‘Heavenly Nomadic’ Producers on Clash of Old, New Worlds in Kyrgyzstan

TheWrap Screening Series: Filmmakers discuss the former Soviet republic’s official Oscar entry

(Photo: Ted Soqui)

In the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, like many regions in the world, there is a continued urbanization — but what happens to those families who choose to remain rural?

This is the crux of “Heavenly Nomadic,” Kyrgyzstan’s 2015 official Oscar entry, a film with a minuscule budget, but more than enough heart. Moderator and TheWrap awards editor Steve Pond welcomed the film’s associate producer Brett Syson and Asel Sherniyazova, representing her uncle, producer Sadyk Sher-Niyaz, for a Q&A session at TheWrap’s Screening Series at iPic Theaters Westwood on Tuesday.

“I know that [the film’s Director] Mirlan Abdykalykov wanted to make a film about change, about the clash of old traditions against new traditions, about a family of nomads who are struggling to come to terms with the encroachment of so-called civilization,” said Syson. “He’s very interested in ecology, and he wanted to make a film about the destruction of nature. But above all, he wanted to make a film about family, and the value of human relationships.”

The film follows a small horse farming family living in a yurt in the mountainous countryside. Syson revealed that the film’s altitudinous locations caused some unexpected hiccups during the filming.

“The actor who plays the grandfather was not the original choice of actor, but the original actor, on day one of shooting developed a lung problem due to the high altitude, and he had to be rushed to the hospital,” said Syson. “The filmmakers had to find another elderly actor who was available and able to spend a number of weeks up in the mountains. Actually, they found a new actor within 24 hours. The name of the actor is Tabyldy [Aktanov], which means ‘found.’”

A sequence where a boy shows his sister ancient stone carvings made by ancestral Kyrgyz people was filmed in an even higher altitude.

“It took the cast and crew 12 or 13 hours by car, then four hours by horseback to reach that particular shooting location,” said Syson. “The scene took about three hours to shoot, then another four hours back by horseback, and then 13 hours by car back to the film’s base.”

The result is a film that displays Kyrgyzstan’s gorgeous natural beauty, which Sherniyazova explains has a secondary function of attracting eco-tourists and trekkers to the mountainous Asian country of 5.5 million.

“I don’t want to offend, but some of you haven’t ever heard of Kyrgyzstan before,” said Sherniyazova, whose uncle Sadyk Sher-Niyaz co-produced “Heavenly Nomadic” and also directed “Queen of the Mountains,” Kyrgyzstan’s official Oscar entry last year. “Films like this put the name of our country on a map, which is the most important thing. Sometimes it’s more than a film. It’s sharing our culture and our beautiful country.”

On display are some of Kyrgyzstan’s most enduring traditions, which make for a film that seems like both a tender exploration of a family as well as a time capsule for cultural aspects that are fading as the older generations decease.

“The mother and the son you saw riding horses–most Kyrgyz people are natural horse people,” said Syson. “They’re able to ride a horse from a very early age. And there are two legends that are referred to in the film, about ‘Sutak the bird’ and ‘the eagle and goat.’ They are true legends of Kyrgyzstan.”

Meanwhile, one audience member expressed confusion over a funeral scene where a group of men take down a horse.

“Maybe you will be disappointed, but Kyrgyz people eat horse meat,” said Sherniyazova. “Usually, when there is a wedding or someone dies, especially the nomads, people eat horse meat.”

It’s the focus on those traditional elements that may explain why it was so funny to hear Sherniyazova’s answer when asked how certain overhead shots were made.

“Yeah, drones,” she said.

It’s a reminder that the film industry in Kyrgyzstan is rapidly growing. Syson pointed out that when he first visited Kyrgyzstan 20 years ago, there were hardly any movie theaters–and the ones that did exist mostly played older films–but that now the industry is producing about two films a week. And that could mean more chances for Kyrgyzstan to grow even more from a filmic standpoint.

“Our country has been through a lot in the last 20 years,” said Sherniyazova. “It was a part of the Soviet Union, as you know, so culture during the Soviet period was not supported by the Soviets. Also, it has had two revolutions during the last 15 years. But our country is considered to be the most democratic country in our region. For example, our ex-president was a woman, which is very unusual. She was the first woman in all the former Soviet countries to become president. We are real nomads, and we like freedom, we value our culture–I think that it makes Kyrgyzstan unique.”

Finally, Syson introduced two Kyrgyz audience members, who wore the tall white hats typically worn by Kyrgyz men, which featured prominently in the film, much to the rest of the audience’s delight. When the applause died down, the audience and filmmakers moved to the bar to enjoy a reception.