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Dark comedy exposes absurd reality of Kazakh state media

Dark comedy “Bikechess,” based on real news reports from Kazakhstan, won Best International Narrative Feature at New York City’s annual Tribeca Festival.
Dark comedy “Bikechess,” based on real news reports from Kazakhstan, won Best International Narrative Feature at New York City’s annual Tribeca Festival.

A bored policeman sits at a table in an empty parking lot to showcase the government’s helpfulness; an entourage assembles rabbits and saplings to stage a photo op for a governor who never arrives; a distinguished national scholar claims that all life on Earth originated precisely in his country.

These scenes from the award-winning dark comedy “Bikechess” sound absurd, but director Assel Aushakimova based them on real news reports from her home country, Kazakhstan.

Even the title of the film, which won Best International Narrative Feature at New York City’s annual Tribeca Festival, is based on a real-life event: the Kazakhstan Chess Federation in 2019 announced a new sport in which chess players compete while on exercise bikes.

Aushakimova’s narrative follows Dina, an ambitious journalist who finds herself covering increasingly absurd stories while attempting to keep her feminist activist sister out of trouble.

Balancing precariously between the comic, awkward, and tragic, “Bikechess” touches on corruption, police brutality, LGBTQ+ rights, and the state of journalism not only in Kazakhstan but across the post-Soviet space.

Director Assel Aushakimova
Director Assel Aushakimova

With a ranking of 142 out of 180 on the World Press Freedom Index, independent media in Kazakhstan have limited ability to work, according to Reporters Without Borders.

“Wrecked by a succession of repressive reforms since 1997, the media landscape is now essentially a propaganda outlet for the Kazakh regime,” the watchdog reports.

Aushakimova’s work highlights this repressive environment and has in turn been impacted by it.

The director’s first feature, “Welcome to the USA,” was restricted in Kazakhstan and received only limited screenings, with an adult rating due to the inclusion of a brief kiss between women.

“Bikechess” also deals with LGBTQ+ themes, which Aushakimova said means there is little chance of it being screened in Kazakhstan, let alone receiving government funding.

“We now have very homophobic rhetoric and a lot of talk about traditional values,” Aushakimova told the audience during a Q&A at the Tribeca screening. “The Ministry of Culture will not grant permission to screen films in Kazakhstan if they contain any offense to traditional values, or any political statements.”

While there are no direct political statements in “Bikechess,” the film’s deadpan satire offers an unsparing portrait of Kazakh life.

Government initiatives are presented as empty public stunts that fail to address citizens’ actual needs, nonconforming youth are treated cruelly, and police ineptitude quickly turns from comical to malevolent.

The Soviet legacy remains ever-present throughout the film, seen in the barely changed official titles and the stilted formality of bureaucratic interactions. And the character of Dina herself, portrayed by Kazakh actor Saltanat Nauruz, is not a heroic figure but one who has become inured to the compromises required to get ahead.

“A lot of people in Kazakhstan make compromises,” said Aushakimova, “and this is the kind of conformism that has led us to the state we find ourselves in.”

The film’s script was mostly written prior to January 2022, when nationwide unrest in Kazakhstan was put down with the help of Russian military intervention, shortly before the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

But while Aushakimova is clear that Kazakhstan’s problems go further back, the impact of recent events has been felt as the government in the capital, Astana, takes its cues from Moscow.

“What’s happening now is copied directly from Russia’s Cinema Fund, likely because of the war in Ukraine,” she said in an interview with the Kazakh magazine Vlast. “‘Law and order,’ ‘family values’ – these themes are taken straight from the Russian repertoire.”

“Bikechess” has relied on Norwegian and French financing for its distribution. Producer Antoine Simkine connected with Aushakimova via the Istanbul Film Festival’s “Meetings on the Bridge” platform and helped bring the film to the United States.

“What interests me is when a film carries something beyond its local context,” Simkine told VOA “In this specific case, Dina's efforts to cope with the absurdity of her mission reflect the current situation in countries like Kazakhstan. However, the film also illustrates how totalitarianism works.”

Following the film’s premiere at Tribeca, Aushakimova has her sights set on the festival circuit. And while she would like to one day screen the film in Kazakhstan, she admits the chances are slim.

According to the filmmaker, the situation can only improve with a change of government cultural policy oriented away from Russia or the development of private film funds. Until then, she will continue her work as best as she can.

“My dream would be to write a comedy script, completely apolitical. But I haven’t been able to do it so far – everywhere I look, politics intrudes, because I follow everything that’s happening in Kazakhstan.”