Author Interview: Film and Identity in Kazakhstan, by Rico Isaacs (Oxford Brookes University)

Many thanks to Moldiyar Yergebekov (Suleyman Demirel University),  for his questions and dialogue with Rico Isaacs about the book Film and Identity in Kazazkhstan: Soviet and Post-Soviet Culture in Central Asia, published in 2018 by I.B. Tauris.

I want to start with the title of your book. Your book is about film and identity in Kazakhstan. And in the sub-title, you mentioned that it is about Soviet and post-Soviet culture in Central Asia. I think you’re talking about film culture here. How do you describe film or cinema culture?

Yes, the book is about film, rather than arts and culture more broadly. But there are two caveats to this. Firstly, rather revealingly, the sub-title of the book was chosen by the publisher, and as we know of publishers preferred methods, they were interested in having a title which captures the broadest market as possible. Hence, culture was drawn in a broader sense, rather than specifically to film. Secondly, despite just the focus on film, the key findings of the book relate to other spheres of culture. There are two broad arguments in the book. The first is that there are multiple imaginations of what constitutes the Kazakh national imaginary beyond the much laboured ‘ethnic’ and ‘civic’ categories. Using cinema as an analytical lens, at least in this case, allows us to interpret a wider range of constructions of Kazakh nationhood and identity – and to understand that there are countless ways in which nations can be socially constructed. Nevertheless, what’s important here, is that some imaginations of nations have more power than others.  Arts and culture more broadly defined can also be used in this same way to reveal the different constructions of nationhood and identity. The second key finding of the work is that cinema is a site which has allowed the emergence of varying levels of public dissent, satire and criticism of the regime. Again, we can observe this in other artistic forms too. It’s important to recognize that even in so-called authoritarian regimes, art remains a crucial site for the voicing of alternative perspectives, ideas and ways of ordering the social and cultural word, beyond those mandated by the regime.

The national cinema debates in the West began in the 1980s, but were revived in the 1990s. This period is also marks when Kazakhstan took its independence and began its nation-state building process. What can contemporary Kazakh cinema add to these national cinema debates?

I use the concept of national cinema in a particular, yet broad way, as an analytical frame. National cinema is often construed as collections of cinematic works which are congruent with national boundaries. However, I adopt the concept of national cinema as a way to think about the broader context, structures and discourses which underpin the development of the film industry – and this of course includes globalising influences. In the case of Kazakh cinema, it is extremely hard to locate a distinct ‘national cinema’. Rather, in terms of genre, financing, production, script writing and so on, there are a wide range of influences on the production of Kazakh film and cinema generally. With contemporary Kazakh commercial movies, we can point to the influence of Hollywood or Russian cinema, and with some state projects (such as Nomad or Myn Bala), Soviet cinema too. With art house cinema there is a range of directors, styles and genres which influence the work of auteurs such as Emir Baigazin or Adilkhan Yerzhanov. But is there a specific cinematic language which can be construed as Kazakh or Kazakhstani? Probably not. So, what Kazakh cinema tells us about the concept of national cinema in general is that the cinematic language of any director is the composite of their influences. Some of that will be the domestic environment and locality, but a significant portion of it will appear from beyond the veil of perceived national boundaries.

Central Asian Documentary Film Festival 2018 (photo by Rico Isaacs)

What is the relationship of contemporary Kazakh-national cinema to national allegory? In Jameson’s terms, can we say that Kazakh cinema is a national (or even nationalist) allegory?

In short, it depends. And it depends how a film is read and by whom. It is true that I have read film as text where I extrapolate from a protagonist’s experience to say something larger about the development or state of contemporary Kazakhstan, in a way which is similar to how Jameson writes of national allegory and third world texts. However, I recognize the limitations of this is that it is essentializing. I set out clearly at the beginning of the book that these are subjective interpretations and readings of films as texts. The experience of one character in a film as I read it, may not be that of how the writer or director understands it, nor how other film analysts or audience members perceive it. In interviews with directors often they would say that the experience of a protagonist is just that, their experience, and it may not have wider social ramifications. Nevertheless, the individual experience as represented in film, especially in works like Yerzhanov’s The Owners or Baigazin’s Harmony Lessons, even Nugmanov’s Igla, are a reflection of broader social trends. Sometimes they are a mirror, but they are not the totality of experience.

Stills from “The Owners” (these and header image are used with permission of the film’s director Adilkhan Yerzhanov).

In your book, you discuss the Kazakh New Wave. But generally, the concept of the Kazakh New Wave is very vague, because it comprised the core staff of Solov’ev’s students. However, you include Damir Manabai,Talgat Temenov, Amanzhol Aituarov, Kalykbek Salykov and Yermek Shinarbayev as members of the Kazakh New Wave in your book, although they were not students of Solov’ev. Moreover, if you were to ask the directors of the Kazakh New Wave like Nougmanov, Aprymov or Omirbayev, they would not include some of the aforementioned directors within the New Wave. Furthermore, the invention of new heroes, psychological realities of transition, and other motifs that you have mentioned in your book are the subjects of many directors of that period. As a result, it has turned into an overly inclusive conception. Thus, could we see the Kazakh New Wave as a result of PR and marketing work of young directors and also part of the cultural policy for the recognition of Kazakhstan abroad, from the time of its independence?

I mention in the book that while these directors were not part of Solovev’s film workshop their films were also representative and part of the broader shift which was occurring in Kazakh cinema at the time. The term ‘Kazakh New Wave’ should not be conceived as a concept – it does not have any analytical value in that sense. It was a marketing ploy, conceived in fact by Rashid Nugmanov and Talgat Temenov, when they were organsing a programme of Kazakh films for the 1989 Moscow Film Festival. And now, as a term (which we need to separate from the body of work produced by Kazakh film directors during this period) it is a useful marker of periodization in terms of Kazakh cinema and its development in the context of glasnost and perestroika, the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union and independence for Kazakhstan. It is a very fluid period and the cinema produced at this time by those from Solov’ev’s workshop, and those outside that group, was fluid, and in parts experimental – raising all sorts of questions about the past and Kazakhstan’s history. The New Wave title is just a neat label to make sense of some of that fluidity.

As you mentioned in your book, the Kazakh New Wave was known as “Wild Kazakh Boys” in the West. Your article about Kazakh cinema was titled “Nomads, warriors and bureaucrats: Nation building and film in post-Soviet Kazakhstan”. Do these kinds of expressions not suggest the eurocentrist or orientalist point of view?

This might seem the case if you are just looking at the title, but the article presents a more nuanced argument. In the article, I deal with different ways in which Kazakh national identity is constructed in cinema which seeks to move beyond these expressions and labels. Interestingly, these symbols and motifs of nomadism and brave warriors appear most frequently in the films commissioned, supported and funded by the Kazakh government, such as Nomad and Myn Bala. In that sense it demonstrates how the regime itself parrots those types of labels and interpretations of history and identity which could be perceived as forms of orientalism. It is congruent, to some extent, with Partha Chatterjee’s argument that postcolonial states are often only able to derive the imagined community from a set of modalities already ascertained by Western nation-building. However, having said that, in the case of Kazakhstan, and Central Asia more broadly, the use of these symbols and motifs (e.g. nomads and warriors) are actually derived from a Russian and Soviet form of orientalism, rather than Western European. In both the article and the book, I go to great lengths to discuss many films which represent the contemporary malaise of Kazakh society – both in terms of representations of modernity and affluence (I love Astana, etc.) and the social and economic difficulties of contemporary life (The Owners, Harmony Lessons, etc.) What I have argued in my work is that the way nationhood and identity are constructed and can be read within Kazakhstani film, should not be reduced to these stereotypes of nomads and warriors. The main abstract argument of that article is that nation-building is a fluid and transgressive process in which there is no fixed unambiguous understanding of nationhood and national identity. It is, therefore, an anti-essentialist and non-orientalist argument.

Still from “Myn Bala” (used by Rico Isaacs with permission from Kazakh Film Studios)

You also examine the Kazakh multi-ethnic films and argue that they are “explicit attempts to address the idea of a multi-ethnic, inclusive and civic rendering of the Post-Soviet Kazakhstani nation”. However, I would argue that some of these films – Sky of My Childhood, Gift to Stalin, The Promised Land – represent Eurasianism, which is part of the Kazakhization policy in the country. Yes, these films are multi-ethnic, but not civic. In all these films, Kazakhs are represented as the hosts of the land – hosts to all non-Kazakh ethnic groups. In your opinion, how does Kazakh cinema represent non-Kazakh (Kazakhstani) people?

These films are an attempt to locate post-Soviet Kazakhstan as an inclusive, multi-ethnic, civic nation. However, that does not mean they succeed in doing so, nor that they reflect the reality of nation-building in Kazakhstan or the position of non-Kazakhs (but Kazakhstani citizens) in the country. I follow Taras Kuzio’s argument that most civic states ultimately have an ethnic core. Thus, if nations present themselves as liberal, open and with citizenship based upon rights and responsibilities, rather than ancestry, there still exists an irreducible ethnic core which forms the normative boundaries in which citizens of the non-titular majority are expected to conform.

Still of “The Promised Land” (used by Rico Isaacs with permission from Kazakh Film Studios)

The underlying message of a Gift to Stalin and The Promised Land, for example, is that the unity of peoples in Kazakhstan, and the idea of inter-ethnic and inter-faith stability and harmony, is dependent upon the national characteristics of the Kazakh psyche. In other words, the films imply that inter-ethnic harmony is due to the very nature of the Kazakh national character as generous hosts. Thus, like in most multi-ethnic nations, regime discourses present those who are not of the titular majority as guests who are welcome in the state because of the generosity of the main ethnic core. We can observe this in most states in the world which claim to be civic nations. So, films such as A Gift to Stalin and The Promised Land do seek to represent a form of civic identity, but that does not mean it exists in reality. Thus, specifically in relation to these films, non-Kazakhs are depicted as guests who have rights and responsibilities to the general community, but who owe their survival and place in the state to the hospitality of ethnic Kazakhs. I would disagree that these films are seeking to express Eurasianism. What A Gift for Stalin and The Promise Land offer is an interpretation of Kazakhstan’s history in relation to how the contemporary multi-ethnic Kazakh state emerged as a consequence of the Stalinist deportations. They are also a critique of Soviet authority – and to some extent ethnic Kazakhs complicity in Soviet authority during these times. Sky of My Childhood, of course, is a very different beast in this sense, given it is a film which is more focused on developing the mythology behind Nazarbayev. There is only a brief scene in the film which relates to this question of inclusive, civic, multi-ethnic nationalism – and that pertains more to a depiction of the Soviet era ‘friendship of peoples’.

Still from “The Sky of My Childhood” (used by Rico Isaacs with permission of Kazakh Film Studios)

In your book, you mention little about gender representation in Kazakh cinema. More precisely, you deal with representations of mothers. Are there any reasons why you did not mention female and male representations /identities in general?

It is important to remember the book was exploring nation-building and the constructions of national identity in cinema in general in Kazakhstan rather than gender representations specifically. The topic of gender representations and how they relate to nationalism and cinema in Kazakhstan are deserving of a more nuanced account of their own. Nevertheless, this does not mean I do not see gender representations as important or central to some narratives of Kazakhstani cinema. In fact, where gender representation was most pertinent was in the chapter on the tengrist narrative where I focused heavily on the work of Ermek Tursunov. In that chapter I highlighted how women are represented solely as mothers in films such as Kelin and Shal.

Still from “Kelin” (used by Rico Isaacs with permission from Kazakh Film Studios)

I analyse how, very much in line with the work of Floya Anthias and Nira Yuval-Davis, that this type of representation of women is quasi-primordial and essentialising. It reduces the role of women and their place in nation-building to that of biological reproducers of the nation. Outside of this role as mothers, women are either entirely absent or, if they are present on screen, they are silent and marginal. While I discuss this only in relation to the tengrist narrative, a broader examination might find women represented in similar ways in some of the other nationalist narratives.


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