairly, but inescapably - by the hit satirical film "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America to Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," which lampooned Kazakhstan as hopelessly backward, benighted and bigoted.

A fresh reminder of how Sacha Baron Cohen's 2006 mockumentary continues to shadow the nation's image came just days ago, when a medal ceremony at a shooting competition in Kuwait honored the Kazakh gold medalist by mistakenly playing the "Borat" parody of Kazakhstan's national anthem instead of the real one.

Kazakh filmmakers hope to shake off that image - and energize their country's movie industry - with a big budget historical epic, "Myn Bala," which opens next month in theaters in the Central Asian nation.

" 'Myn Bala' is one of those projects which is important to give the country its identity," says Anna Katchko, one of the film's producers. "It's also a coming-of-age story about falling in love, first fights, losing friends and gaining them again."

Telling the tale of 18th-century Kazakh warriors overthrowing Mongolian overlords, the movie is funded by Kazakhfilm - the former Soviet-era movie studio that now, as a partially state-owned enterprise, has been rebuilding Kazakhstan's film industry for the past three years.

Kazakhfilm not only provides funding for talented filmmakers in Kazakhstan but also promotes the country as a film location for foreign projects: Chuck Russell, director of 1994's "The Mask" and 2002's "The Scorpion King," is filming "Arabian Nights" - starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Sir Anthony Hopkins - in Kazakhstan with a reported $70 million budget.

"For many years all over the [former Soviet republics], there was almost nothing happening, few films were made," Ms. Katchko says. "In the past three years, there has been a lot of progress in Kazakhstan particularly.

"Kazakhstan offers amazing locations close to the ancient [former] capital of Almaty, where the production studios are. Forest, steppes, mountains, lakes - wherever you go, there is a different landscape."

'The real Kazakhstan'

German screenwriter/director Veit Helmer's 2011 romantic-adventure comedy "Baikonur" (co-produced by Ms. Katchko) was filmed in Kazakhstan and was inspired by the "cosmodrome," or space launch facility, in the country's desert steppe, which gives the movie its title. The plot revolves around a French "space tourist" who falls from the sky into the life of a young villager and, suffering from memory loss, is led to believe the villager is her husband.

Mr. Helmer conceived the idea for "Baikonur" after visiting Kazakhstan to run workshops for film students at the Zhurgenov Art Academy in Almaty, beginning in 2004. He said that even though many of his students - and even their teachers - had never made a film before, some showed real promise.

"There were some very brilliant students," Mr. Helmer said. "Some of them are now working in Paris, in London, in Moscow, which was a shame because when I went to Kazakhstan to shoot my movie, those I wanted to hire weren't available."

One of his Kazakh students who stayed in the country, Farkhat Shapirov, went on to direct "The Tale of the Pink Rabbit," which follows the fortunes of a child from the country trying to find his place in fast-paced Almaty. It was a major hit in Kazakhstan.

"We tried to show the real Kazakhstan with rich and poor in one film, and I guess it was the first high-quality Kazakh film for young guys with young actors," said actor Anuar Nurpeisov, who played the flim's lead character.

"This movie brought together ambitious directors, actors, cameramen. There haven't been that many great films coming out of Kazakhstan, and we showed we could do something by ourselves."

Kazakhs cite the promotion of a positive image via portrayals of Kazakhstan's modern culture and ancient history as a key reason for their government's support for the film industry. Last year, a feature film depicted President Nursultan Nazarbayev's rural childhood predictably casts the leader of 20 years in a glowing light.

And then there's 'Borat'

"One reason film is such a big issue in Kazakhstan is 'Borat,' " said Mr. Helmer, the German filmmaker and teacher.

Mr. Baron Cohen's send-up of life in America via the "reporting" of a culturally obtuse, Pamela Anderson-obsessed Kazakh TV presenter created an image that many Kazakhs have found hard to stomach.

"It was impossible to explain to my students that 'Borat' is a film that makes fun of Americans. That is because anywhere [my students] go in the world, when they say they are from Kazakhstan, people smile and say, 'Ah, Borat!' "

Still, Ms. Katchko says Kazakhfilm is putting a major emphasis on the domestic market. That both "The Tale of the Pink Rabbit" and "Myn Bala" focus on youthful heroes is no coincidence: Ms. Katchko says the main cinema-going audience in Kazakhstan is between 12 and 25 years old.

"In general, a young audience goes to see films," she says . "For 15 years, there was really no real filmmaking in Kazakhstan. For those who are 40 now - when they were 20 there were no films to watch.

"So basically, we now have to educate a new generation. Because I hope that those who are now 20 and 25 will continue the habit of going to see films."

Mr. Nurpeisov, the actor, says creative young people such as those involved in making "The Tale of the Pink Rabbit" - which he likens to a Kazakh take on Guy Ritchie, the British director of the wisecracking caper flicks "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch" - are a driving force in Kazakhstan's burgeoning film industry.

"Who can best speak to that audience? Their peers, their own generation," he says. "If this movie had been made by an older director, it wouldn't have been so successful."

"Myn Bala" is expected to draw swarms of young movie fans when it opens April 26. Even the casting process has contributed to the hype: 22,000 hopefuls competed for the lead role, which eventually went to 17-year-old Asylkhan Tolepov.

Whether it will succeed in winning over international audiences remains to be seen. This is not the first time the government has sunk major funding into a historical epic that glorified Kazakhstan's history. But the last attempt, the 2005 "Nomad: The Warrior" - largely a foreign production backed by Kazakh money - was an international flop.

Even so, the predominantly Kazakh team behind the $7 million production of "Myn Bala" hopes its homegrown adventure will put the country's film industry on the map - and maybe even eclipse the image of "Borat."

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