Government hopes to counter Russian sneers and Hollywood mockery with epic historical TV series. Eurasianet.org reports
Armour-clad warriors charge from behind a rocky outcrop and gallop across the steppe, swords aloft and banners flapping in the wind. With furious cries they surround a camp and embark on a gruesome and bloody battle.
Perched on a rise above the skirmish, a female warrior in an elaborate fur headdress checks her smartphone as an impassive white camel chews the cud.
This is not a medieval war zone but the set of a Game of Thrones-style TV series that aims to bring to life the colourful tale of the birth of a Kazakh state more than 500 years ago.
The series dramatises the tumultuous events leading up to the creation of the first Kazakh khanate in 1465 amid the collapse of the Mongolian-ruled Golden Horde empire events interpreted in modern-day Kazakhstan as laying the foundations for todays independent state.
The 10-part historical epic is being made by acclaimed director Rustem Abdrashev, a man on a mission when it comes to cinematic interpretations of Kazakhstans past.
The history of my country and the history of my people and how it was born isnt simply important but also topical, he said, as darkness fell on the set at the end of a long days filming near the Kapshagay reservoir in south-eastern Kazakhstan.
For the next generation, this will be a good example for imitation and for awareness.
Dubbed Kazakh Khanate, the series recounts how two leaders, Zhanibek and Kerey, broke away from an Uzbek-ruled kingdom to create a state on the steppes of southern Kazakhstan.
They decide: were announcing from this day on that were the Kazakh khanate, and they send riders out all over [to spread the news], said producer Arman Arsenov.
This narrative has become familiar to the Kazakhstani audience following statehood celebrations in 2015 to mark the 550th anniversary of the khanate. The festivities were designed, according to the president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to showcase Kazakhstans long history.
But the anniversary festivities and the filming of the series may not have been initiated without intervention from an unlikely source. Interest was piqued when the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, dismissed Kazakhstans past, declaring the country to be a couple of decades old. The colonial overtones of the remarks outraged many residents.
Remember when Putin declared that Kazakhstan was a country that had no history? It spurred us on, said Arsenov.
The statehood celebrations, announced soon after Putins comments, became an exercise in nation-building for Kazakhstan. They were also an opportunity to bolster support for its 75-year-old president, who has ruled since independence 25 years ago.
Astana uses film to depict and create certain symbols of nationhood and history that are supposed to influence how people perceive themselves as being Kazakh and their history and their past, said Rico Isaacs of Oxford Brookes University, an expert on Kazakhstan.
The centrality of Nazarbayev to Kazakh independence and statehood looms large in the film, he said.
But critics have raised questions about the series historical accuracy. Some dismiss it as a self-serving story about a mythical state rather than the actual development of a country.
Abdrashev dismisses these complaints. The show is definitely an image-making project for both Kazakhstan and Nazarbayev, whose life the film-maker has already capture with a thoughtful series of films Path of the Leader, he said.
History is extremely complicated and subjective, he added, but aside from history, were making movies, and this should be an artistic production. The priority isnt to distort history but to tell an interesting story.
After the release of the TV series, which will also be dubbed into Russian, the directors plan to release a feature film in multiple languages, including English, Turkish and Chinese.
They hope it will help promote Kazakhstans soft power internationally in the manner of films such as Nomad and Myn Bala and counter Hollywood offerings like Borat, which lampoons a fictional Kazakhstan.
Exploring Kazakhstans past on screen is nothing new for Abdrashev, who has directed critically acclaimed movies such as The Gift to Stalin, tackling the fallout of the Soviet nuclear programme, and Rebirth Island, examining the origins of the Aral Sea environmental disaster.
Kazakhstans film-makers should be reinterpreting a colonial past dominated by Russian narratives, said Abdrashev, who was born in the Soviet Union in 1970 and grew up during the Brezhnev era. Unfortunately, for 70 years we lived with a distorted knowledge of our own history, and were now trying to catch up and set the record straight.
Arts projects offering fresh ideological interpretations of history have the official stamp of approval. Made by the state-run Kazakfilm studio, the series is financed by the government.
However, with an economic crisis forcing cuts to public spending, the film-makers are tightening their belts. Astana is now covering only three-quarters of the 2bn tenge (around $5.5m) budget, leaving them scrambling to make up the shortfall through private investment and crowd-funding.
Kazakh Khanate looks set to entrance viewers when it hits TV screens in March, with its Game of Thrones-style themes of power and glory, war and peace, love and hate all set against the sumptuous scenery of southern Kazakhstan.
Like Game of Thrones, it tells a dramatic parallel tale of the history of many people, said Arsenov. But unlike the popular TV series, set in mythical kingdoms populated by dragons and zombies, we have a real story to tell.
This article first appeared on Eurasianet.org
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