Nomad (2005), a Kazakh film by Sergei Bodrov and Ivan Passer

June 6, 2008 at 12:24 am

Nomad is a film that belongs to a specific genre: epics that usually tell of the founding of the nation in a way that is geared toward Western audiences, produced by smaller countries with the ambition to tell the glorious story of their origins to the world. Usually these are large scale lavish productions, where significant amounts are thrown in for the sake of enlisting the assistance of supposedly reputable film professionals who would be able to give the film a Western look and feel and whose names would help facilitate international distribution.

Typically for the genre, Nomad ‘s making is driven more by political than commercial considerations. Reportedly, powerful Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev himself is the initiator of the production; the film even concludes with his commentary on the events shown. Several years in the making, with a troubled production history involving a mid-way change of director and cameraman, Nomad cost about 40 million U.S. , an amount that places it into the ranks of the most expensive non-English language epics ever made. Originally started by Czech new wave émigré Ivan Passer, the film was completed by transnational Russian director Sergei Bodrov and released in 2006. Executive produced by New York-based Czech Milos Forman and distributed in North America by the Weinstein company, the theatrical distribution of the film was a commercial flop, recovering less than three percents of the investment (but it seems the picture is somewhat improved by the DVD distribution).

Set in the 18th century, it is the story of a young man, Mansur (Kuno Becker), who grows up facing serious challenges to later on become founder and leader of the Kazakh nation, Ablai Khan. A descendant of the Kazakh Khan, Mansur is the target of hostile Dzungars; this is why he is secretly raised and trained by a mysterious visionary teacher (Jason Scott Lee). Taken in Dzungar captivity along with his beloved, he is being forced to earn his freedom through fighting in gladiator type events (unknowingly, he even kills his best friend). Once he has freed himself, Ablai Khan comes for a glorious return to combat the tyrants.

The production relies on the amazing horse-riding skills of scores of Kazakh extras, and on the spectacular vistas of Kazakhstan (also used in Bodro’s subsequent epic film, Mongol), majestic landscapes that have been made use of in the range of ‘eastern Westerns’ produced by the Soviets and East Europeans in the area back in the 1970s and 1980s. Even though the script is credited to respected writer Rustam Ibragimbekov, the story (and the parallel love affair) lacks proper dramatic build up. The most problematic element (but also an approach typical for the genre), is the decision to cast Western actors in the leads: the protagonist is played by Mexican soap opera star Kuno Becker, the mysterious teacher – by Jason Scott Lee, and the best friend – by Jay Hernandez. Released in dubbed Russian, English and French-language versions, the Kazakh language does not figure in Nomad beyond the opening credits.

The international release of Nomad coincided more or less with the release of Borat – Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan“>Borat (a film that purportedly represented today’s Kazakhs), thus it inevitably ended up being framed through this unfavourable comparison and barely managed to make its intended point about the glorious origins of the Kazakh nation.

Described as a ‘brawny historical actioner’ (Lesley Felperin in Variety), critic Don Willmot sees as representative of the ‘eastern Western’ and believes the film would only appeal to audiences with pronounced interest in 18-century Asian history. He is wrong. There are plenty of interesting reactions from ordinary viewers who have commented on it at the IMDb. Many of the comparisons are favorable and appreciate the entertainment and production values of the film. The parallels range from films such as 300 (2006), Gladiator (2000), to films like Luc Besson’s The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc(1999), the The Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2005) and to the Nordic action-adventure Pathfinder (2007). An IMDb posting describes it as ‘Troy meets Pearl Harbor‘, and another one talks of it as ‘soft on the eyes and full of epic eye candy’. A user from Italy says to him the film is no different from any in Hollywood epic.

These IMDb discussions are particularly interesting as they represent a global dialogue between viewers located in very different contexts, with participants logging in from the US, Kazakhstan, or Italy, as well as native Kazakhs living in diaspora (and Westerners working in Kazakhstan), thus giving the discussion a much more diverse perspective.

©Dina Iordanova
6 June 2008