Assel Aushakimova on queer filmmaking and the search for tradition in Kazakhstan

Assel Aushakimova is a Kazakh director, screenwriter and producer. Assel graduated from film school in Almaty. Her first feature film Welcome to the USA (2019), which screens currently on Klassiki, had its world premiere at AFI Fest 2019 (New Auteurs) and was awarded Grand Jury Prize as Best International Narrative Feature of NewFest New York’s LGBTQ Film Festival 2020. She is currently working on her second feature film project that has been selected for the first workshop of the Biennale College Cinema 2020-2021 of Venice IFF. Klassiki curator Olga Doletskaya sat down with Assel to discuss independent filmmaking in Central Asia, making the first Kazakh queer film, LGBTQ+ rights in the post-Soviet region and the post-Soviet love for statues.

Welcome to the USA (2019), Assel Aushakimova

O: Thank you this beautiful film and of course, congratulations on winning at New York’s LGBT Film Festival 2020; it’s such a prestigious award! I wanted to firstly ask how the film was received at home, in Kazakhstan? I know that you wanted to screen it in cinemas in November 2020; have covid restrictions affected it in any way?

Originally, I hadn’t even hoped for any cinema screenings. After we got the New York’s LGBT Film Festival award, there was more publicity around the film. Our associate producer suggested for us to screen the film in cinemas. At that point I was already busy with another project, so I just gave her complete freedom. And she somehow managed to get us a few cinema screenings, mainly in Almaty and two other small towns. Although the film was rated as 21+, I don’t know why (laughs).


O: That’s interesting, there’s no explicit content in the film, is there?

I think if they knew it wasn’t just about LGBT issues, we wouldn’t have got the screening rights at all. The Ministry of Culture clearly have not watched the film, they just watched the trailer and thought it’s a queer film, rated it as 21+ and gave us screening rights. In reality, it covers so many other topics like religion, politics. There were Covid restrictions, so we only screened it a few times, we couldn’t even screen it in Nur-Sultan, the second-biggest city in the country. A few cities were actually too scared to allow it to be screened because of the plot line with the Aliya’s sister and the fact that she wears the hijab. Any Muslim themes rarely get screened. So, the screening was really limited, just a few cinemas, weird times. Not very successful, I would say.


O: It’s so impressive that the film was screened in cinemas! I know that for And then we danced (2020) they really struggled to screen it in Georgia despite its festival success because of anti-LGBT protests and demonstrations.

We had it really easy, surprisingly.


O: Could you give us some background on LGBT rights and queer life in Kazakhstan? I study LGBT rights in Russia and I know that other post-Soviet countries are no better.

Kazakhstan is no better. Although we don’t have the anti-gay propaganda law or the Dima Yakovlev law, like what Russia has, the society is still incredibly homophobic. As far as I can see, despite Russia’s homophobic laws, the people themselves are actually quite accepting, especially in big cities. Kazakhstan is the exact opposite: we don’t have the oppressive laws but the society is extremely intolerant to difference.


O: This is exactly what I find in my research too, Russia is unique in a way that the homophobia comes from above, from the state rather than from the people who are actually not that hostile to LGBT folk.

Exactly, I think our government is trying to create an image of a tolerant country, especially for the West. But in reality, the society is very homophobic. I actually have some friends who are feminist activists and open lesbians, Gulzada Serzhan and Zhanar Sekerbaeva. They lead an activist organisation Feminita, and they came to this small city called Shymkent, in southern Kazakhstan, it’s quite a conservative place. They were hosting a feminist event when a crowd of men tried to break up the gathering by harassing and filming participants. A police officer arrived at the scene but arrested the activists instead of the offenders ‘for their own safety’, to protect them from the men.

Filming of Welcome to the USA (2019), Assel Aushakimova on the right (photographed by Greta Orlova).

O: That’s terrible. But so familiar as well, police arresting activists ‘to protect them’. Coming back to the film, do you think the LGBT theme is the main theme of the film?

For me, it’s a film about identity and emigration more than just an LGBT film. I’m sure the situation right now in Russia is similar too, the biggest question is to leave or not to leave.


O: Do you know the answer?

That’s exactly why I wrote the film, I haven’t decided yet, it’s an open-ended question just like the ending of the film.


O: I was wondering how you financed the film? And how you got the idea for the film in the first place?

The original script idea was about loneliness and alienation. Then it transformed into a film about emigration. Although the main character has always been queer in my head. When it comes to funding, this is the first Kazakh film with a queer protagonist. Of course, it was not possible to find state funding or even private funding for such a project. I searched for about 6 months and then decided to fund it myself. I’m the producer, writer and director. It’s a micro-budget film, we filmed it in 10 days. I actually used to be a financial analyst and worked at a bank before I transitioned into filmmaking, so I have some experience in budget planning.


O: That’s amazing! And the small budget really gave the film an advantage, in a way. So much natural light, almost no music, and really authentic sound all make for such a special film that really draws you in. What do you wish you could’ve done but couldn’t because of the budget? Anything you wish you’ve done differently?

I would’ve hired a more experienced professional crew, we mainly just had very young team. I think I would’ve hired a different cameraman too.


O: What about the actors? I got the impression that some of them were maybe less experienced or not professional actors at all, but it definitely created a certain charm. Was the casting process especially difficult for the queer roles?

The lead actress Saltanat Nauruz is a professional actress, and she came on board right away. She rarely acts in Kazakh films though, there aren’t good complex roles for her. And Welcome was exactly what she was looking for.


O: She’s such an amazing actress!

She read the script and agreed straight away. But the other roles were quite difficult to cast. Especially, we had a problem with casting the actress for the role of the sister. It’s almost impossible to find an actress to play a queer woman or play a woman wearing a hijab.


O: I was reading an interview with Daniyar Beisov who played the friend of the main character. He said he was preparing for the role by going to gay clubs and researching the scene, is that true? What do you think about the whole conversation that we have a lot in the West about hiring queer actors for queer roles?

(laughs) That is true. I’m all for queer people making films and starring in them instead of straight actors pretending to be queer and straight directors making queer films. Ideally, people who are more embedded in the community and actually know the situation would play queer characters. However, I tried to find queer actors for the roles in Kazakhstan and just couldn’t find anyone, everyone is in the closet.

Daniyar Beisov filming Welcome to the USA (2019) (photographed by Greta Orlova).

O: You said the filming took 10 days, that’s so quick! Were there any difficulties on set?

It’s very quick. We filmed in November, it unexpectedly snowed and it was really cold. We couldn’t postpone the filming either, so we just had to keep going. The most difficult location was the First President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s statue. It appears on the poster as well. It was incredibly difficult to film because it’s a guarded location, and you need to apply for a licence to film there. We had to apply through a special process, and we were approached by a police officer multiple times while we were filming. We managed to do it in the end, but it was a challenge. When we were applying we just said we were filming a family drama, thank god they didn’t ask to see the script (laughs).


O: The whole thing around statues is so fascinating to me. The main character says at one point “The Soviet Union is the same, only the statues come and go”. It really resonates, I recently read Looking for Lenin, a photography book about the beauty of Ukraine’s toppled Lenin statues. What’s it like in Kazakstan, Lenin statues being replaced with Nazarbayev?

Lenin’s statues are long forgotten, now instead of Lenin and Stalin we have a different cult of personality. Now everyone is rushing to erect a statue for him or rename a street. The statues are in so many cities now. The one we filmed is, I think, the first one. But there are so many more now. The film touches on a street being renamed as well.


O: And the very touching scene of the niece making a school report on the First President as well. Feels like Russia is just a little bit removed from that, but we are getting closer (laughs)

(laughs) Yes, it’s not a nice place to be. You have to make the choice, to leave or to stay and make it work here.

Filimg in front of the First President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s statue (photographed by Greta Orlova).

O: Another question is, the film is very female-centric. It’s made by women, and it has so many unique female stories that are happening in the background of the main female-led story. How do you feel about being a female filmmaker and how important is it to make female-centric films?

Even as a viewer, I’m much more interested in watching female stories. As a filmmaker, scriptwriter and producer, I think I know what issues women face and try to represent those in my films. If we’re talking about Kazakh films, I’ve said this before, but we only have women represented either as prostitutes, excuse my language, whores, or as romanticised mothers and daughters. There is no in-between, women do not play any other roles or have real agency on screen.


O: I’ve spoken to Saodat Ismailova before and she said as well that there is a noticeable lack of female-led films and narratives in Central Asian films. Do you think that’s true? How hard is it to get into film as a female director in Kazakhstan?

It’s so difficult. Basically, we only have one well-known female director, Zhanna Issabayeva. And she emigrated two years ago. She has 6 or 7 films and all of them were filmed using private funding. She has never received funding from the government. This is what we mean when we say the government does not support women in film. Actually, I don’t remember a single woman director who has received government funding. Apart from one woman last year, but that’s just the case of personal connections and having a good family tree, so to speak. You can get far in the film industry even as a woman if you know the right people.

O: Do you think Kazakh film industry is growing right now? Are there any new directors to look out for?

No, I don’t get a feeling of growth. There is no transparency in the state-funding process. We even have a programme that’s called ‘modernisation of the consciousness’. All the films that are made right now are made as part of that programme.


O: What is meant by modernisation?

Nobody knows. We are in search of our cultural identity, in touch with traditions. Who knows.


O: Do you have any exciting plans for the future? Are you working on any new projects?

Yes, I actually have a script that I’ve been working on for two years. I actually took it to the Biennale College Cinema of Venice IFF workshop but despite that background and festival support, it’s almost impossible to find funding in Kazakhstan because the story is about a journalist. It’s not exactly ‘modernisation of the consciousness’ (laughs).


O: Last thing, could I ask for some recommendations of your favourite queer or maybe post-Soviet films or directors that inspire you?

I’d say Todd Haynes’s Carol (2016) for queer films. And I love Marlen Khutsiev’s July Rain (1967), it’s one of my favourite films.