American Documentary Producers Tour Kazakhstan with Film Showcase

ASTANA – American filmmakers Andrea Meditch and Lisa Olken are travelling through Kazakhstan as part of the American Film Showcase programme, participating in the red carpet premiere of five award-winning American documentaries in Astana, conducting classes with film students and answering questions at screenings of their films across the country from Oct. 23 to Nov. 5.

American film showcase in AstanaTheir films have found receptive audiences here, Meditch and Olken said in an interview with The Astana Times on Oct. 24. “People have pointed out certain things in both of our films that really hit close to home,” said Olken, executive producer for Rocky Mountain Public Broadcasting System. Olken produced “Urban Rez,” which traces the impact of the voluntary relocation programme for Native Americans in the United States though Native American voices.

“Buck,” produced by Meditch, tells the story of real-life horse whisperer Buck Brannaman. It, “Urban Rez,” “City Dark,” “Uranium Drive-In” and “The Medicine Game” were selected by the American Embassy in Astana for screenings in Kazakhstan. “City Dark” explores light pollution, “The Medicine Game” introduces two Native American brothers working to become professional athletes and “Uranium Drive-In” depicts a Colorado community dealing with the consequences of a nuclear fuel mill.

The five films are part of the American Film Showcase, a partnership between the U.S. State Department and the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts that brings contemporary American films to international audiences.

The equestrian culture in “Buck” and the impact of the migration of indigenous peoples in “Urban Rez” seemed very relevant to Kazakhstan, said Drew Peterson, a cultural affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Astana. “We thought that both of these topics would be fascinating for people in Kazakhstan, where horses are such a big part of the culture, where nomadic life for a very long time was a big element of the culture and where resettlement programmes in the 20th century had such an interesting legacy.”

The embassy wanted to present real voices rather than ideology, Peterson said. The films, he said, are “the unfiltered voices of the American West that had stories to tell to Kazakhstan about our tradition and ancestry and environmental sustainability and how all these things play together in the American West.”

They also show some negative stereotypes about the U.S. in a positive light, Meditch said. “Buck is really a new kind of cowboy. He’s not a loner, he’s a family man. He’s gentle, but willing to speak out.” Cowboy stories are America’s mythology, she said, and Buck is a more humane representation of that mythology, a different way of thinking about a national hero.

“There are so many negative, depressing stories about Indian boarding schools and the historical traumas and the broken treaties, but there are many positive stories about native people, native lands – I’m working on a film right now about native energy on tribal lands – that people don’t know about. And it’s about time to tell positive stories about our indigenous populations, not just about alcoholism, casinos, things like that,” Olken said.

The producers showed their films and gave master classes at Astana’s National University of Arts on Oct. 23-24 and at the KazMediaCentre on Oct. 25. While Kazakhstan has a tradition of fiction filmmaking, documentaries are a relatively new genre here, and the students have been keen to learn about them, the film directors said.

“It’s been a vibrant dialogue [about] how you adapt fiction techniques to telling stories about the world you live in, telling true stories. They’ve been very engaged and asked a lot of questions and also we’ve asked them a lot of questions, so we’ve learned a lot from each other,” Meditch said.

“They’ve really asked some profound questions, like ‘Isn’t documentary filmmaking easier than making a fiction film?’” said Olken. “I’ve never been asked that before. ‘Are documentaries all real? They’re fact based, so can we believe all documentaries?’ I said, no. They’re fact based, but they’re filtered through the director. So then there was this big discussion. … I think we’ve really helped to open their eyes and they’ve really helped to open our eyes.”

The producers have also brought some harsh truths about the business of filmmaking. “There’s a huge difference between how the media business works in Kazakhstan and in the United States, so we’ve been talking a lot about what it means to work in a commercial business environment in the United States, in a corporate environment,” Meditch said. “In the United States, you have to support yourselves somehow. … That, I think, was something of a surprise, that you have to figure out how to pay for your film. So we’ve been talking about that, too.”

Meditch had always hoped for an international audience for “Buck,” she said, but Olken said she never imagined showing her film outside the U.S. Both found that their films struck chords with students in Kazakhstan, however.

“I’ve been struck by how much the students responded to what they see as Buck’s spirituality, to his philosophy of life. It was very resonant to them and also, they felt, was very much a part of their traditional culture as well. It’s been a very, very interesting dialogue,” Meditch said.

Dialogue is what they were hoping for, the filmmakers said. “We were absolutely looking to learn,” said Meditch. The landscapes of Kazakhstan and the U.S. west are very similar, she noted, but what about the cultures? “We both have cowboys, we both have indigenous peoples who have been here for a very long time, but our histories are different. So we’ve been talking about our different histories, and that’s been very interesting and engaging.”

The five films were shown at Astana’s KazMedia Centre over Oct. 24-25, with “Urban Rez” and “Buck” premiering after a red carpet gala at the centre on Oct. 25.

The producers will also visit Kostanai, Karaganda and Shymkent.