Located at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, Kazakhstan is in the right geographical spot to become an international co-producer, and now with a burgeoning local film industry, it’s developing the talent and the financing power too.

A large country with a small but ethnically diverse population of 15 million, Kazakhstan is the most stable and economically advanced of the Central Asian republics, and its film industry is the most developed in the region.

It’s already made a mark internationally with films co-produced with Europe, such as Nomad, Mongol: The Rise Of Genghis Khan and Sergei Dvortsevoy’s Tulpan, but the country’s output is expanding way beyond arthouse fare and historical epics about warriors on the steppes.

Recent local hit Tale Of A Pink Bunny, directed by Farkhat Sharipov, follows the spoilt offspring of Kazakhstan’s gas tycoons, while Akan Sataev’s Strayed, released earlier this year, is a metaphysical thriller about a family that gets lost in the steppes region. 

Private investment is now entering the film industry, along with funding from state-owned Kazakhfilm Studios, and a new generation of directors is emerging that has been educated either in their own country, Moscow or New York.

However, the country’s cinema market is small and local films account for less than 10% of box-office takings while Hollywood films, imported by Russian distributors, account for around 70%. That drives the country’s interest in international co-production as it’s almost impossible to recoup at home.

Among projects that were being pitched at the Eurasia Film Festival in Almaty last week (Sep 21-25) were Egor Konchalovsky’s Return To A, about Kazakhs fighting in Afghanistan, and Amir Karakulov’s Unreal Love, a romantic drama set in the country’s futuristic capital, Astana.

Both are co-productions with Russia, an increasingly common trend as the Kazakh film industry becomes more commercially-minded and reaches out to the much larger Russian market.

Kazakhstan’s ties to its former Soviet master remain deep, although the country is striving to assert its own national identity. Russian is spoken by most of the population and Russian actors and directors regularly work on Kazakh films. One of Russia’s most internationally renowned directors, Timur Bekmambetov, has Kazakh roots and is developing a project with Kazakhfilm, The Code Of The Golden Warrior, based on local myths.

Kazakh filmmakers are also building relationships in Europe and Asia – productions such as Mongol combined talent and partners from both regions, positioning Kazakhstan as a key link on the new silk road of Eurasian collaboration. Also in the pipeline is a new project from Sataev – historical epic A Thousand Boys (Myn Bala) – which is being set up as a co-production with Europe and may also have Asian elements.

The $7m project, which is expected to start shooting next spring, follows events in the run-up to the Battle of Anyrakai in 1729 when the Kazakhs fought the invading Dzungar tribe. It’s being produced by Kazakhfilm along with Aliya Uvalzhanova (The Gift To Stalin) and Anna Katchko (Newsmakers). Kazakhfilm chief Ermek Amanshaev is executive producer.

“There are many talented people here who are eager to collaborate and a cinematic tradition that stretches back to Soviet times,” says the Russian-born Katchko, who is currently working between Moscow, Sweden and Kazakhstan.

“We’ve found a strong partner here and a young generation of directors who have the ability to open up to the world – all of which makes Kazakhstan really interesting.”

While private finance is increasingly available in this country, which is riding high on its oil and gas reserves, the state-owned studios continue to back more than half of the country’s feature film production. 

Over the last few years, Kazakhfilm has also invested an undisclosed sum in renovating its sound stages and post-production facilities to international standards. It has also established an animation studio which is working on its first feature-length animation, Yer Tostik, based on local myths.

“There was a downtrend during which Kazakhstan was producing just two or three films a year, but we’ve introduced new processes and changed the structure of company and output is rising to more than 20 films annually,” says Didar Amantai, Kazakhfilm’s head of script development.

“We’re also putting more funds into marketing local films, both in Kazakhstan and in overseas markets, including Russia.”

Kazakhfilm is ploughing an estimated $70m into all forms of production, including film, TV and animation, over a three-year period. This funding is open to films co-produced by Kazakhfilm and foreign partners. Projects should involve Kazakh talent or deal with local subjects and themes, although they don’t have to be in the Kazakh language.

Kazakhstan also has a much more relaxed censorship system than some other Central and East Asian countries – pretty much everything is tolerated, so long as it doesn’t criticise the government or stir up inter-ethnic conflict.

It also looks as if next year could mark a coming of age for Kazakhstan – the country will celebrate 20 years of independence and host the 2011 Asian Winter Games in Astana and Almaty, all of which should help repair the international image of the country created by a certain Sacha Baron Cohen movie.

Meanwhile, recent productions such as Ermek Tursunov’s Kelin, which was short-listed for this year’s foreign-language Oscars, and Sabit Kurmanbekov’s coming-of-age story Seker mark this as a territory that is exciting cinematically.

With so much energy and an outward-looking attitude, it seems unlikely that Kazakhstan and its ambitious local film industry will remain unchartered territory for long.