Kurmanjan Datka is this year’s official foreign-language Oscar entry for Kyrgyzstan and recounts the story of one of the country’s most celebrated female leaders, who lived from 1811-1907.
First-time director Sadyk Sher-Niyaz talks to Jeremy Kay about the story’s significance to his people and imparts a tale or two of bad weather and currency misunderstandings.
Elina Abai Kyzy (pictured) stars in the $1.5m Aitysh Film and Kyrgyzfilm production alongside Nasira Mambetova, Aziz Muradillayev and Adilet Usubaliyev.
There is a special screening of Kurmanjan Datka in Los Angeles on November 4 prior to a week-long qualifying run at Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills beginning on November 21. All rights are available.
Why did you want to tell this story?
First of all this story is about a great woman and as a director, I have always wondered how someone like Kurmanjan could achieve great success. What is her motivation? What features of her character are important for that? This story is also an important history of our nation. During the communist regime our history was distorted, intentionally or not. I wanted to relive all the events of that important historical period and to touch its deepest components.
What meaning does this story have for you and the people of Kyrgyzstan?
This film has become kind of a revelation and purification for many of my compatriots, the people who live in a tiny country that has faced two revolutions in a 20-year period of its independence. I often see tears in peoples’ eyes after watching the film, not because of the main heroine or her son, but because of the situation and the events happening in the country, and that so much more should be done and changed for true prosperity and unity.
Sometimes I think that we do not cherish what we have, either friendship, love, relationships with close people or freedom and independence of our country, and that something should happen [to change that].
When did you shoot the film and where?
The film was shot in 2012 and 2013 during the summer and winter and also in the beginning of 2014. We shot in different regions of Kyrgyzstan to try to show the pure beauty of our republic. The country is surrounded by mountains and you can see that in almost every scene that includes natural landscapes.
How did you get the money to shoot the film and how much did it cost?
Most of the budget was sponsored by the government of Kyrgyzstan: we have a government system for [cinema] support. It is necessary for filmmakers, because it is almost impossible to make a film without support. We also have private support from Aitysh Film.
Do you have any anecdotes to share from the filming process?
Filming was shut down several times due to bad weather in the mountains where the weather can change from good to bad extremely quickly.
We had a very limited budget and a funny story came during a meeting with a Russian actor to play Russian general Skobeelv at a coffee house. When asking about payment – we were able to offer $1,000 a day – he responded, ‘Well that’s a bit less than I was expecting, but OK.” Then I clarified – $1,000 a day in Kyrgyz national currency [about $20 USD.] We weren’t able to offer anymore and it was the same amount that the national and famous Kyrgyz actors were receiving, but luckily he agreed to the small fee. When we concluded our meeting, the bill for the two coffees turned out to be about the same amount, about $20 USD!
Tell us about the actors? Are they famous in Kyrgyzstan?
Most of the film’s actors and actresses are really famous in Kyrgyzstan and everyone from the acting staff was very helpful and involved in this project, wanting to enter their contribution to the film because it was the first epic movie since Kyrgyzstan’s independence. Honestly, it was extremely difficult to shoot an epic movie for $1.5m [USD]. It’s because of everyone’s cooperation and support we were able to make such a big film with such a limited budget.
The story of Kurmanjan Datka is inspiring. Is gender equality still an issue in your country?
Unfortunately, gender issues still take place in Kyrgyzstan. They are highlighted in the film and some situations still take place in our modern society either politically, socially or within our personal lives.
What is your next film going to be?
I would like to do a trilogy of films, Kurmanjan Datka being the first. The next would take place in 1916, about 10 years after she died, when the nation had a tragic event after the Kyrgyz uprising. Our nation faced brutal suppression by tsarist Russia with tens of thousands of people being massacred by punitive forces and hundreds of thousands having to flee to neighboring China. Until now, we have somehow kept silent over this fact but I think the time has come for the cinema to reflect these tragic events, and try to find out what a man feels in such troubled times, revealing the image of both a punitive and punished man.