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Kazakh Cinema Steppes Up: New Blockbuster Helps Rebrand Country

The Kazakh film "Myn Bala: Warriors of the Steppes" has already broken box-office records at home.
The Kazakh film "Myn Bala: Warriors of the Steppes" has already broken box-office records at home.
It's probably fair to say that Kazakhstan has had a bit of a raw deal when it comes to how it has been portrayed on the silver screen.

For anyone apart from the most ardent movie buff, the enduring cinematic image of the Central Asian country is probably what was presented by Sacha Baron Cohen's "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America to Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," which lampooned Kazakhs as ridiculously backward and ignorant.

But this might be about to change thanks to a new blockbuster movie from the state-administered Kazakhfilm studio.

Made by leading Kazakh director Aqan Sataev (who raised cinephile eyebrows when he gave footballer-turned-movie-tough-guy Vinnie Jones his Kazakh cinema debut last year), "Myn Bala: Warriors of the Steppe" is an epic feature that would do Hollywood proud.

With plenty of swashbuckling thrills and spills, it tells the tale of some brave Kazakh youths heroically rising up against their Mongol overlords in the 18th century.

Made at an estimated cost of up to $12 million (which is megabucks by Kazakh industry standards), this fast-paced action film could have enough crossover appeal to tempt a Western distributor when it gets an industry screening at the Cannes festival market this week.

WATCH: Official English trailer for "Myn Bala: Warriors of the Steppes"

Should "Myn Bala" reach a wider global audience, it's safe to say that its stunning scenery will underline Kazakhstan's potential as a tourist destination and help the country move beyond Borat.

Having already broken box-office records in Kazakhstan since its release earlier this month, it's also possible that the film could bolster the country's image at home as well.

In a country where the Russian language still enjoys a dominant position, the fact that "Myn Bala" was primarily shot in Kazakh is being seen as a sign of the ongoing resurgence in the local indigenous language and culture.

The film's narrative of courageous warriors rising up against the Mongolians also reinforces the country's foundation myth and should stir up patriotic feelings among many Kazakhs.

Eyebrows have been raised, however, by the use of a quote from Kazakhstan's authoritarian President Nursultan Nazarbaev at the beginning of the film.

The movie also ends with a statement claiming that the events portrayed in "Myn Bala" marked the start of the Kazakh people's "long fight for freedom" -- a struggle which it says only ended when Nazarbaev finally led the country to "real independence" three centuries later.

Although there are lots of Kazakhs who might take exception to such seemingly blatant pro-regime propaganda, it's likely that these subtle controversies will be lost on Western audiences, who will probably not look beyond the film's breathtaking backdrops and enthralling action scenes.

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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