An exciting new Kazakh director is earning comparisons with Guy Ritchie and Timur Bekmambetov and has attracted an illustrious international team to shoot a coming-of-age film aimed at global audiences. Liz Shackleton reports

Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, Kazakh director Akan Satayev is shooting a scene from Myn Bala in which his young hero, Sartai, returns from a hunting trip. This section of the shoot has been delayed for a few days due to rain storms, but the breathtaking scenery makes the wait worthwhile.

“We’re shooting 95% on location so we’re at the mercy of the sun, wind and rain,” says Satayev, who has prior experience of the wilderness; two years ago he shot psychological thriller Strayed on the vast Kazakh steppe.

Another challenge is the intense and fast-changing light. The film’s DoP, Khasan Kydyraliyev, is used to these conditions. He comes from neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and worked on award-winning Kyrgyz drama The Light Thief. “On a big movie like this we do wide shots in the morning and evening, and close-ups in the afternoon,” he explains.

Myn Bala is a $7m historical adventure and an important milestone for Kazakhstan’s burgeoning local film industry. It is also being made with the international market in mind.

State-owned Kazakhfilm Studios started developing the project just over a year ago when young writers Zhaik Syzdykov and Mouhamed Mamyrbekov approached them with the basic concept for the script.

‘It was important to us that this story could be understood all over the world’

Anna Katchko, producer

Kazakhfilm agreed to fully finance and under its policy of developing public-private partnerships, sought private production companies for development and production. The winning bids came from Satayev’s Sataifilm and New Film Format, founded by Aliya Uvalzhanova, an Almaty-based producer with credits including The Gift To Stalin.

A big difference between this film and previous Kazakh epics such as Nomad (2005), also financed by Kazakhfilm, and Sergei Bodrov’s Mongol (2007), a co-production with Russia and Germany, is that Myn Bala is aimed at the youth market with its coming-of-age story and mostly teenage cast.

Sartai is played by 17-year-old Asylkhan Tolepov, selected from an open casting call in which 22,000 young Kazakhs auditioned. The lead actress, 18-year-old Aliya Telebarisova, has starred in a top-rating local TV series.

Satayev has strong appeal for a youth audience. His credits include gangster movie Racketeer (2007), which remains the territory’s highest-ever grossing film four years after its release, while his most recent title, Liquidator, released in April, is a revenge fable featuring UK actor Vinnie Jones.

Myn Bala is taking him in an entirely new direction. Set in the 18th century, the story follows a young Kazakh boy who rises up against the powerful Dzhungar tribe to help secure the independence of his people. The film’s climactic battle is based on the 1729 Battle of Anyrakay between the Kazakhs and Mongolian Dzhungars, while Sartai’s story is drawn from a local myth about a thousand boys (the “myn bala” of the title) who band together to fight the invading hordes.

Filming took place between April and July this year, with production and post-production done simultaneously. Unlike most Kazakh productions, the film was shot in sync sound with multiple cameras and some of the CGI team were present on the set. The film’s foreign editors — Nicolas Trembasiewicz (The Transporter) and Christopher Bell (Push) — worked on the digital rushes back in Almaty, the cultural capital of Kazakhstan, during principal photography.

With a population of just 15 million, Kazakhstan has a film policy that is much more outward-looking than its giant neighbours Russia and China. And though Myn Bala is fully financed by Kazakhfilm, and not under huge pressure to recoup, it is hoped it will showcase how the local film industry has progressed.

“Considering the originality of the concept, we felt international audiences will really take an interest in this film,” explains Kazakhfilm president Ermek Amanshaev.

Producers Uvalzhanova and Anna Katchko, a Moscow-based producer with extensive international experience, have been looking to both the West and East to promote the project. Their first move was to take part in the Busan International Film Festival’s projects market in South Korea last October, followed by scores of meetings at the AFM, Berlin and Cannes. They are now in talks with sales agents and hope to announce a deal soon. 

When developing the script, the film-makers decided Sartai’s personal story would be of most interest to audiences overseas. “It was important to us that this story could be understood all over the world,” says Katchko whose credits include US-Russia drama Perestroika and Newsbreakers, the Russian remake of Johnnie To’s Breaking News.

“We decided to focus on the coming-of-age story and make it as touching and authentic as possible. These problems are universal, a guy facing first love, first betrayal and feeling a big push to go out and do something.”

‘Considering the originality of the concept, we felt international audiences will really take an interest’

Ermek Amanshaev, Kazakhfilm

Helping in this process were two international script doctors — the UK’s Clare Downs and US-based Martin Daniel — who worked with the three local writers, including Timur Zhaksylykov who has scripted all of Satayev’s films. The overseas writers were joined by several other international consultants including Hong Kong action director Teddy Chen (Bodyguards And Assassins) who was drafted in as a creative consultant to advise on the action scenes in the film.

Joining editors Trembasiewicz and Bell are French sound editor Stephane Albinet (Tsar) and post-production sound editor Jean Goudier (Alexander). Co-producers are Anna Katchko and Thessa Mooij.

CGI is being handled by Timur Bekmambetov’s Bazelevs Studios, which worked on the Moscow-based director’s Wanted and Nightwatch. Bekmambetov was born and grew up in Kazakhstan.

The choice of DoP was critical as Kazakhstan’s stunning landscapes will be another strong selling point of the film. “We kept in mind the audience doesn’t want to just look at rough steppe for an entire movie, so we decided to shoot in different locations including meadows, mountains and lakes,” explains Uvalzhanova.

The producers hope to release the film early next year, though the roll-out will depend on its festival strategy. As it will be seen as an arthouse title in the West and arthouse audiences tend to skew older, the producers are contemplating an international version.

“We may do a cut with less focus on the action,” Katchko says. “We want to give this film the best chance to travel and to be understood.”