Narratives of defiance: how filmmakers are challenging Kazakhstan’s political regime

A statue to Soviet-era rock star Viktor Tsoi in Almaty holds a banner demanding “Changes“. Streets Loud with Echoes (dir. Katerina Suvorova, 2024)

“Open your eyes, wake up Kazakh, raise your head,” runs the opening line of a 1909 poem by Mirjaqyp Dulatuly, a plea against the colonial Tsarist administration which barred Kazakhs, along with the indigenous peoples of Siberia and Central Asia, from exercising their right to participate in the State Duma of Russia. This opening line – turned into a rallying cry during recent protests in Kazakhstan – is an anchor of sorts in Katerina Suvorova’s new documentary Streets Loud with Echoes, which premiered at Hot Docs in Toronto earlier this year. The film, which was created almost inadvertently, captures a pivotal moment in modern Kazakh history: the summer of 2019, when the country was shocked by the devastating murder of figure skater Denis Ten, the first ever Kazakh skater to win an Olympic medal. His life was tragically cut short for a pair of car wing mirrors when he was mugged in broad daylight in the centre of Almaty.

The death of the 25-year-old sportsman not only heightened brooding questions about police reform and state corruption, but also came to symbolise the pervasive sense of insecurity and instability that has enveloped the country. Sometimes, all it takes for a nation to take matters into its own hands is the death of a hero. In this way, Ten’s murder set in motion a series of major events that finally made Kazakhs wake up.

Speaking to Klassiki, Suvorova says: “I started making this film very naively, out of pain. I didn’t know Denis personally, but I couldn’t help but react to the pain of losing him in the centre of my beloved city. So, I started going every evening to the square, where people brought flowers and candles, to the makeshift memorial wall. It was painful and beautiful. People stood against the wall and talked about the problems of our society, interesting people.” It was at these mournful gatherings that Katerina met Dimash Alzhanov, a young political scientist fresh out of London School of Economics, whose passion for social change inspired her to follow him around.

The 2019 murder of 25-year-old figure skater Denis Ten not only heightened brooding questions about police reform and state corruption, but also came to symbolise the pervasive sense of insecurity and instability that has enveloped Kazakhstan

Another key event that summer was something that the majority of Kazakhstan’s population had been waiting for for many years: the resignation of long-standing authoritarian president Nursultan Nazarbayev. A series of protests and demonstrations swept the country demanding fair elections, but in the event, the outcome was obvious, and the next president was hand-picked by Nazarbayev. “Democracy means fair and transparent presidential elections,” Alzhanov retorts in the film.

Streets Loud with Echoes is Suvorova’s most personal film to date. “This was my own response to what was happening in my city, even more so than in the country,” she says, “as the subject of civil disobedience was new territory for me. I worked on this film as if I became its servant, so it was not easy for me.” Suvorova worked on the film for five years, capturing events from 2018 to 2021. The period encompassed political upheaval in the country and personal transformation for Suvorova: she became a mother and lived through the lockdown with a small baby in one hand and a film camera in the other.

Placing social issues at the heart of her work has always been Suvorova’s distinctive sensibility. In her award-winning documentary Sea Tomorrow (2016), she sheds light on the resilient inhabitants of the now disappeared Aral Sea. In Face the Music (2018), Suvorova follows a Kazakh K-pop-style boy band whose rambunctious stage appearances challenge the conservatism of young Kazakh men who threaten the singers and sabotage their concerts. Yet it is in Streets Loud with Echoes that Suvorova most explicitly voices the issues that create the pervasive political inertia in Kazakhstan. She narrates them directly herself, as well as through her characters.

Anti-government protests in Aktobe, Kazakhstan, in January 2022. Image: Esetok under a CC licence

One of the most intriguing and indelible of these characters is Assem Zhapisheva, a young journalist sporting short hair, a cigarette, and an acid-yellow vest that says PRESS. Both Dimash and Assem grapple with the indifference of the silent majority in the face of the oppressive regime. Together they form a nascent, youth-led civil movement in Almaty, “Wake up, Kazakhstan!”, which tries to break away from the totalitarian past towards a more democratic present. In the film, Assem is out there, in the thick of it, writing about illegal detentions of activists and state corruption. At one point, with a group of other activists, Assem stops a police truck full of illegally detained people by pushing her body against the truck. “What still keeps me going is my moral compass but even that may change. Anyone can give up and break. I can break too,” she confesses to Suvorova.

The outcome of the protests, as captured in Suvorova’s film, has had a palpable effect on the socio-political awareness of many Kazakhs – and especially the feminist movement. Harrowing cases of domestic violence have since begun to make headlines in independent media. In 2021, Kazakh women were, for the first time ever, allowed to hold peaceful protests against domestic abuse and the lack of female representation in state affairs. Since then, it has been a bumpy road for women’s rights activists: their demands for peaceful protests have been ignored or cancelled, and the leaders of feminist groups have been targets for the police and aggressive compatriots.

While mainstream film in Kazakhstan is “the cinema of middle-aged Kazakh men,” as Assem Zhapisheva has brilliantly summed it up, there are more and more female voices in documentary filmmaking

Recently, another death that has come to symbolise women’s resistance – and, like Ten’s, has paradoxically created a moment of hope. This spring, millions of Kazakh citizens were glued to their screens watching the live broadcast of the trial of the former Minister of Finance Kuandyk Bishimbayev, who had brutally murdered his wife, Saltanat Nukenova, in November last year. The trial felt like a Kafkaesque courtroom drama, with moments of tragedy, suspense, and the foreboding feeling that Bishimbayev could still get away with it. A ruthless beating of Nukenova at the hands of her husband, captured on video, and Bishimbayev’s smugness only added oil to the flame.

This case resonated widely in the public, propelling President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to sign legal amendments to criminalise domestic violence, which had previously been treated as an administrative offence, allowing perpetrators to settle charges by simply paying a fine. Bishimbayev, who had previously been convicted of bribery and embezzlement, was ultimately sentenced to 24 years in prison, thus opening an important chapter in the history of modern Kazakhstan, one marked by the ongoing struggles of women against men in power.

In a recent interview with Klassiki, the filmmaker Aizhan Kassymbek lamented the rampant sexism and domestic violence in Kazakhstan which prompted her to make her second feature, Madina (2023). “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,” Kassymbek recalls.

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

Prior to Madina, the Kazakh film that had most directly addressed the issue of domestic violence was Askar Uzabayev’s 2022 film Happiness, which won the Audience Award in the Panorama section of the Berlin Film Festival. Based on real events, the film underscores domestic violence as a systemic issue with multiple perpetrators: violent husbands, internalised misogyny, intergenerational and patriarchal abuse, and inadequate laws that fail to protect women. Happiness is a complex drama and a tough watch. When it was screened in Kazakh cinemas, the film’s realistic portrayal of abuse caused many men to walk out.

This brings us back to Assem Zhapisheva, the protagonist of Suvorova’s Streets Loud with Echoes, who also wrote the screenplay for Happiness. As part of her research, Zhapisheva visited a number of prisons across the country interviewing female convicts. One of her discoveries: “more than 70 percent of the women imprisoned for killing their husbands in Kazakhstan did so out of self-defence.” According to the UN, more than 400 women die in the country at the hands of their partners each year. Happiness is produced by Bayan Maxatkyzy, a popular media personality in Kazakhstan, who was herself stabbed by her husband to within an inch of her life.

Local independent media routinely refer to this state of affairs as a femicide. Since the early 2010s, social media has become a major platform for political activists and the victims of injustice (mostly women) to make their voices heard. For example, during the Bishimbayev trial #forSaltanat became a rampant online badge worn by the Kazakh people, signalling support, unity and, most importantly, hope for a promised “new Kazakhstan”. It is largely due to social and political activists, who were closely following the trial and applying daily pressure on the state to criminalise domestic abuse, that the President was forced to act.

“We have not yet reached a final fixation of our collective feeling. My film is a kind of commentary on the extensive search for [Kazakh] identity”

In Streets Loud with Echoes, Suvorova captures a brief moment where a group of protesters, led by Assem and Dimash, are marching through a group of dancers in national costumes. This moment reveals the tension between the fetishised Kazakhstan which the state wants to showcase to the world, and the real Kazakhstan that voices its concerns and demands justice. When asked about Kazakh nationalism, which has effectively replaced Sovietisation since independence, Suvorova reflects on a lack of understanding between Kazakhstan’s diverse ethnic groups. “We have not yet reached a final fixation of our collective feeling. My film is a kind of commentary on the extensive search for identity.”

Another ray of hope comes from the field of creative documentary. While mainstream cinema in Kazakhstan is “the cinema of middle-aged Kazakh men,” as Assem Zhapisheva has brilliantly summed it up, there are more and more female voices in documentary filmmaking. “What is being made in Kazakhstan in terms of documentaries is a lot of television content. But the films that are creative and invited to international film festivals are very often women’s films,” Suvorova explains. Independent feminist film initiatives like Qyzqaras (Kazakh for “female gaze”) and Women Make Docs are the testament to this. They regularly organise public screenings of short and feature films accompanied by talks and events. The films screened are subtitled in Kazakh, making them accessible to a wider audience, particularly those from rural areas who predominantly speak Kazakh rather than Russian.

In addition to film collectives, in recent years Kazakhstan has seen a number of independent film festivals like Nowsiz and Jana Cekara, which highlight experimental and social cinema. Then there is the Qara Film Festival, an independent documentary festival, which exposes thousands of Kazakh citizens to the best international documentary films. Suvorova is also involved in regional film initiatives. Last year, she and her colleagues founded the grassroots initiative QAZDOC, which has become a hub for the creative documentary industry in Kazakhstan. “We don’t have enough experience in respectful, horizontal collaboration,” she says. “But we are trying, because there is a growing interest among young filmmakers.”

Botagoz Koilybayeva is a Kazakh-born, Prague-based film writer and scholar.