Disunity threatens to tear the country apart. Bad guys with guns mar the glittering streets of Astana. Kazakhstan needs a hero -- and even authoritarian President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who holds near-omnipotent "leader of the nation" status, just won't cut it.
A group of young filmmakers and animators appear to have saved the day, however, creating their own heroes, specially tailored to the nation's needs.
They are the winners of the inaugural Youth Art Fest, a part of famed Kazakh filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov's Astana International Action Film Festival, which concluded on July 3. The competition called on more than 100 young filmmakers across Asia to harness their creativity and create an original hero to "become the symbol of the young, energetic, vibrant capital of Kazakhstan."
This competition's theme appears to have been chosen with an eye toward this December, when the city will mark its fifteenth anniversary as the seat of government. Nazarbaev moved the capital to Astana from Almaty in 1997, and an oil-money-fueled building boom ensued.
Vladimir Sim, the Kazakh director of the winning live action short film, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that he just couldn't imagine Spiderman scaling Bayterek, Astana's answer to the Eiffel Tower.
"If Spiderman were jumping around Bayterek, it wouldn't really resonate with our Kazakh people," he said.
"So I decided to fantasize a bit and decided that maybe someone from the past could come back in the future, and that was Abulkhair."
Indeed, Sim didn't create a hero from scratch, but refurbished an old one, giving Abulkhair, a medieval Kazakh khan, the magic powers needed to overcome evil.
As the winning film opens, Abulkhair is magically transported to present-day Astana, where he marvels at the modern, imposing cityscape -- apparently the height of Kazakh cultural development. He then travels back and forth in time, using his mental abilities to make guns gravitate toward him, all to ensure that Astana is safeguarded.
While other artists made their mark in the comic and costume divisions
, one highlight of the animated short film contest was an entry produced by Atay Sadybakasov, the son of former Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbaeva.
That anime-like film, titled "Super Hero," finished in third place behind Chinese and South Korean submissions.
It begins in a high-tech security center, where officials receive word of a robbery in progress. A typical chase scene follows, with the police outfoxed by the criminals' booby traps and slick driving skills. But when all seems lost, a shadow passes overhead.
A muscular man of Central Asian appearance, wearing a blue, black, and gold skin-tight suit, lands on one of the bad guy's cars, crushing it under his weight.
His belt, not-so-coincidentally, is in the shape of the Kazakh national ornamental pattern found on the country's flag. Giant golden wings protrude from his back – a reference to the golden wings of the steppe eagle, also on the flag, or perhaps the golden wings of the mythical horses on the Kazakh national emblem.
After subduing his enemies, the mysterious hero disappears back into the sky.
Cut to the Ak Orda Presidential Palace, where a gray-haired figure sits with the back of his head toward us. An aide, not wanting to disturb the important meeting underway, whispers a message into his ear. The gray-haired man nods in understanding.
Nazarbaev, it appears, is Astana's true caretaker. It is he who summons the hero when needed.
Along with the jury, the president himself surely would have approved.
With contributions by RFE/RL correspondent Richard Solash