Sacha Baron Cohen’s outrageous 2006 comedy “Borat,” about a fictional Kazakhstani reporter traveling through United States, put the Central Asian nation in the consciousness of most Americans for the first time. Back then, Kazakhstan’s government had an understandable reaction to the comedian’s crude and stereotypical portrayal of the ex-Soviet republic. Now, 16 years later, with the release of the sequel” Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” the country is once again in the foreground; however, this time they are embracing the attention to boost their tourism prospects. For his part, Baron Cohen recently said he selected Kazakhstan as Borat’s nationality “because it was a place that almost nobody in the U.S. knew anything about, which allowed us to create a wild, comedic, fake world.”
While American audiences are now certainly aware of Kazakhstan, its actual culture and history remain a mystery to most. Although Kazakhstani artists have been making movies since the 1930s, most of those efforts were Soviet propaganda until the past 30 years. Since it achieved independence from the USSR in 1991, the country has managed to develop a small-but-substantial film industry.
Much of Kazakh cinema focuses on epic stories that honor their ancient past or their complex relationship with the Soviet Union and, later, Russia. Unfortunately, while a good amount of these productions have been exported and succeeded at international festivals, many are still unavailable to watch in the U.S.
Currently, none of the films by Emir Baigazin (“Harmony Lessons,” “The Wounded Angel”) are legally available stateside. Sergey Dvortsevoy’s “Ayka,” which made the Oscar shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film in 2018, remains without U.S. distribution. The same goes for plenty of older titles, such as “The Fall of Otrar,” that were notable upon their initially release but are now out of print and unavailable on streaming platforms.
Bearing all that mind, there is plenty to explore among the Kazakhstani features currently available in the U.S. Here are the best of them.
“Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan” (2007)
Directed by Sergei Bodrov, this historical epic chronicles the early life of the ruthless leader that would eventually rule over the massive Mongol Empire across China and Central Asia in the 13th century. Breathtaking in its large scope and top-notch execution, the impressive cinematic achievement introduces the figure when he was a warrior named Temudgin (Tadanobu Asano), including passages to his childhood, and follows his path to becoming the much-feared Genghis Khan through tragedy, brutal battles, and sheer resolve. In addition to being a financial success, the production earned Kazakhstan’s first ever Oscar-nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film.
“Myn Bala: Warriors of the Steppe” (2011)
Financed by the Kazakh government to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the young country’s independence from the Soviet Union, this grand romance wrapped in a large-scale retelling of a key event in its 18th century history offers familiar tropes from a distinct cultural perspective unknown to most in the West. A major box-office hit at home, Akan Satayev’s saga centers on young hero Sartay (Asylkhan Tolypov), a skilled archer, and the battle of Battle of Anyrakay, in which brave Kazakh freedom fighters defeated the Dzhungars, a group of Mongol invaders. By no means is this a subtle affair, but it’s an engaging and well-crafted wartime epic nonetheless.
“The Road to Mother” (2016)
Exploring a more recent past, Satayev, one of Kazakhstan’s most prolific filmmakers, begins this monumental story in the 1930s and traces it all the way to the present. As is the case with most of the director’s state-sponsored films over the last decade, this is a deliberately patriotic drama, but it manages to become an affecting work that provides insight into the hardships and geopolitical changes the country underwent in the 20th century under Soviet control. Our fictional guide into such vast history is Ilyas (Adil Akhmetov) a young man separated from his mother who must live through hell to return home.
“Songs from the Southern Seas” (2008)
Two couples, one Kazakh and one Russian, become entangled in a conflict fueled by marital distrust and toxic masculinity over the paternity of a child in this measured ensemble drama from director Marat Sarulu. Living in Kazakhstan’s Great Steppe, the four of them have a close relationship, but when Maria (Irina Angejkina), the Russian wife, gives birth to a baby with a darker complexion than her and her husband, doubt sets in. Strong, naturalistic performances help Sarulu tackle the racial and cultural divide between these two groups of people existing in close proximity with an inextricable shared history.
Easily Kazakhstan’s most internationally acclaimed film to date, Sergey Dvortsevoy’s charming and evocative portrait of a young man struggling to fulfill his people’s measures of manhood won the Un Certain Regard award at the Cannes Film Festival. Anchored by Askhat Kuchencherekov’s turn as Asa, the endearing protagonist who has returned to the steppe to try to settle down and marry after serving in the Russian navy, the movie stuns with gorgeous cinematography that mines beauty from the sparse landscapes as its moving narrative examines the clash of tradition and modernity. If you only see one film from this list, make it this one.