Leaving behind a prominent position as government official, Sadyk Sher-Niyaz
decided to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming a filmmaker. Exchanging stability for the turbulent world of entertainment was certainly a bold move from this strong-willed artist with a specific vision of what his country’s cinema could be. This country is Kyrgyzstan, a Central Asian republic that found independence after collapse of the Soviet Union. Despite being under Russian control for most of its recent history, Kyrgyz people managed to preserve their culture and traditions intact. Kurmankan Datka was among the historical figures that played a role in their survival, thus she is revered as the mother of all Kyrgyz people.
Making a film of such magnitude without any precedent in the local film industry was an enormous challenge on its own. Furthermore, making a film about such a beloved figure was a risky choice. It needed to be great both artistic quality and historical accuracy. Knowing this, Sadyk Sher-Niyaz
started this journey that has now taken him across the world to Hollywood and to represent his homeland in the race for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Support for the film has poured both from audiences as well as important industry figures. A few weeks a go at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, the film screened to a full house of expectant attendees. The film was introduced by Sharon Stone
, who spoke about the role of strong women both on and off screen. Her genuine support for the film definitely reflects the quality of this epic production.
Dir. Sadyk Sher-Niyaz
sat with us recently in Los Angeles to discuss his unique path to becoming a director and the game-changing milestone that “Kurmanjan Datka
: Queen of the Mountains” represents both for him and Kyrgyzstan.
: Queen of the Mountains” is Kyrgyzstan's official submission for Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Category, and it qualifies for all other major races.
Read: Review *“Kurmanjan Datka
: Queen of the Mountains”Carlos Aguilar
: This is your first feature film, but before becoming a filmmaker you had other responsibilities in the Kyrgyz government. At what point did you decide that you wanted to make films? What was the turning point?Sadyk Sher-Niyaz
: That’s a really good question. No one had asked me that in that way. I was a politician in Kyrgyzstan until 2004. Before that I was entirely involved in politics. In 2004 I was elected as a deputy ombudsman to work in human rights protection, which is a very importance position to hold. However, ever since I was a child it was my dream to become a director, but I had never had the possibility to do so until I was 38-years-old. I worked as deputy ombudsman for about a year, but I couldn’t stop thinking about directing, which was what I really wanted to do. At some point I told myself “If I don’t start making films right now I will never have a chance to do it.” At 38 I felt I had to start my career as a director. This was a very radical choice. I had found success as a politician, but I always knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I knew that if I didn’t take this chance I would regret it for the rest of my life.
When I decided to leave my position in the government, the parliament didn’t want tot let me go. It took them six months to finally allow me to go. I left my job and went to Moscow to take directing and cinematography courses. However, when I left I hadn’t gotten accepted into the university. It would have been smarter for me to make sure I had place in the classes before quitting my job [Laughs]. In the end I was accepted to one of the best Russian universities and then I decided to also take courses to learn about producing besides directing and cinematography. I was 38 when I started this journey.
Aguilar: Why did you decide to take on such a huge production for your debut feature? This certainly seems like a risky choice for a first time director to make.Sadyk Sher-Niyaz
: A lot of directors in my country would have been honored to make this film, but the problem was that the budget was very limited even if was the largest budget anyone in Kyrgyzstan has ever had. This story is of course very important for our nation, but not all the directors were willing to take on this responsibility. It’s a great responsibility and it would have changed anyone’s life negatively if it were not a success. I saw it as a great opportunity and I was also very honored. I decided to take this chance regardless of the risk.
To be honest, few people believed this would be a successful project. The main reason was our limited budget. Added to this, we don’t have a lot of professional actors in our country because since our independence from the Soviet Union our acting school has weakened in quality. Nevertheless, “ Kurmanjan Datka
: Queen of the Mountains” has been the #1 film at the local box-office for 11 consecutive weeks beating American blockbusters like “Interstellar” and “Gone Girl
.” It was very complicated to make it happen, but fortunately it has been successful. We’ve had screenings for Kyrgyz communities in different countries such as Russia, Turkey, or Canada and the theaters are always packed with people. Our people have fallen in love with the film and it has in a way united our nation.
Aguilar: Were you afraid of the outcome and how it would impact your career?Sadyk Sher-Niyaz
: Fear is a normal condition. If someone doesn’t have any fears then he is just a fool because fear pushes you to do something new. You should always have a normal amount of fear. You just need to find the strength to continue and overcome it.
Aguilar: Tell me about the process of finding the right actress to play this iconic character in Kyrgyzstan’s history.Sadyk Sher-Niyaz
: Finding the actress to play young Kurmanjan was the most important part because the story concentrates mostly on that period in the character’s life. I wasn’t as worried about the older actresses because they have experience working in our country. The casting process for older Kurmanjan wasn’t as complex because I knew whom I wanted. On the other hand, I was very worried about finding the young actress. There were about 200 professional actresses and about 300 non-professional actresses who showed up for the casting call. They ranged from 20 to 35-yeard-old. Every single young actress in our country, 100% of them, auditioned to play this part.
Aguilar: Having so many choices with a wide range in terms of age and experience lever, how did you know who was the ideal candidate to play the coveted part?Sadyk Sher-Niyaz
: Strategically it was very difficult because all four actresses playing Kurmanjan needed to look similar. There needed to be something that all four of them shared in terms of appearance. Then, the young actress needed to work well with all the other major characters. In a sense it was like playing Chinese chess and trying to match the right actress with the right cast. Some actresses were good in some regards but not great in others, Elina Abai Kyzy
was the ideal actress. Even height was taken into consideration because we wanted someone who would be imposing. She was perfect in all departments.
Aguilar: Representing your country at the Academy Awards must be an incredible experience for you, particularly with a film like “Kurmanjan Datka
: From the beginning one of my intents was to try to get the film to compete for the Oscar. We finished shooting the film at the end of August 2013 and by the time we were done with the film it was too late to submit it to festivals. We also didn’t know if most festivals would like a film like this - a Hollywood-style epic story. I didn’t submit the film to many festivals, but I always wanted to represent Kyrgyzstan at the Oscars. I hope American audiences appreciate and like the film. I’m very honored and proud to represent my country.
Aguilar: Given the importance that this period in history for country, how important was for you to strive for historical accuracy?Sadyk Sher-Niyaz
: People in Kyrgyzstan know this chapter in our history very well. It would have been almost impossible for people to accept it if it wasn’t based on real and objective facts. Therefore, all the elements in the film are based on factual information from archives. We had a lot of help from historians. Since we were dealing with the subject of our relationship with Tsarist Russia we needed every detail to be based on the truth. It would have been dangerous and not right to show this part of history in a non-objective manner. Everything was thoroughly checked.
Aguilar: It seems like your film comes at a time in which Russia’s relationship with other ex-Soviet states, such as Ukraine, is not very diplomatic.Sadyk Sher-Niyaz
: A lot of people see a parallel between these historical events and Russia’s current relationships with countries like Ukraine. I finished my film at the end of 2013 and most of the recent developments in the region hadn’t happened yet. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that something like this is happening in our time. History is always repeating itself.
Aguilar: Given the historical scope of your film, are there any filmmakers that have influenced you or that you admire?Sadyk Sher-Niyaz
: I really like David Lean
’s great historical films, and I also like Mel Gibson
’s films as a director. Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky
is one of my favorites even though most of his films were experimental. He was great at making great historical films his own way such as “Ivan's Childhood
Aguilar: Do you hope that the work you are doing to bring exposure to your film and Kyrgyz culture will bring more opportunities for other filmmakers in your country?Sadyk Sher-Niyaz
: I’m the first Kyrgyz filmmaker to be involved in the campaigning process here in Los Angeles. I try to show my film as much as possible and represent my country here. I’m paving the way in a sense. In the future hopefully it will be easier for other Kyrgyz directors to get their films seen.
We also have a film festival in Kyrgyzstan and I’m one of the organizers. The festival is called “Kyrgyzstan- the Country of Short Films. ” We hand our own awards there as well. Between 50 and 60 films of different lengths are made in Kyrgyzstan every year, which shows the government is very interested in the development of the local film industry. They are also interested in bringing more films from around the world to be shown in Kyrgyzstan.
Aguilar: It was a very pleasant surprised to see that in your film the heroic character is a strong female leader. Most films of this nature always focus on a traditional male hero.Sadyk Sher-Niyaz
: We need to talk about strong women and to show them on the screen. My grandmother raised me, and later in life I spent more time with my mother than with my father. The role of women, not only in Kyrgyzstan but also in the whole world, is very important and we need to acknowledge that.
Aguilar: How much were the local people involved in the production of your film?Sadyk Sher-Niyaz
: Around 10,000 local people were involved in the making of the film. Half of them were volunteers who just wanted to help with the film. There are several battle sequences in the film and there were about 700 people involved in them. Some of the volunteers could only help us for one day. The next day we had a different group of people as extras in those scenes, and that’s how a more and more people got involved [Laughs].
Aguilar: I know that Alexander Rodnyansky
, who produced “Leviathan
” was your mentor. Is interesting that both of you have a film in this race.Sadyk Sher-Niyaz
: Yes, Alexander Rodnyansky
produced Russia’s Oscar entry “Leviathan
” and he was in fact my mentor. He was a great teacher. Everything I’m doing now I do it according to his teachings
Aguilar: After the incredible success of this film, what are your plans for the future? Are you working in a new project?Sadyk Sher-Niyaz
: We are working on a sequel. I’m planning to make a trilogy about this period in our history. After Kurmanjan Datka
’s death there was a period of time in which Kyrgyz people rebelled against Tsarist Russia because they refused to participate in World War I. Tsarist Russia punished them for this and thousands of innocent people were killed. About 30% of Kyrgyz people escaped to China during this time and their descendants live in China to this day. It was an enormous tragedy for our nation.
Aguilar: Lastly, tell me about your experience in Los Angeles. I know that your company now has permanent offices here. Seems like the film has been an absolute game changer for you and the Kyrgyz film industry.Sadyk Sher-Niyaz
: It’s been a great experience. A month ago we were completely foreign tot the process and how things work here in L.A. Thanks to several great people that have helped us along the way we’ve learned a lot. This film has united out country just like Kurmanjan did back then. Without her our nation would have been lost without a trace. She saved out country from disappearing in history.