Arts & Culture

VES film features city on the move

5 min read

Grad students work together on documentary about new capital of Kazakhstan

A decade ago, the city of Astana was little more than a bleak outpost on the steppe of Kazakhstan. Now it is a bustling metropolis, where the pace of development is so rapid that life can feel like a time-lapse film. Buildings and roads sprout up seemingly overnight. Hammers provide a constant soundtrack. People arrive in droves from across Kazakhstan and from neighboring countries, in search of employment and the chance for a better life.

The tale of Astana’s rise began in 1994, when the Kazakh government elected to move the capital there from Almaty (in the southeastern part of the country). President Nursultan A. Nazarbayev spearheaded the effort, promoting Astana as a more central location having less of an earthquake risk than Almaty. Furthermore, he argued, the new capital would bring much-needed investment to the country’s interior. Others have said the move was actually designed to bring Kazakhs into an area traditionally settled by Russians. Astana became Kazakhstan’s official capital in 1998. Construction began at a furious pace to transform Astana into a cosmopolitan destination — and it hasn’t slackened since.

Maxim Pozdorovkin and Joe Bender, graduate students in Harvard’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, respectively, have captured the city’s dramatic emergence in a documentary film titled “Capital.” The 56-minute piece explores the rapid development from the perspective of several residents, including news anchors, tour guides, and construction workers. The footage is focused on a week of celebrations that marked Astana’s 10th anniversary in July 2008.

“We were fascinated by the idea of a new capital as an icon for a new nation,” says Pozdorovkin, “as well as by the physical process of a city coming into its own through construction and development.”

The Kazakh government, particularly President Nazarbayev, has promoted Astana’s growth as a symbol of progress in the post-Soviet era. Many new buildings, such as the “Palace of Peace and Concord,” are designed to showcase Kazakhstan’s culture and offer a window onto a prosperous future. The government aims to complete construction by 2030, and projects the population will have reached 3 million by that time.

“The government envisions Astana as a fully functioning, super-modern metropolis,” says Pozdorovkin.

Pozdorovkin, who hails from Moscow, has been following the news from Astana for years. In the fall of 2007, he began discussing the possibility of making a film about the Kazakh capital with Bender. Both students have completed a secondary field in Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) and were eager to collaborate on a project. After considering other ideas, they chose Astana and made plans to travel there in the summer of 2008.

“This area of the world was completely new to me,” Bender says, “which is part of what made the project so fascinating. I had been thinking about the theoretical concerns of urban space for a while and the more I learned about Astana, the more interesting and productive the project became.”

Bender took most of the footage in Astana — nearly 94 hours in all — while Pozdorovkin directed, conducted interviews, translated, and negotiated access to monuments and the anniversary celebrations.

“We must have looked like a funny duo,” Bender recalls. “I don’t speak Russian, so I would set up, make myself as unobtrusive as possible, and film everything. Meanwhile, Max was talking to people, pumping them for information, and working to get us closer to the action. We were lucky to have great access to all the events taking place.”

In their approach to filming, Bender and Pozdorovkin drew on the work of Russian documentary filmmaker Dziga Vertov. Vertov felt that film should record “life caught unawares,” or the spirit of the city through the activities of its citizens.

“We were eager to look at the development of the city as an overarching process, but we also wanted to find individual stories within that process which speak to the character of the place, its movement and complexity,” Bender says.

One story line in “Capital” focuses on the tour staff at the Palace for Peace and Concord, designed by British architect Norman Foster. Inside, tourists can see a small-scale model of the future city and climb to the top of the pyramidal building to see its current layout. A photographer who works in front of the palace sums up the spirit of Astana:

“That used to be a field where I picked potatoes,” he says, pointing to the palace. “Now Astana is a pearl in the steppe.”

Bender and Pozdorovkin hope the film will correct misperceptions about Kazakhstan.

“Central Asia remains relatively unknown to the rest of the world,” says Pozdorovkin. “One of the most interesting things about editing the film has been confronting the default assumptions people have about the region.”

“We did have to put up with a lot of ‘Borat’ jokes,” he adds with a chuckle, referring to Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy film about a fictive Kazakh journalist.

“I hope that viewers will walk away with a sense of place, and an idea for the variety of different relationships people can have to a city,” says Bender. “It is fascinating to consider how citizens respond to, contribute to, critique, or support the project of the city which is really also the project of building the nation.”