Berlin Panorama Audience Winner ‘Happiness’ Underscores Opportunities, Challenges for Kazakh Filmmaking

Kazakh filmmaker Askar Uzabayev’s domestic violence drama “Happiness” snagged the Audience Award in the Berlin Film Festival’s prestigious Panorama sidebar, a good sign of its potential appeal in cinemas and festivals worldwide. Whether it will secure distribution in its native Kazakhstan is another matter, however.

Based on actual events, “Happiness” centers on a lovely influencer who promotes a product line called Happiness, which she pitches as a surefire path to happiness, beauty and success.

But her home life reflects the opposite where her abusive husband grows ever more violent. Even her newlywed daughter suffers the same fate in a country where inadequate laws protect the rights and safety of women.

The film is produced by Bayan Maxatkyzy, a renowned TV anchor, producer, actress and blogger in Kazakhstan, with millions of followers on social media. But her celebrity offered no protection from her then husband of 22 years who beat and stabbed her within an inch of her life some five years ago.

Despite the availability of state funding from a film law that passed in 2019, Maxatkyzy and her co-producer Anna Katchko of Tandem Production, a Berlinale Silver Bear winner for “Harmony Lessons,” resorted to crowdfunding to finance the film.

“I understand that this is not a commercial movie, so neither the government nor businesses would give money for its production, especially for this kind of topic that is uncomfortable for men,” noted Maxatkyzy.

“The $20,000 that we gathered in crowdfunding gave us a strong start. We were on a tight schedule, so the crowdfunding was stopped and the rest of the budget was collected by the team,” she said, adding: “Interesting fact: only around five men contributed to the crowdfunding campaign.”

“The government wants to show the country in the best light possible so these kinds of films, with strong social content, can be problematic to release,” said Katchko who added that Kazakhstan has at least three major theatrical film distributors and a robust film industry where some 40 to 45 films are produced a year. In fact, three other Kazakh films were at the Berlinale this year. Including Generation 14Plus winner “Scheme.”

“Happiness” is a departure for director Uzabayev whose past 16 films, mostly broad comedies, have been box office hits at home.

“I believe that the comedy genre also calls for a very interesting and creative process but, at the moment, I would like to concentrate on art house cinema,” said Uzabayev. “When I was in university, studying filmmaking, I saw myself filming and producing art house cinema and that was my main goal,” he said, adding: “I can confidently say that ‘Happiness’ is my first film that has so intensely touched on an actual social topic, not only in Kazakhstan but all over the world.”

“This movie is about the unheard and unseen people who are silently going through immense problems,” he pointed out. Casting the lead role for “Happiness” was the most difficult of his career, Uzabayev said. Up to seven actresses turned down the role, after consulting with their husbands, until they landed Laura Myrzhakmetova, who had scant acting experience but agreed to the terms and conditions of the film.

According to Katchko, “Happiness” screenwriter Assem Zhapisheva, a journalist and civil rights activist, visited several prisons across the country and made a documentary about the number of women who have been locked up for defending themselves from their abusive spouses. “More than 70% of the women imprisoned for killing their husbands in Kazakhstan did so out of self- defence,” she pointed out.

International sales, distribution and production company Axxon Media picked up sales rights to “Happiness” ahead of Berlinale. The film dovetails with Axxon Media’s “policy of acquiring films with a social, human or artistic cause,” said Brussels-based Axxon Media CEO, Gilles Duffaut. “Festivals and distributors must work on films that awaken consciences, that unite people, make them participate in a film, rather than remaining passive and just watching it,” said Duffaut.

“I’m still a realist, and I don’t tend to believe in miracles. I have made the first step to talking about domestic violence and it will be impossible to ignore,” said Maxatkyzy. “The domestic violence laws in Kazakhstan are being moderated and amended, nonetheless they are still not working the way they should because we live in a patriarchal nation, where the majority of the government consists of men.”

“However, this is only the beginning and we will continue to talk about these problems,” she concluded.


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