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‘Road to Mother’ Chronicles Kazakhstan’s History on Big Screen

By Candace Huntington

On July 19, the Embassy of Kazakhstan, in an effort to introduce Kazakh history and culture to Washingtonians, hosted a discussion and screening of the 2016 Kazakh drama “The Road to Mother,” which featured producer Svetlana Korotenko along with two of the lead actors in the film.

From the Mongol Empire to the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan’s history is characterized by its continued attempts to achieve independence from various invading parties. Kazakhs have experienced fleeting periods of independence throughout their history, followed by long spans of occupation. In the 19th century, the Russian Empire expanded into much of Central Asia and eventually colonized the largely nomadic Kazakh people. After brief autonomy in 1917, the nation fell victim to the Russian Revolution and eventually became the last Soviet republic to declare its independence in 1991.

The timely screening of the film, coinciding with the celebration of America’s Independence Day, emphasized the significance of sovereignty to people around the world.

The modern-day Republic of Kazakhstan is a young country, with only 26 years of independence under its belt. Yet for that entire time, it has been ruled by one man, President Nursultan Nazarbayev. While Kazakhstan has been criticized for stifling political dissent, Nazarbayev has been credited with using the country’s vast energy wealth to improve the livelihoods of Kazakhstan’s 18.5 million people. The nation has managed to grow exponentially since independence; 60 percent of Central Asia’s GDP comes from Kazakhstan, making it an economic powerhouse in the region.

“The Road to Mother” spans nine decades, from the 1930s to present-day Kazakhstan, chronicling the story of the nation’s struggle under Soviet rule and its eventual declaration of independence through a fictional character, Ilyas, and his search for his mother. Adil Akhmetov plays the protagonist Ilyas who is separated from his mother Miriam, played by Altynai Nogerbek, in a violent struggle between Soviet supporters and resistors. Commissioned by the Ministry of Culture, the film was Kazakhstan’s official submission to the 2018 Academy Awards and the Golden Globes. Both actors began in theater and have grown widely recognized within Kazakhstan as a result of the success of “The Road to Mother.”

The Kazakhstan Embassy hosted a panel with the producer and two lead actors of the 2016 Kazakhstani drama “The Road to Mother.” The film depicts the struggles the former Soviet Republic dealt with throughout the 20th century in its fight for independence. (Photo: The Embassy of Kazakhstan)

“The interest on the part of the viewers and the international awards really speak for themselves,” producer Korotenko said at the screening, held at D.C.’s Carnegie Institution of Science. “This interest from viewers around the world has been well-earned. It is so deep, so profound, so heartfelt, it really touches you to the core. The Russian saying is, ‘It really takes your heart apart,’” Korotenko noted.

Part of what makes the film so profound is the fact that it portrays the not-so-distant struggles that the nation faced, struggles that have left a lasting impact on Kazakh identity as a young country. The country’s nomadic tribes experienced continued conflict, from collectivization by the Russian Empire in the 1930s to the subsequent violence of World War II. Ilyas lives through an orphanage, war, capture and a Soviet camp yet always clings to the hope of returning to his mother.

Korotenko, who herself remembers living under the Soviet occupation, used her memories to inform her direction of the film.

“I think that the broad and wide historical layout that is presented in this movie is really close to the hearts of all the people who used to live in the Soviet Union. The history of Kazakhstan is so tragic, so heroic,” she said. “It was so important to gain an insight into the motivations of the characters”

Because the movie covers such a large and crucial part of Kazakhstan’s history, everyone involved felt an immense duty to accurately portray the nation’s turbulent journey. Akhmetov in particular felt the weight of the story he was telling through Ilyas. “There was a lot of responsibility involved in creating that role. The image of Ilyas is exactly the image of the Kazakh people,” he said.

To prepare, Akhmetov watched old Kazakh movies and read history books and manuscripts to learn more about his nation’s story. Akhmetov also turned to the older generation who had lived through the Soviet occupation and witnessed the creation of the Republic of Kazakhstan for insights into their experiences. Yet the actor noted that the driving force behind his preparation was the deep love he has for his country.

“The great love for your mother, for your country, for your people, that’s the most important. It’s not just something grand that you’d like to present on a screen, but it’s really heartfelt.”

The “Road to Mother” panel featured producer Svetlana Korotenko, center, who recalled her memories of Kazakhstan under Soviet rule when creating the film. Lead actors Altynai Nogerbek (left) and Adil Akhmetov (center left) discussed how they prepared for their roles and the immense responsibility the felt to their nation and people in participating in such an emblematic film. (Photo: The Embassy of Kazakhstan)

These themes of love between a mother and her child that are heavily represented in the film resonated with the people, particularly Kazakhstan’s youth, Korotenko noted. “During the showings of the movie, we were pleasantly surprised that young people got so much attracted to the movie and wanted to see it. Kazakhstan stands out for its family ties. It’s very, very important — the respect for your parents, the love and respect for your brothers and sisters. So we’re so pleased to see the numbers in which students went to see this movie and how they wanted to come back the next day.”

Nogerbek tapped into these themes to prepare for her role as the mother. Like Akhmetov, she read literature from classical Kazakh authors. But the main source of her inspiration was her grandmother. When she was young, her father studied in Moscow and wrote letters that would take a month to reach her. She recalled the happiness her grandmother expressed every time she received a letter from him and the excitement at hearing his stories.

“Even now, before going to bed or early in the morning, I’ll wake up and I’ll hear my grandmother praising God, asking God to bring peace, and asking for happiness and joy for her grandchildren. It’s so moving, so touching,” Nogerbek said. “I think that’s how I got charged as an actress. This is how it gets reflected, in real stories, real events in the movies, as a mother praying for the survival of her son for a long time, and that’s what actually helped him to survive.”

The film won the top award at the 2016 Eurasian Bridge Festival and was honored at the WeLink International Film Festival in New York and Croatia’s Marco Polo Film Festival in 2017. Already widely shown in Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, “The Road to Mother” is set to be released in select theaters in the U.S. this fall, a move Korotenko believes will further strengthen the ties between the U.S. and Kazakhstan.

Candace Huntington is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.




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