Wednesday 18 May 2022

Home - In Conversation - Every Corner a Story: An Interview with Zhannat Alshanova

24Frames: Storytelling is often times the essence of filmmaking, and this essence requires its own timeframe to be told in, with each story. In an interview with Zhannat Alshanova, Kazakh writer and director, we talk about her career in filmmaking and transition to and in between feature films and shorts. Her films have competed in several festivals such as Sundance, Cannes, and Locarno where she received her latest award for the film History of Civilization.





1. Mrs. Alshanova, your background in filmmaking is quite impressive; could you tell us where it all began? 

My first job in film was assistant to the accommodation manager on a Netflix show. That was a Marco Polo series that was partially shot in Kazakhstan. After that, I was hired as a Production Assistant for the second part of the shoot that was relocated to the studio in Malaysia. It was an overwhelming, but great experience. I had the chance to see the production to its highest scale and meet so many great people. When I returned to Kazakhstan, I got a job as a Production Photographer on a feature film and after we wrapped it up, I left for the film school in London. The program allowed me to try different roles – production designer, editor, producer, camera operator, sound recordist, and of course writer/director. After all, I realized that screenwriting and directing is something I enjoy the most. However, I am happy to join a project I like in the role of 1st AD or producer, but that mostly happens on friends’ productions.



2. What is the overall atmosphere of filmmaking in Kazakhstan like? 

That’s a hard question. On one side, I see that the industry is growing, that there are more talents and projects emerging, but for me, it’s a bit hard to navigate. Short films are not really paid attention to and many filmmakers prefer to jump to the feature films without trying a shorter format first. But also there is very small funding available for short films. The whole funding system is also in constant flux, fueled by corruption scandals. I feel that the industry is trying to move to a better standard, but it takes time. You know, at the beginning you find it fun to play against all the odds, but at some point, you realize that you would rather prefer to spend your energy on your creative work. I am happy to see filmmakers finding their way to the universal arena and I hope to see more of it.



3. What inspires you to write your stories? Where do the ideas come from?

Even with the short form, the whole process is such a marathon. It usually takes around a year to finish one project. So for me, it’s really important to have a strong connection with the story from the very beginning, otherwise, I wouldn’t have enough energy to push through. For End of Season, one of my biggest inspirations was the actress Rosa Khairullina. I met her before going to film school and really admired her. So she was someone I had in mind when I started writing the script and her character shaped the story a lot. Paola Makes A Wish is a film that was born during the directing workshop. And for my latest film History of Civilization, the idea came from my own experience of changing the country as I felt that the reasons were sometimes more intimate and personal, rather than purely rational. I guess for me the most essential element is a feeling, a sentiment that the character could try to embrace or to overcome.





4. How do you find writing and directing simultaneously? What are the steps in your writing process and how flexible are you with changing the script before or while shooting?

I am still exploring this process and trying to find my own approach. Before starting to write, I need to know the structure, the arc of the film. It could obviously change later, but I need it as a starting point and then it turns into a game, a puzzle, an equation, where I am trying to distill the elements I like and make them work together. My main goal is to make the whole creative process as joyful as possible. I believe it can be a fruitful flow and when it is not, I switch to the research of facts and images.



5. When do you involve crew members such as the DP or actors/actresses in your pre-production and how important are these interactions to you?

I love to have people involved in the process from the early stage. For my previous short films, I’ve always had to know who is going to be the actress before finalizing the draft. And I love to bounce the ideas with the cinematographer and the production designer on the writing stage because sometimes such a dialogue can lead the story to unexpected directions. So far, I have been very lucky to work with people I love, who were both great professionals and human beings. I sincerely believe that the energy among the crew is transmitted into the screen.



6. We know that one of the biggest challenges for every (short) filmmaker is funding the film; what are your experiences in finding the suitable producer(s)? What other challenges do you and other directors face when making a film in your country?

End of Season was partially funded by the London Film School as it was a graduation film, Paola Makes A Wish was fully produced by Locarno Film Festival, CISA, and Ticino Film Commission, and I made History of Civilization with the awards I won with my previous films. As I mentioned before, the funding system in Kazakhstan is still in chaos. Pitching can be announced a week before the application deadline, another one can get canceled due to the change of management, or it can get postponed up to 6 months. It’s a system that is very hard to rely on.




7. How has the process of releasing and distributing your films been since your first work up until now? How do you find the right distributor?

End of Season was self-distributed with the help of the school, as they have a festival department that can also submit the film. It was an interesting experience, as you have to understand how the festivals work, what are the rules and requirements, and how to make your own strategy. After Paola Makes A Wish premiered at Sundance, we sealed the deal with the Canadian film distribution company “Travelling” who also worked on my latest short film.



8. How was your experience in the Bela Tarr residency? What was your most valuable learning from this opportunity?

It was amazing! It was crazy, as you were expected to develop, shoot, and edit a film in a super tight time frame. There were so many production challenges but somehow they liberated me. You understand that it’s impossible to get everything you would normally look for, so you just focus on the essence of the film, and it’s really fun. It was great to have Bela Tarr on your set. He is brutally honest about what he thinks, but also so passionate about the medium. The whole experience fueled me to make another short film after we wrapped the workshop and I did so.



9. What’s your opinion about filmmakers finding their specific cinematic language and style? would you say you have reached your own language?

I definitely haven’t reached my own language and style. I am still exploring it and I guess the whole process teaches me how to listen to myself. I love playing with the characters’ perceptions and emotional journeys, but I feel there is an enormous learning road ahead of me.



10. You are currently working on two feature films; in what ways would you differentiate between the experiences of making a short compared to a feature film? Do you think it’s a correct assumption to think of short filmmaking as a stepping stone for feature cinema?

First of all, compared to a short form, a feature-length requires deeper knowledge about the characters and the world of the story. It’s like a more complex equation that has many more variables and unknowns. So it’s much more challenging but also gives you a bigger playground. For me, making several short films was an essential step. I needed to understand how my feelings and assumptions translated to the screen. Now I feel like I am ready for a new chapter.




11. Generally speaking, in what ways has being a part of the international filmmaking community affected your work, especially when it comes to your features? How important do you think it is for filmmakers to make their way into international forums?

When I first thought of becoming a filmmaker, the local industry was so small that it wasn’t really a place to work in. Therefore, from the very beginning, I was seeking my own way to the international community. It definitely expanded my views and fueled my creativity. At first, when I lived outside of Kazakhstan, I felt that I don’t know enough about any other country or culture to make a film. Then when I returned, I realized that I have been away for so long, that I barely know my own country. Thus I decided to work on projects that tap on these intercultural subjects – something I would know. That’s why the international community is important to me. The festivals, markets, and workshops are a great source of energy. It can be overwhelming, but I mostly enjoy it. For example, Mother Tongue – one of my feature projects won ARTE Award at the Asian Project Market which really encouraged me in my path.



12. I have noticed that your main characters are mostly female; is that something you deliberately plan on doing or is it something that happens based on the necessities of the story and the film?

I guess that it is something I have better access to. It’s self-reflective in many ways, but I am very curious about writing male protagonists. In fact, Mother Tongue was initially about a man, but I changed it while writing as I found a new story development that required a woman as a central figure. Who knows who will end up being the protagonist in the final version!



13. What are some tips that you have for aspiring filmmakers or those who are new to the field, to help them get started or persevere in their path?

Spend some time to understand what you love about filmmaking and what kind of stories you want to tell.




Interviewed by Parnian Gharehsoory

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