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The Road to Mother and the Renaissance of Kazakh Cinema

Updated: Jul 26, 2018

Set during the Soviet Famine of the early 1930’s, The Road to Mother is a beautiful, heart-wrenching tale of one boy’s journey home.

The film, directed by Kazakhstani filmmaker Akan Satayev and written by Timur Zhaksylykov, illustrates the struggles the of Kazakh people during the rule of the Communist Party.

The story follows Ilyas, a young boy who is one day kidnapped following the event of his father’s murder.

The protagonist keeps his faith alive as he persists through the trials of war, cultural opposition, and prolonged loneliness as he fights his way back to family.

The Road to Mother is a powerful illustration of maternal love and the strength found in hope when there is seemingly no hope left.

In an interview conducted by Film Snob Reviews, the inspiration for the tale is revealed to have come from a specific event. Director Akan Satayev discusses his parents’ experience during their visit to a Kazakh village in the 1980’s. It was during this trip that they witnessed an elderly woman sitting by the road under a large, shaded tree each day. For over 20 years, this woman waited in the same location for her son to return from war. Although Satayev never knew how the story of the old woman ended, it stayed with him forever. The story registered highly with critics and was also a commercial success in Central Asia, becoming one of the top five highest-grossing films of all time. Sheri Linden of The Hollywood Reporter stated the feature was “eye-opening for many Western viewers.” She also noted that it “manages to connect its proud, contemporary glimpses of a cosmopolitan, multicultural nation.” The feature film was selected as the Kazakhstani entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards and the previous 74th annual Golden Globes.

Perhaps the greatest contributor to this success is the narrative’s honesty. The goal of the director was so be as sincere as possible, keeping the audience captivated. Though the feature was not intended to be politicized, the complicated but key events that took place in 20th century Kazakhstan served as a backdrop for the human drama. Looking back at history, the Kazakh Famine of 1919-1922 caused the region to lose more than half its population and was the brutal predecessor for the Soviet Famine of 1932-1933.

The film takes place at the very beginning of the later famine, emphasizing the tragedy of the time. Some historians believe the event to be a deliberate act of genocide. Prior to the famine, about 60% of the population was Kazakh. However, only 38% of Kazakhs remained in the republic after it was over. It was important for the film to bring forth personal stories of these hardships through the central characters of Ilyas, his mother, and childhood love as they fight to regain stability and home. Despite a possible debate of whether the film is truly “Kazakh or Kazakhstani,” audience members of every background will relate to the gripping tale of a mother in search of her long lost child. The frustrations of language barriers, cultural oppression, and being bullied for standing out add layers and realism to the historical narrative.

It is likely that no one was more suited to tell the story of The Road to Mother than director Akan Satayev. Satayev was born in Karaganda, Kazakhstan. After graduating high school, he began work as an assistant director for local television. In 1994, he received his degree in television directing from Almaty Institute of Theater and the Arts. It was during that same year that Satayev produced the big-budget films Strayed and Zhauzhurek Myng Bola. Soon after, he received a diploma in film directing from Zhurgenov Academy of Arts. In 2007, his first feature film, Racketeer, became a “critical and commercial success.” His film Strayed was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2010 Oscars. He also received the Honored Worker of Kazakhstan award in 2012. His first full length English-language film, Hacker (2016), was filmed with American actors in Canada, Hong Kong, the US, and Thailand.

Akan Satayev is the founder of the largest privately held film studio, “Sataifilm,” which is located in Kazakhstan.

In regards to the visual storytelling aspects of The Road to Mother, having an experienced cinematographer is key. Satayev chose to work with Khassan Kydyraliev, who has received awards for best camerawork for feature films such as Kong Kong, Light-Ake (2010), Princess Nazik (2011), and Zhauzhurek Myn Bala (2012). It was important to find the most effective stylistics, color, and form for the narrative. Carmen Wong of the review site Borrowing Tape states, “from the color palette, to framing, to locations, it’s apparent that the look of this film is integral to what director, Akan Satayev and cinematographer, Khassan Kydyraliev are trying to convey.” Having worked with Khassan before, Satayev knew he was the best fit for creating a visual epic and effectively drawing out emotion on screen.

In addition to the emotion set forth by the cinematography, the cast gives an endearing performance. The relationship between Mariam (Altynai Nogherbek) and her son, Ilyas (Adil Akhmetov) is one that captivates the sincerity, hope, and longing of a mother for her child. The character of Ilyas’ childhood sweetheart, Oumit (Aruzhan Jazilbekova) is portrayed with a young spirit and loyalty to an innocent love. Director Satayev emphasizes that they are absolutely satisfied with all of the characters, both protagonists and antagonists. This could be attributed to the fact that all of the actors are experienced professionals. The overall feel of the feature evokes its cinematic “inspirations”, as Satayev studied films such as Forrest Gump, The Ferocious One, and Saving Private Ryan. These epic narratives of familial love, the tragedy and struggle of war, and the journey home were primary representations of the desired ambiance for The Road to Mother.

The strong, resilient character of Ilyas was portrayed by Adil Akhmetov, who has been a professional actor since 2006. Born in Almaty, Kazakhstan's capital, Adil received a performing arts diploma from Zhurgenov Academy of Arts. He is best known for feature films, Zhauzhürek myng bala (2012) and The Road to Mother (2016). Not only will viewers relate to Ilyas’ longing for home, stability, and comfort, they will also appreciate the depiction of trials and triumphs of youth. While most of us cannot relate to the literal hardships in the era the feature film is set, many will find familiarity with themes such as being outcast and dealing with uncertainty. Adil’s honest, steady performance is one that will leave moviegoers rooting for his character as he faces internal and external battles.

Aruzhan Jazilbekova delivered an outstanding performance as the loyal-hearted, Oumit. She has been an actress since 2012 and was also born in Almaty. A multi talented artist, Aruzhan is a model, actor, and dancer. She was the winner of a prestigious modeling contest at the Ford Models Supermodel Agency in Kazakhstan. After this event, she gained international recognition and spent the next several years modeling in New York and Paris. In 2007, Aruzhan earned a Bachelor's degree in international journalism and mass communication. Just two years later, she became chief editor of a local business magazine. Despite this success, she decided to change professional direction in 2013 after receiving an invitation to play the lead role in her debut feature film, Swings. Aruzhan applied to the UCLA acting program that same year and moved to Los Angeles to study. She received the Kazakhstan Film Critics Association Award for Best Actress in a leading role for the comedy, Wedding for Three (2016). However, she is best known for her performance as Oumit in her latest, The Road to Mother. The character portrayal of Oumit will surely prove positive for mainly female viewers. Her independent, headstrong, loving spirit is one that will cause all audiences to feel like anything can be overcome.

The role of Ilyas’ mother, Mariam, was portrayed by seasoned actress, Altynai Nogherbek. Born in Almaty, Kazakhstan, she graduated from the Kazakh State Institute of Theater and Film in 1997. The school was named after historically acclaimed actor, T.K. Zhurgenov. She later on continued her studies at the Kazakh Musical Drama Theatre, also named after acclaimed actor, Kalibek Kuanyshbayev. Altynai has received the prestigious Honored Worker Award of Kazakhstan and Best Actress at the Eurasian Bridge International Film Festival . She is best known for feature films, Zhauzhürek myng bala (2012), The Road to Mother (2016), and Alzhir: Blood, Washed by Snow (2017). Her portrayal of the strong-willed, faithful-hearted Mariam is one that will leave viewers awestruck and wanting more. The relationship between Mariam and Ilyas is one that everyone with a close parental bond will relate to.

Composer Alim Zairov created a gripping score for the production. Having been greatly influenced by Russian classics, his style is characterized as touching, using a deep instrumental neoclassicism. The multiple layers as well as the melancholy tone of his work added to the drama of the feature film. Alim proved his musical skill through the building of tension in some scenes and the release of tender-hearted emotion in other scenes. From an intense battlefield to the reunion of a mother with her long lost son, the music moved as a story within itself. Alim has been a professional composer since 2013 and has composed tracks for several other films such as American Heist, For My Brother, Toll Bar, Rayony, and Ona.

The film industry in Kazakhstan first began with the production of documentaries in the 1930’s. In 1939, the first Kazakh film, Almangeldy, was produced. It wasn’t until the 1980’s when a new wave of filmmakers came into view, ready to challenge the cinematic establishment. The Needle, released in 1988, was the catalyst for this new movement in which director Rashid Nugmanov was the central figure. He cast Viktor Tsoi, the frontman of a popular Soviet rock group and hero to much of the youth during this time. Tsoi also composed the feature film’s original soundtrack. Between 1990 and 2007, a now independent Kazakhstan was booming with films of higher production quality. One of the major problems these films faced, however, is that very few of them were widely distributed in Kazakhstan. The Racketeer (2007), directed by Akan Satayev, became the first commercially oriented film in post independent Kazakhstan and was a box office success. Some filmmakers obtained international success during this era, such as Timur Bekmambetov, who is now producing and directing in Hollywood. Some of his notable works include Wanted (2008), The Darkest Hour (2011), and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012). He is the first Kazakh director to reach success in Hollywood.

The Road to Mother was selected for distribution by World Wide Motion Pictures Corporation. It first caught the company’s attention after its selection at the 90th Academy Awards as well as the 74th Golden Globe Awards. Because of its epic nature and grandeur, the feature film will appeal greatly to cinefiles and crossover audiences. Finding a suitable film for distribution is not always an easy process as there are certain criteria that must be met. Marketing viability, overall production quality, and recognizable actors are all necessary. Intangible assets such as the overall look and feel of the film on the big screen are also important. This particular production had most of these qualities with the exception of recognizable names and faces to American audiences. However, because of the epic nature and grandiose storytelling appeal, World Wide Motion Pictures took a chance on the Kazakhstan feature.

Audience members of all ages will be eager to enjoy the epic and emotional masterpiece at its fall release. The trial-filled journey of Ilyas and the unwavering patience of his mother, Mariam, make for an intensely satisfying story. Director Akan Satayev has dedicated the film to mothers everywhere. He closed his interview with Film Snob Reviews by stating that he dedicates the film to his mother as well, whom he loves infinitely. The Road to Mother is set to be released October 2018.

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