Madina: Aizhan Kassymbek on shooting women’s stories in a changing Kazakhstan

Madina Akylbek in Madina (dir. Aizhan Kassymbek, 2023)

In Kazakhstan, the press and social media are currently fixated on the trial of former economics minister Kuandyk Bishimbayev, who stands accused of murdering his wife, Saltanat Nukenova. The country’s legislature has just passed a new law on the criminalisation of domestic violence, a response in part to the public outrage provoked by the Nukenova case; activists and lawyers who work on behalf of victims, however, have claimed that they are being persecuted for speaking out. The nature of patriarchal social relations in the Central Asian state, and the potentially catastrophic consequences for Kazakh women, are rightfully at the fore – a public debate mirrored in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, and, until the invasion of Ukraine in Russia, which scandalously partially decriminalised domestic violence in 2017.

Aizhan Kassymbek’s sophomore feature Madina (2023), made with an all-female crew and based on the real-life travails of its eponymous lead actor Madina Akylbek, offers a valuable perspective on the overlapping pressures afflicting the contemporary Kazakh woman – without resorting to sensationalism or melodrama. Akylbek stars as a semi-fictionalised version of herself: a single mother to a two-year-old girl who works as a dance instructor by day and a showgirl by night in order to support her daughter, her overbearing mother, and her emotionally damaged, gambling-addicted younger brother, Rauan (Alibek Adiken). Against the harsh backdrop of winter in the Caspian port city of Aktau, Madina shuttles between her many commitments, all the while engaged in a fruitless and potentially dangerous quest to get the father of her child to pay alimony.

Madina is screening in competition at this year’s edition of the goEast Film Festival, and runs on Klassiki until 16 May as part of our partnership with the festival. We spoke to Kassymbek about adapting real-life trauma for the screen and changing attitudes towards female filmmakers in Kazakhstan. This is an abridged version of the interview; Klassiki subscribers can watch in full here.

 

The film is based on events in the life of the lead actor, Madina Akylbek, who is a friend of yours. Can you explain how you came to make a film based on real events, and how Madina was involved in that process?

We have very frequent cases of sexual abuse of children and women in Kazakhstan. About five years ago, I was thinking a lot about this: how I could represent this as a filmmaker, and what I could do as a citizen of Kazakhstan. Honestly, as a citizen, I couldn’t do much. But as a director, I decided to start writing the story. A little later, Madina and I met – she’s a good friend of mine – and we started to talk about maybe working together on a short film. We started to think about which story we could shoot. At that period in her life, she was in a very bad situation: she got pregnant, and the biological father ran away. She had depression, she wasn’t socially secure. I thought: why do we have to invent a story, when your story is real? I decided to put her story on film, to make it more cinematic. After a few months, I met with her again and said: “I know your story. What would you think about trying to make a movie [out of it]?” A few weeks later she said to me: “you know, it’s very intimate, very personal, but let’s try.” The situation that happened with Madina happens with a lot of women, and not just in Kazakhstan. It was very important for me to show this story from the perspective of a woman. Most cinema, not just in Central Asia, is from the perspective of men.

Madina Akylbek in Madina (dir. Aizhan Kassymbek, 2023)

How involved was she in writing the script, or in deciding which aspects to fictionalise and which to keep true to life?

At our very first meeting, I said to her: “I’m going to tell this story. I’m going to show your very personal story to audiences. So, it means you have to really trust me. If I feel trust from your side, then everything will be OK.” It took her a little time. Also, most of the film crew are female. From our side we tried to make a healthy environment for her and her daughter. The shoot was like therapy. Everybody was very kind and polite, there were no moments of sexism or egotism.

 

You mention the crew. I know that on this film and your previous film [2021’s Fire], you’ve made a point of working with a majority-female crew. And I’ve read in interviews with you that for you, this is part of your desire to change the image of the woman in Kazakh cinema.

Now, the situation has changed, a little. Not as much as we want, but when we started, there was only one female director of photography in Kazakhstan [Madina DoP Aigul Nurbulatova]. We’ve known each other since 2016, we started out making short films together. One day, we met up, and I said: “I find it so scary, where we’re going together.” Not only in Kazakhstan but across the world, cinema is a patriarchal system. When I shot my debut film, we involved an editor and a production designer who were also women. It’s what happens. I didn’t really choose to work with women, no one else wanted to work with us. They thought we weren’t serious. Now, because of the rule that was brought in with the Oscars about gender balance, things are changing. I can’t say that men are passionate about working with us, but if they want to go to A-class film festivals or the Oscars, they have to invite us.

I didn’t really choose to work with women, no one else wanted to work with us. They thought we weren’t serious. I can’t say that men are passionate about working with us now, but if they want to go to A-class film festivals, they have to invite us

So, is that a change in the law in Kazakhstan, or does it come from Kazakhstan being involved in international frameworks?

Everything happens simultaneously. I started Madina three years ago. At that time, we didn’t have a law protecting women and children from sexual abuse. And in cinema, men didn’t take us seriously. But after a few years, the situation has slowly changed. I think the biggest success is that a few days ago our president signed a law that protects women in cases [of domestic violence]. In the wider world, there have been changes to the rules regarding cinema [at major festivals], and Kazakhstan is involved in those, so that’s happened at the same time.

 

The law that you just mentioned, about criminalising domestic violence, is related to a much bigger debate happening in Kazakhstan at the moment because of the trial of Bishimbayev. This might seem like a trite question, but do you see your film as being part of a broader conversation that Kazakh society is having? Or is that going too far?

Society is not ready to talk about my film. Especially people who aren’t involved in the artistic sphere. But our society is, in a way, ready to talk about this law that was brought in a few days ago. We are very far from the ideal, from a situation where we can talk about women in Kazakhstan having equality, and women who work in cinema having equal rights. We are still far [from that]. But at the same time, as I said, compared to the situation when I started in cinema, I’m happy.

Madina Akylbek in Madina (dir. Aizhan Kassymbek, 2023)

One of the things about your film that I found really impressive was the portrayal of the younger brother, Rauan. You also show the ways in the structures and systems of patriarchy cause harm to men and boys.

When I started to write the script, and during pre-production, when I was trying to explain the situation to the crew, that meant speaking to men as well as women. Sexual abuse happens not only to girls, but to boys. It’s a very deep problem. What I wanted to say with the character of Rauan is that, unfortunately, everyone can have these scary moments in life. What is most important is who is next to you. Your friends, your family, that have to be very careful. With very young victims, the mind can repress [what happened]. Or, like with Rauan, they can be scared to share what happened.

 

Finally, I wanted to ask about Nesibeli [Serikbayeva], who plays the grandmother. She has such an onscreen presence. She adds an intergenerational aspect to the story. Did you know her before shooting?

I was so lucky that I could involve her. We did casting for a long time and we couldn’t find an actor who could play this role. In Kazakhstan, [onscreen] grandmothers have to be very kind and caring. But this woman, Nesibeli, she’s a very strong and tough woman in real life. She was my neighbour. She’d never been in a film before. It was a risk. We could have invited a professional actor, but she wouldn’t have been a perfect fit for the role. During the shoot, she said that when she was young, her dream was to be an artist. But her dad said that all actors and singers are whores. She listened to him, and she never took up acting or singing. Many years later, she became my neighbour – so, I knew her, her life story, which is so interesting, it’s another movie. We didn’t have any problems with her. Unfortunately, she passed away last year. I didn’t have the chance to show her the movie. It really broke my heart. I really wanted to show her the movie on the big screen.

 

And the film is dedicated to her.

To her, and to all women who have the courage to follow their dreams.

Watch Madina on Klassiki as part of our partnership with goEast Film Festival until 16 May.