Zhannat Alshanova - From finance to filmmaking Sofia Piven in conversation with filmmaker Zhannat Alshanova.
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Zhannat Alshanova - From finance to filmmaking

Sofia Piven in conversation with filmmaker Zhannat Alshanova.

One day, the Kazakh director Zhannat Alshanova made a decision. Now she is one of the most promising directors in her country and has even won the Pardino D'Argento at the Locarno Film Festival 2020. She agreed to give an interview for CineSud Magazine in which she shares her business background, the pursuit of her filmmaking path, the most challenging shooting experiences and her participation in online film festivals.

"I was trying to explore the moment when someone dares to change a decision, no matter how much he or she invested in it."

13 september 2020

Unclear plans for the future

While studying at high school Zhannat Alshanova was dreaming of becoming an interior designer or a journalist. Talking about her background she remembers: "I was definitely gravitating towards something creative and beautiful, however, at the time of my teenage years I couldn't find any suitable university programs in Kazakhstan."

In Zhannat's point of view, her homeland as a country was just too young, therefore the establishments connected with the creative industry and the industry in general had not gained much experience and were unsustainable, as well as Kazakhstan itself. The idea of pursuing a career in the field of filmmaking did not even cross Zhannat's mind because she never thought that she could follow this path for real.

Zhannat Alshanova became an outstanding businesswoman. She has a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and a master's degree in Marketing. The director comments: "I actually enjoyed my work for some time, but then I felt that it’s not quite right for me." By that time Zhannat had won a scholarship to go to Shanghai and study international business. Back in Kazakhstan she started working in the international department of the university but she quit after 6 months.

First acquaintance with filmmaking

The idea of making movies occurred to her all of a sudden. Zhannat says: "I just woke up with this crazy idea that I want to be a film director. It was completely random! I didn't know anyone in the film business, I wasn't a cinephile at all and at that time the film industry in Kazakhstan was underdeveloped." Nevertheless, the director believes that her interest in photography, literature and creative writing is summed up by filmmaking.

She admits that it was a quite a long detour, from business to filmmaking. It also took her some time to get enrolled in the program at the London Film School which she entered in order to receive more knowledge in cinematography. Zhannat liked studying there, it was a challenging and competitive program that really pushed her. The director says: "It is an international school and I simply loved the diversity of people we had. It also allowed me to work on different projects around the world and explore different approaches and perspectives." There were so many memorable moments but shooting in rural Vermont, Guatemala and on a small Turkish island were quite outstanding experiences for her.

Leaving her homeland was not quite as big a challenge for Zhannat. She comments: "Before London I lived in Spain and China, so in a way living abroad became more normal for me than being in Kazakhstan." However, the director moved back to her hometown a year ago. She returned back for a simple reason – her UK visa expired. At the same time it was a great opportunity to shoot something at home.

First films

Together with other students Zhannat made a few films during her master's program. The director says: "There is so much drive and excitement, so when you don't shoot for a long time, you start to miss it." After coming back to Kazakhstan she got a job as a 1st Assistant Director in the Kazakhstan/Japan feature The Horse Thieves. Roads of Time (2019) which was an amazing experience. Then she got into the Berlinale Talents program and right after was selected for the director's workshop at Locarno, mentored by Bela Tarr, a Hungarian producer and director, where 15 international filmmakers shot their own short movies within a day.

Zhannat created Paola Makes A Wish (2019), a story of a woman feeling that she misses out something exciting in her life. It was a really small production with all kinds of possible limitations. The director comments: "The film had quite a successful festival run, it premiered at Locarno, then at Sundance and many other international festivals. When I returned from Locarno's workshop, I was so inspired and decided to shoot another short film: History of Civilization (2020)."

History of Civilization

The director thinks that the idea of shooting History of Civilization, telling about the Kazakh girl Indira who moves to London from her hometown, came from her personal experience. Zhannat changed countries quite a few times, every time the reason for this being deeply personal. That is exactly what she transmits in her film. She says: "I was trying to explore the moment when someone dares to change a decision, no matter how much he or she invested in it. I wanted Indira, the protagonist, to discover the internal freedom and joy of it."

The protagonists she casted are no professional actors. Akmaral Zykaeva, Indira in the film, is actually a composer who also wrote the score for the film. Aidar Alimbayev, Ruslan in the film, is a sculptor. It was their first time acting, Zhannat thinks that they have done an amazing job.

Difficulties in shooting

Zhannat and her crew faced a lot of difficulties during the process of making History of Civilization. She remembers: "In terms of the production, we had this crazy political protest on our first day of shooting. The city centre was completely blocked by police and army vehicles. The network, the internet was completely broken down and it was almost impossible to communicate. The atmosphere was very tense and I was really concerned that it would affect our shooting. On top of it we couldn't postpone the shooting, as our cinematographer had another shooting straight after ours." The director is very thankful to her producer for managing the situation properly and avoiding all the risks.

According to Zhannat, every film of hers had its own challenges. The History of Civilization was a total joy to shoot, although the shooting took place during the political protests. Paola Makes a Wish was a different scale of production. However, the director had so many other limitations within the Locarno workshop, next to shooting in a foreign country and in a language she does not speak.

Also the production of End of Season (2018), her first short film shot in Kazakhstan, was a challenge. She did not know anyone who could help her to produce it, therefore she ended up doing it on her own. The director remembers: "My friend Paisley Valentine Walsh covered everything related to the UK part of the production, including all the logistics of our international crew but there was still a lot of routine that I somehow had to manage." The famous Russian actress Rosa Khayrullina was also part of the production and at the beginning Zhannat was quite anxious about it. Luckily, in the end, everything turns out alright.

Festival experience

Zhannat has not yet been to a lot of "physical" festivals. The director laughingly states that her films travelled way more than she did. Some festivals were held online this year. For instance Locarno 2020 which tried a new format. However, the director was in Locarno last year with her film Paola Makes A Wish and enjoyed the festival's energy, the audience and the location. She regrets not having an opportunity to feel it again this year: "It would have been so nice to share this experience with the crew and cast of History of Civilization, which was selected for Locarno 2020. But it is what it is and I am grateful to everyone behind the festival, who made it happen anyway. I missed the physical interaction a lot, but at the same time, the film was accessible to a broader audience. I really hope we can all get back to normal in the nearest future!"

Feature films

At the moment, Zhannat is working on two feature film projects: Mother Tongue and A Winners Is Seen at the Start. She says: "Of course it is much more complicated than making short movies! It requires a completely different pace and rhythm for development and obviously there is a completely new challenge to find the funding."

Her plans surely were disrupted due to the coronavirus, however, it is hard for Zhannat to say how things could have worked out if Covid-19 had not happened. She says: "We had a very strict lockdown here in Kazakhstan and for me there were a lot of things to take care of, so I decided to pause all the creative work and prioritize my family and home. Now I am back to writing again."

Let's follow the example of Zhannat and take care of ourselves and our families! Stay at home and discover more about this amazing person on her website.

(c) All visual material is used with the filmmaker's permission.

Over de auteur: Sofia Piven

Sofia Piven is currently studying Journalism and International Relations at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. She has always been interested in writing articles and after finishing school and entering the university she wrote for local newspapers and magazines. Since January 2018 she regularly writes articles for CineSud magazine.

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