ALMATY | When a Hollywood filmmaker pitches a potential trilogy these days, there had better be super heroes or vampires involved, but 51-year-old director Yermek Tursunov is in the middle of an ambitious trio of films on the Kazakh national character that is a commercial and critical hit.
Coming off the success of Kelin, Kazakhstan's official entry in the foreign language category of the 2010 Academy Awards, Tursunov premiered the trilogy's second installment 10 October. Shal (The Old Man) has already brought in some $305,000 at the box office against a budget of $2 million and seen its theater run extended.
"It’s a hit," Tursunov said bluntly, "especially considering that this is not a popcorn movie. It has more thought and meaning.”
For Tursunov, who finds out in January if Shal will show at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival, moviemaking is an opportunity to return to his childhood roots growing up among elderly men in a village outside Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city. The former journalist says he aims to uncover universal values in his examination of Kazakh tradition.
And if moviegoers are impressed by the results in a film market that produces a relatively robust, by Central Asian standards, 20 or so features a year, so are critics.
“For Kazakh cinema, Shal is one of the most colorful and vivid portrayals of the national character,” said Oleg Boretsky, a prominent film critic. “It’s quite rare, but Tursunov films and narrates life as he sees it, without strings attached to praising the national ideology.” He rates Shal 9 on a 10-point scale – his highest mark for any of the 18 Kazakh features released this year.
A TALE OF SURVIVAL
The three parts of the trilogy depict the evolution of life in Kazakhstan, taking us through scenes of the country’s past, present, and imagined future. That evolution is marked by the population’s passage from rural to urban life, with a growing disregard for the country’s open spaces that clearly troubles Tursunov.
The steppe of Shal is largely forgotten, its ground littered with debris from the Soviet space program and its trees draped in the ragged ribbons of long-gone wish-makers.
“The steppe can either be a caring mother, or act as a stepmother,” Tursunov said. "It all depends on how you treat it – as a big dumpster or with praise as your own god.”
Kassym, the movie’s title character, is played by 64-year-old Yerbolat Toguzakov as an archetype of the indigenous Kazakh. He is a steppe-dweller, eking out a living as a shepherd in a manner some Kazakhs no longer recognize.
“Look how telling his face is. Every wrinkle is like a trace of a long life," Tursunov said. "But when he turns around and walks, he looks like a little boy. Like this tiny little man, Kazakhs are sometimes funny, witty, very gullible, and generous."
The trilogy draws on biblical and literary allusions, and, inspired by Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, Tursunov sends the 73-year-old Kassym on a perilous journey through the icy fog and snowy terrain of the vast Kazakh steppe. Alone, the old man drives his 11 sheep, which he treats like a beloved soccer team, to their winter pasture. After endless walking in the middle of nowhere, he gets lost in the cold and is chased by wolves intent on revenge for his tipping off hunters to their offspring.
In a deadly struggle with the wolves, Kassym loses all his sheep, except for a newborn black lamb that he treasures. “You will be [the next] Maradona,” he exclaims.
After several days of searching for him, the police give up. But Kassym's grandson, affectionately nicknamed "Shaitanbek" (imp), goes out on one final search and discovers his grandfather, near death, before carrying him to safety on horseback.
Shal is a story of struggle and, ultimately, of the extraordinary survival instinct that Tursunov says is in the genes of his parents’ and grandparents' generations.
“Yes, we are tiny, we are funny and odd, but you go and try to survive in the wintry steppes for a day or two,” he said.
This resilience – also a universal instinct, of course – is the elder generations' bequest to the young, as represented by Shaitanbek.
AN EMERGING LEADER
Shal is Tursunov's third feature behind Kelin, about a woman navigating the realities of a forced marriage in a mountain village, and the 2011 Sem Mayskikh Dney (Seven May Days). A relative newcomer to film, Tursunov is the former editor in chief of Megapolis, a prominent Kazakh weekly. He has even published a novel.
With degrees in journalism and cinematography, Tursunov made the leap into film by writing the screenplay for Kurak Korpe (Patchwork Quilt), released in 2007. Today, he writes all the scripts he directs and funds production through state grants.
Shal's focus on tradition notwithstanding, Tursunov has been known as an iconoclast since college at least. Prominent journalist and former Kazakh State University classmate Geniy Tulegenov said the dean of the journalism school used to treat Tursunov like a black sheep for expressing anti-Soviet ideas.
But Tursunov was also a standout student with an eye for character and the sometimes-whimsical detail that is on full display in his films. In Shal, Kassym – a soccer fanatic like the director himself – names his sheep after star players like the Brazilian legends Pele and Garrincha. Pele the sheep even has the number 10 painted on his back, and Garrincha is a limper and slow walker.
“Every character in the movie, be it a sheep, a wolf, or the steppe, fog, and wind, has a soul,” Tursunov said.
An administrator at the national film studio, Toguzakov had little previous acting experience and was best known for The Tale of a Pink Rabbit, in which he plays a guest worker who accepts $100,000 to serve the prison sentence of a young man facing 10 years behind bars for vehicular manslaughter.
But with Shal a box office hit, people stop to shake his hand on the street or snap a quick photo several times a day.
“I was not expecting to star in a movie,” Toguzakov said. “It was like winning a car in a lottery. Simply pure luck.”
On his decision to cast the relative novice, Tursunov said, “Honestly, I needed an actor I wouldn’t feel pity for – someone who could jump into a river, fight with wolves, and crawl tirelessly for kilometers in the snow.”
"Without him though,” he said admiringly, “it would simply be a different story, a different movie.”
Orynbek Moldakhan, 13, who plays Kassym's grandson, has also been getting a lot of attention since the premier. Classmates have started calling him "Shaitanbek,” but the young actor doesn't seem to mind.
“I really loved the way I portrayed the character,” Moldakhan said. "I can watch the movie endlessly – 1,000 times – and never get tired."
Tursunov already has a script for Kenzhe, the trilogy's finale. Details are few, but the film is set in the future. Shooting is expected to launch in the spring and production to wrap in the fall of next year.
In Kazakhstan today, Tursunov is hardly the only standout filmmaker. Akhat Ibraev, 25, just released the country's first homegrown special-effects fantasy movie.
But, the critic Boretsky said, Tursunov’s films breathe some life into the scene.
“For Kazakh cinema, Yermek is the emerging leader,” he said.