Kazakh filmmaker Yermek Tursunov’s “Stranger” evokes Akira Kurosawa’s epic “Dersu Uzala” in exploring the lives of displaced nomads eking out a living in the harsh steppes, where they clash against imposing modernity. Tursunov wrote the screenplay — which is set in the 1930s and centers on orphan Ilyas (Yerzhan Nurymbet) who escapes famine and the clutches of the Soviet Union to live with the wild wolf population in the mountains — 25 years ago during his film school days in Moscow. It’s the film he’s been waiting to make ever since.
“I thought this story was maybe very old, but after returning to it again, I understood my script was not old,” said Tursunov during our interview. “It’s modern, because these situations repeat.” We sat down at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Tursunov, gentle and well-spoken even in imperfect English, world-premiered the film before it opened in Kazakhstan, where audiences are scarce and passionately antiestablishment filmmakers scarcer.
This is Tursunov’s sixth feature, and third go-round as the foreign Oscar candidate for Kazakhstan, which previously submitted his similarly pastoral “Kelin” (shortlisted in 2010) and “Shal” (2012). “It’s important, of course, but only only for me; it’s important for our nation,” Tursunov said of the Oscar submission, which in Kazakhstan is chosen annually by a committee of nine filmmakers.
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Why did it take 25 years and five feature films to make “Stranger”? “I did not get help from the government because the government doesn’t like me,” he said. “My position is opposition of my government.” He said that much of the funding came from “friends who work in big business,” adding that many of the films and television that come out of Kazakhstan are made in cooperation with the government.
“Movies are art, they’re about our relationships with this world. I don’t think that the life of our president is very important for people.”
Though Tursunov (who’s also a journalist and novelist) insists “Stranger” is “not a political film,” Ilyas’ life as an outlaw and a traitor in the eyes of the Soviet villagers he struggles to connect with can be seen as an allegory of today’s Kazakhstan, where a long history of Russian dominance isn’t over.
“In this film I tell about historical truth, which is that Kazakhstan was a big prison when WWII began. Everybody is mixed with local people and now we are like brothers. Maybe it’s a cosmopolitan view but in fact, really, we lost a lot of nomadic traditions; we were warriors,” Tursunov said.
“Stranger” certainly makes the case for the lasting natural beauty of Kazakhstan, which is huge in size and dominates Central Asia’s economy with its vast natural resources. “In Kazakhstan, we need a new view for developing our life because we stopped at the last century. We want to be modern, industrial, creative, but we cannot because we don’t have new ideas or leaders that can drive us to a new life.”