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Traveling Through Cinema

Changing Everything and Nothing At All With Zhannat Alshanova

Alex Wen

Alex Wen: How did you get into cinema and filmmaking, I know it wasn't necessarily the most straightforward path. I think you worked in the business sector for a while, before transitioning into filmmaking?

Zhannat Alshanova: I graduated from business school in Kazakhstan, and I was a Marketing major. I got a Masters, also in Marketing—in Spain. Then I got back to Kazakhstan and I worked as a brand manager at a makeup company, and then I went to an oil and gas company to work on their financial department for some time.

But I was always kind of gravitating towards [the] arts, I just didn't know how I could possibly make it part of my life? I saw it as a cool hobby. I like writing, but where would I publish? So it all stayed in the area of a hobby—writing, photography, art in general. At some point, I felt that I wanted more of it. And the business, management, and marketing didn't satisfy my needs. I tried to imagine myself in 10 years or something, and I didn't like what I saw. It's probably gonna be the same, maybe a bigger department, bigger job, but it felt the same. And it didn't excite me and I had this kind of a crisis. I'm like, "Oh, no! What do I do now?" Yeah, and I just had this random idea of, "I'm just gonna be a film director." It was kind of sabotaging myself in a way, you know, just like playing to something super radical. 

I wasn't a cinefile at the time. I didn't really go to the cinema much. Well, we didn't have that much of an arthouse showing anyways, it was mostly American blockbusters, Hollywood, whatever. And the [film] industry wasn't really here that much. It's interesting, because during World War II, the famous Moscow studios moved to Almaty—to Kazakhstan—to survive. So there was this big base here of all these professionals and studios. Obviously, they went back, but I don't know why [the film industry] didn't really bloom after that. Maybe something to do with the independence and the country trying to find its new direction and the arts struggled for a while, because of the complete changing of the whole structure of the political regime.

There was not much of a basis for me to land on. I tried to get a job, but I couldn't find anything. I was PA-ing at a local festival and trying to get into production—which was also hard because there were maybe one or two shooting per year. I had no access to those, I didn't know the people, and I had no background. I've never worked in the film industry. I couldn't find much, so I tried to build up my portfolio. “I'm going to do a bit of theater—like a workshop. I'll do a class on photography. I'll start reading books on film and watch some classics. And somehow maybe, I can build some foundation for myself.” It took me some time, and then I thought about applying to film schools, because I had really no knowledge on how to make a film? 

AW: Right, you have to start somewhere.

ZA: Yeah. I started writing short scripts and drawing some mood boards, seeing if I can apply with that anywhere. And then I got into film school and that's pretty much how it all started.

AW: I think that's quite an amazing transition. A lot of people will think about doing that, where they might be working an office job or something more conventional, and think, "I would love to just totally shift my career." I'm kind of interested in whether that was a gradual process, or whether there was this key moment in which you were like, "okay, because of this moment, I need to change my career."

ZA: I think it was gradual. When I was still working at the oil and gas company, I got into this scholarship in Shanghai, and they had this post-grad program for six months where you go to Shanghai for global marketing and international business. So I quit my job for that, it was an excuse, "I'm like, oh I got this great opportunity, I'm going to leave." I'm going to go to China, I will have this six months and something will enlighten me. [laughs] Like, I'll find this thing I want to do. It didn't happen in Shanghai, I went to Tibet, I was like, "Okay, I'm going to get it in Tibet for sure." That's the place people go to get insights. At the time, I was kind of thinking that I'll get back and work in education, because my father works in education. So it was a logical path for me in a way and education is a nice thing to do. I have some knowledge of how different international schools work. So I got back to Kazakhstan, and I worked at the university for six months, and I just felt that this is not what I wanted. It was so depressing, because you have your degree, you have your CV, you have these chances. You have this position, your office with your nametag on the door. 

AW: It's all official.

ZA: You're grown up and you don't feel it. And it was terrible when you don't feel something. For me, it was crucial, I needed something that I really believed in.

AW: Right.

ZA: So it was building up to the moment, I was trying to do some art courses in the evenings. But I never thought directly about film, and then I just woke up with this idea. But I guess it wasn't completely random. It was kind of like a combination of all the elements. Photography is cinema. Writing is cinema. Theater, cinema. They all kind of combine with each other.

AW: What drew you into cinema? Why is filmmaking something that you were interested in in the first place?

ZA: Since I was a child, I played with imagining things, constructing these images in my mind and it was kind of a game for a long time, making these parallels and metaphors as a game. I remember I was in the bath as a kid. I was like five, maybe, thinking, "It's all about my story. But I want to know other people's stories." It was such a genuine thought, because you keep telling yourself things about everything you see and experience but what do other people think?

I like writing, but I felt I wanted to tell stories in a bigger way, not just saying something, but show something as well, play with all the mediums you have in cinema—with colors, sounds, and facial expressions. I found it such a fascinating format to tell something. It's the best art form for me. 

I once went to this psychology workshop. It was a kind of art psychology and they called five women of different ages and different status. So there was like middle-aged, divorced, younger, married with kids, right? Different women. They showed us—I can't remember the film—this family drama. At the end of the film, the moderator asked us, “what do you think the film was about?” One woman was like, "this is such a ridiculous question, it's so obvious, why are you even asking?" And there was another woman, she was like, "No, the film was about the couple..." blah, blah, blah. It fascinated me how people watching the same thing perceive it in such different ways. It also struck me, “how can you connect with different people with different themes and different topics when people pick up so many different things from the same thing?”

AW: Did you have any inspirations growing up when it comes to artists?

ZA: Films, probably not. I remember I first got into cinema when I was less than 10, and they were showing, you know, this film, saving. It was something about saving this whale...

AW: Free Willy?

ZA:  Yes! So that was my first film, but they canceled the screening because nobody came to the cinema. And I was heartbroken. I was crying for the whole day, because it was my first time going to the cinema. [laughs] 

AW: It changed the trajectory of your life. You're like, "if I can't see them, I will make them."

ZA: Exactly, I'll make my own films and play them whenever I want. But maybe, I would say books. I think my mother really taught me how to love reading. And I was into it since I was a child, I would cover myself under a blanket and read books. I'm really grateful because it's a habit you need to get into your blood. For me, it was always a big source of inspiration. 

AW: What are some contemporary filmmakers that you really appreciate the work of?

ZA:  Wow, so many. I like Claire Denis’ films for its simplicity. Friday Night, when I first watched it, I was like, "this is such such a simple story—a woman moves." But you watch it with such fascination. Pedro Costa. Andrea Arnold. Sorrentino—I like him a lot. Two men in a fancy resort in Switzerland reflect on their life, but it's so beautiful. You see the characters through small details and their interactions, and each character resonates with you so much. 

AW: I think it makes sense that we gravitate towards these simple plots because like you said, it really is these small moments and these subtleties that create the meaningful, big events that we think about. 

I feel like when we create art, and we make things, we're often kind of shaped and inspired by the things that we were surrounded by growing up. You've traveled quite a bit. I'd be interested in learning whether being in different environments and communities, how that's kind of shaped the way that you approach art.

ZA: I think it's a big part of it. I left Kazakhstan to study in Spain first. I had this one year in Spain and nobody knows what Kazakhstan is in Spain—as with many other places in the world. And I think it was a challenging experience when you feel like you're landing on the moon, and you have to speak for the whole country like, “so what is Kazakhstan?” Do all the people look like you? Yes, no. [laughs] 

And then I kept traveling. I went to China, and then to Vietnam, and then to Cambodia, and then to the UK. And then from the UK, traveled around Europe. I think it helped in terms of reaching different perspectives on cultures and people. It's not only about different cultures, but also variation of people drawing from different backgrounds, and their point of views on things. I'm interested in the psychological journeys of my characters in the scripts I write. I have this great number of people I've met in different countries. And I think the whole idea of being an outsider, like when you go outside, but also feeling like an outsider when you come back to your country because you've changed so much. 

I returned back to Kazakhstan three years after studying in the UK. I felt like I was different but the same at the same time. You feel a change and you can't sort of communicate that, and people don't understand it. It's so strange, because you become this middle point between—you're outside and you're everywhere in a way, but it also gives you an interesting perspective to things. And like, interesting areas to explore, like putting your characters in different positions, exploring different moments. In my last short, it’s about leaving the country or not leaving the country, and the reasons why. So it definitely gave me some inspiration for the settings of stories and the characters and the choices and what they experience in different environments and how they deal with that.

AW: Yeah, that makes sense. Sometimes you have to be outside looking in to fully see what a community or a space or setting really looks like. There definitely is this feeling of being in this weird limbo, where when you come back to a space, you know the space has changed, and you've changed too, but there's also these familiar ties to it and whatnot.

ZA: It's a strange feeling.

AW: You mentioned your latest film, History of Civilization. I feel like there's that similar energy too. How would you define your current relationship with Kazakhstan, expanding more on how you feel being back? From my interpretation of the film, there are these mixed feelings that happen when it comes to leaving a place? And in terms of what you leave behind, and maybe, what obligation one has to their setting and where they're at, and what obligation they have for themselves to leave because it's necessary or desirable?

ZA: When I was living in London, I was thinking, "Okay, can I make a film here, for example?" Yeah, technically I can, but do I know anything about this country to make a film about it? And then I was like, "Okay, I'm gonna go to Kazakhstan and make a film there." I got back and I'm like, “I don't think I know the country that much.” Do I have the right to think about the whole country, because I still have my small bubble? For example, the films that travel to festivals from Kazakhstan are usually set in the villages, and it's a rural lifestyle, right? And that whole dynamic. I'm a city girl and I don't know much about those people. I felt guilty for it like, "Oh, I don't know my country." I don't know my people. What kind of films can I make? It put me again in this limbo of who am I representing? Who's stories can I tell? I felt like I didn't have a right to tell any of these stories. 

I was trying to think about it from the perspective of what I know. And that's where I started thinking about living in Spain, this migration that's not necessarily vertical, but also horizontal—not that you're running from somewhere, but when you make the choice to move, and why you make that choice. I found that to be an interesting area to explore. With my latest film, my main intention was to explore the personal reasons behind big steps. For me, I left and changed countries for study, for job, for big things, but at the end of the day most of the reasons were quite personal. I would break up with someone and run away and justify it by saying, “I found this course or whatever.” 

It gave me this idea to write a script about someone who wants to change something, but doesn't understand how to change. So she's changing everything, she's burning all the bridges. She's like, “I'm gonna leave the job, and the house, and the connection—everything, and start again.” What she felt there when she was at the party [in the film] was that sometimes you don't need to burn everything. Sometimes it's inside of you, like this dream you are chasing. Sometimes it's you who is not allowing yourself to be more open, encouraging, and adventurous. Sometimes it's not what's external that limits you. Well, sometimes it is. [laughs] 

But there are cases that it is not, and maybe you just like to put this responsibility on something else. I was interested in this aspect. When I got back to Kazakhstan, I couldn't find my place for some time. Because the film industry is so different between the UK and Kazakhstan, the style of work is very different. The people are different, most of my friends who are connected to film are outside of Kazakhstan. And here, most of my friends are like my classmates, from business school, or from high school, and they all got married and they have kids, and it's a very different life. I couldn't understand what I should do here? How would I feel if I stay? What if I want to leave again?

AW: A lot of tough questions.

ZA:  I like it now, it's been three years, I think. We shot History last year in the summer and it was quite an interesting experience, because I shot End of Season also here, but with my UK crew, they all flew from London to shoot here. And here it was kind of a new challenge, trying to shoot in Almaty with a local crew and local actors, and see myself in this. It was so funny, because when we were editing, I found this editor that works on big productions, but like period dramas with horses riding from left to right, right to left—with these big chase scenes. He was kind of curious to work on something small and more of a drama.

ZA:  We had the first assemblage and he was like, “I can't really understand what's happening, but like festivals like this shit, right? This is kind of like an European festival style.”

ZA: I was like, “I don't know what's the European festival style?” It was funny trying to find this language of communication here with the crew.

AW: I feel like filmmaking is such an obviously collaborative process, and supported by these extensive networks. How do you navigate that when you're kind of in a place in which you might not have the support you might have if you were in London or some other country?

ZA:  Well, nobody has any network at the moment right now. [laughs]

But I think I have my bubble of people, we can bounce ideas off each other and we can talk about films or projects or ideas. But also all the online festivals, obviously it wasn't perfect, but they gave me some feeling of a network. I would much prefer speaking to people like you in real life. But still, I felt that there's still discussion going on even when you cannot be with people in the same room and talk. During the past eight months or so, I had two films in the festival circuit, very different films, Paola Makes A Wish and History of Civilization. They traveled to different places. Sometimes people reach out to me saying, "this connected with me because of this or that. I'm a student in Colombia and I watched your film." So it was kind of nice like that. Even when you cannot travel, then the film can travel and can connect with people and they can see something in film that resonates with them, no matter where they are. And I felt that in the whole disaster of this year, it was kind of encouraging, that art still plays its role.

AW: During this time of uncertainty, are you someone that turns to film as a comfort food? Do you have other things that you go to in order to manage the pandemic?

AW: I got a cat. It was a strange year for me as well because I changed apartments in the middle of a pandemic. Actually I realized afterwards, I got COVID while I was moving to a different place. I was just feeling so tired and exhausted, and I thought that's just the stress of moving into the new place. But then I realized it wasn't just exhaustion. So it was like, a lot of things were going on. I was also quite busy for some time because there were all these festivals happening, and the Q&As, and the interviews. 

But it wasn't that bad for me, to be honest. I miss traveling and writing the most, because I haven't been in Kazakhstan for such a long time. I usually go [somewhere] once per month, because there's usually a festival, a workshop, or something. I guess that was hard in the beginning, all the festivals still happening, all the selections still happening, but you couldn't be there. But then you're like, nobody can so it's all good.

AW: You also spoke about how just making a production in Kazakhstan, there's those questions that always exist, right? Especially in smaller or emerging film markets where one's work is one of maybe not that many for many people. It might be their first exposure. How do I make sure I create something that doesn't just pander to an outside audience? How can I make something which can represent what I'm looking to represent? And just like how to navigate that, whether it's by not thinking about it at all or is it about being very specific about how you create something and the stories you tell?

ZA:  It's always tricky when you create something, right? Because like you never know how it will connect and who it will connect to?

AW: Yeah, you might have five women come in and watch it and then...

ZA: Exactly. Your close friends are watching it and not understanding what you're trying to say. And you show it to your family, and they're like, "yeah, sure..." Filmmakers are watching so many films, so they have a different way of looking at films, and making films, because you have this baggage of things you've seen. People who are less interested in films in general, they have a more narrow idea of what a film can do. So when you're trying to make an auteur film, people look at it not knowing what the fuck you're talking about. 

I'm focused more on what feels true to me when I'm writing. I hope if it excites me, it can excite other people. I'm trying not to exploit the ideas of "how it is" in Kazakhstan. That's the exotic part of it, that's the crazy tradition. It's just not interesting to me. I'm not saying it's bad or good, it just doesn't excite me to show this part. 

I think when you start thinking of it, you can just go so wrong. You'll just lose whatever you were trying to say. I'm interested in something more general human psychology and drama. Something that is normal for me, for example, probably wouldn't be normal for you. I'm just trying to show it as honest as I can.

AW: It's almost like, in some ways, by just entertaining that question you've already lost because you're already prioritizing how these external factors will perceive your film and your work. A lot of what I think about, especially as we trend towards this more global network is how we can continue to interrogate the ways in which we consume art, how we can kind of fit these narratives together.

ZA: I think it's interesting, just to dig deeper on what different countries are, seeing it from different angles? And from a completely different perspective from the same country? Two people telling a story about the same country could be completely different stories. I think that's the beauty of it, the diversity of point of views and perspectives. I guess that's the beauty of world cinema that you can travel to places without leaving your place, especially when you cannot.

For some time, the films that traveled to festivals from Kazakhstan were kind of all low-budget films set in this rural area, and addressing some social issue, or some economical and political issue. And then the government would react strongly to it saying, "that's not who we are, and that's not how we are, the filmmakers are manipulating this idea to sell it to the festival audience or Western audience." Maybe they are, maybe they're not, but I was always aware of entering this area, speaking on these social issues. Because again, I didn't feel the right to tap into it. People who do feel like that, they speak about it, but then the government would try making more period dramas, praising the history—which I guess also has to be done in a way. It gets messy to me, because everyone's trying to send some kind of a message to someone about something. Who's getting what message?

AW: Yeah, and your upcoming feature is also being set in Kazakhstan or being made in Kazakhstan?

ZA:  I have two projects in development. There was one: I'm trying to leave it but it doesn't want me to leave. It was supposed to be set between France and Kazakhstan. I was planning to shoot a big chunk of it, not only in the city, but mostly in some small town that I haven't been to yet. I had a script, but more a structured outline of what I want to explore. Then the whole COVID thing happened and I understood that I couldn't really go scouting, even within the country. It was quite devastating. I couldn't move the script forward, because I couldn't just imagine the town without seeing it. I couldn't imagine the people who live there because I've never been there. It started to depress me, I was blaming myself for not writing. 

You want the isolation? Now you have it. I didn't know how to push it forward. What do I do now? How can I research things without going there, touching it, and seeing it. I left [the film] behind for some time. And then, I applied for the local funding here. The funding system is a bit of a disaster right now. It was sort of in an unpredictable place where they announce the pitching, they cancel the pitching, they cancel the funds, they announce a new's a mess. So it was not the best thing happening. I felt I needed something else. I couldn't find the money here, I couldn't find the money abroad, I couldn't finance it myself, obviously. 

I was like, "Okay, I'm gonna just write something else, trying to find something simpler." I'm going to set it in Almaty, a place I know. The place I can imagine, the people I can imagine, much cheaper, much easier production, no more crazy movements around the country or even outside of the country. It gave me this belief that this is feasible, that this could work. This could be produced somehow. The first one is still on hold, but I hope I can get back to it when the world becomes a nicer place.

AW: We'll see when that is. [laughs] So is that first project, Mother Tongue

ZA: Mmhm.

AW: Gotcha. And then what's this other project that you're developing?

ZA:  The working title is Winner is Seen at the Start. It's about this experimental trading school, the girls who got into school and the whole corporate structure of it, and the whole psychological journey of the characters, and I'm still developing, so it's hard to give you much more information. But yeah, that's the idea!