• Golden Globe Awards

Shambala (Kyrgyzstan): In Conversation with Artykpai Suyundukov

The latest offering by filmmaker Artykpai Suyundukov, titled Shambala, is based on the 1970 novel, “The White Ship”, by Kyrgyz literary figure, Chingiz Aitmatov. The heartbreaking story chronicles the life of 8-year-old Shambala (Artur Amanaliev) who’s raised by his grandparents following the death of his mother and the absence of his father. Shambala lives in the harsh yet scenic Tengri mountains in Kyrgyzstan and must contend with challenges coming from nature itself while grappling with an uncertain future and a sadistic uncle. The film also combines spiritual, mystical and folklore elements which lift the harsh reality of Shambala’s existence.  
Suyundukov was born in the Kyrgyz Republic and Shambala marks his third feature film. Previously, he helmed over 15 documentaries and has appeared as an actor in the lead role in The Lake (2020), which received a nomination for Best Film (Asian New Talent) at the Shanghai International Film Festival. 
Congratulations on the film. Given that it was based on the book, “The White Ship”, can you talk about the changes you made from the film to the book?
The film’s plot, compared to the book, has been changed by almost 90%. The main theme – man and nature – has been preserved, although new storylines and ideas symbolizing the spiritual crisis in Kyrgyz society have been introduced. For example, the making of a yurt is considered to be a sacred ritual of Kyrgyz culture and history. The upper frame of the yurt (tundyuk), through which the sky is visible, is a symbol of the national flag of Kyrgyzstan. It collapses twice – the first time in an ancient myth and the second time in the imagination of the boy. The frame of the yurt is shown repeatedly during the film, making it an important symbol. It is the same with the hanging bridge over the river, where people used to walk to the mountain to make sacrifices and secret wishes. 
What is it about this story that struck a chord with you? Why did you want to make this film? 
I first read the novella “The White Ship” by Chingiz Aitmatov in 1973 in the magazine “Noviy Mir”, when I was a second-year student at the Institute of Cinematography in Moscow. The story aroused in me empathy and emotions, as well as memories from my childhood, which somehow echo the fate of the boy. The film is thus somewhat autobiographical.
The lead actor, Artur Amanaliev was incredible. How did you find him? Was it a big search to find the right boy or did you already know you were going to cast him?
We approved him for the role during the auditions, just before we started filming. At his audition, he caught my attention with a combination of non-childish seriousness and a sadness in his eyes. Yet at the same time, he was very mischievous! But what is most important here, is the similarity of the fate of the main actor and the fate of the boy from the story itself. In real life, Artur doesn’t know his biological father and lives with his mother and stepfather. Since childhood, he has been asking his mother about his biological father. He also spent 4 years in boarding school.
I know that you received the blessing of Chingiz Aitmatov to shoot the film, while other directors, such as Michelangelo Antonioni, were refused. What was this process like? What was in your vision that Aitmatov liked so much and he was glad of your continued work?
I believe it was my extraordinary and bold approach to the film. After all, almost all previous films based on Aitmatov’s works were adaptations. At first, he was stunned by the vision of the film, but he then gave his blessing. I decided on the concept and style of the film when I first started work on the screenplay – that is, to show and enhance the story through the eyes of a young boy, to immerse into his soul and allow the story to emphasize the primacy of image and sound.
Shambala believes in the myth of the Mother Deer – where do you stand on old beliefs and legends – do you think they’re just fairy tales or do you think there’s some truth to them?
To believe in or not to believe in fairy tales? Or “To be or not to be?” according to Hamlet’s monologue. I think that you need to believe in fairy tales, legends and myths to be a Human. The legends and myths have lived on to this day delighting, inspiring and bringing joy to our children and grandchildren. The legend of the horned Mother Deer, who saved the last baby during the invasion of enemies, and fed him with her milk, has been passed down throughout the generations. To this day there are hundreds of thousands of descendants of the Deer People living in Kyrgyzstan. And the scene from the film where the grandfather and the boy perform a prayer is not a set, but one of many real cemeteries with authentic deer antlers on the graves. We are extremely grateful to the world-famous American actor and philanthropist Leonardo DiCaprio who has helped to bring deer to Kyrgyzstan from other parts of the world.
There are many themes and messages from this movie but what would you like the audience to take away? Is there a main idea you would like to convey?
Every year humanity is getting poorer spiritually as people succumb to materialistic forces more and more each day. This leads to disharmony and disaster and the potential for a spiritual and physical apocalypse.
You have two acting credits with the most recent as the lead role in 2020s The Lake – you came to acting quite late – what prompted you to jump in front of the camera?
I don’t consider myself to be actor. It was my colleagues who persuaded me to act in their films. I became motivated to do this due to the fact that they originally wrote the role for me. And I felt it would be rude to refuse them.
It must be very difficult coming from Kyrgyzstan to pursue the type of career you’ve been so successful in – what advice would you give other aspiring artists from that part of the world?
It is different in every country. If talking to fellow countrymen, then again, I will use Hamlet’s monologue – “To be or not to be.” If you want to be, you must devote your whole life to this, despite all the difficulties, become a fanatic of your business and prepare for a half-starved existence. You should not think about the “beautiful” life.
I imagine you probably went through some difficult times in pursuing this line of profession – what kept you going through the hard times? Did you always have a lot of faith in your abilities that you would make it?
Difficult times have accompanied me throughout my whole life. So, I’m used to it. I definitely believed that I would be able to complete Shambala. It’s just a pity that I had to wait 30 years for it to happen.
What is your view of Hollywood and is it your goal to work in Hollywood at some point?
Hollywood is a miracle, a great dream factory, which spearheaded the very beginning of cinematography and is still at the forefront of filmmaking. All the great cinematographers of the world have studied and continue to learn from the Hollywood system. However, for me, working in Hollywood would be an impossible dream! It has taken me 30 years to make this film in Kyrgyzstan so how could I possibly make a film in Hollywood?!