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Tokyo’s All-Woman Crew Kazakh True Story ‘Madina’ Smashes Patriarchy: ‘We Face Sexism on a Daily Basis’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Aizhan Kassymbek’s Kazakh film “Madina,” world premiering at the Tokyo International Film Festival’s Asian Future strand, aims to shatter patriarchy both on and off screen.

On screen, the film is based on the real life story of Kassymbek’s friend Madina Akylbek, who also plays the lead role. Set in the harsh Kazakhstan winter, the film follows single mother, dancer and breadwinner Madina, who struggles to take care of her old grandmother, a withdrawn younger brother and a two-year-old daughter. As she fights for alimony and battles the demands of a wealthy admirer, her brother shares a harsh shocking revelation about his childhood. Madina discovers within her a resilience and courage to tell the truth.

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“My intent in making a film on Madina’s story was to share the vulnerability and insecurity she as a woman internalizes. How fear makes it difficult for her to express and share problems,” Kassymbek told Variety. “I have further layered the story with themes of dysfunction and sexual violence perpetrated against minors. Regardless of age, gender, and social status, anyone can become a victim of sexual abuse. While scripting, I did not imagine how deep were the wounds I was trying to open.”

Akylbek added: “Initially, I was apprehensive, as the wounds were still fresh. My daughter was only two years old, and I was attempting to establish contact with her father to secure child support. My relationship with my family was strained, and I had little experience as an actress.”

“Playing the character of Madina felt cathartic. It instigated healing for me, allowing me to confront my pain and set it free,” Akylbek said. “Prior to this project, I had never worked with an author or director. The pre-production phase was extensive and meticulous, and I invested a lot of effort into preparation. Aizhan insisted that I remove all makeup, interact with my daughter and relive each scene and painful moment from my place of lived experiences.”

Behind the camera, Kassymbek shot the film with an all-woman crew, as she did with her debut feature “Fire” (2021), which premiered at Busan. “I’m tired of seeing how a Kazakh woman is represented in cinema. Disconnected from reality, the eternal image of a kind mother and a submissive daughter-in-law, the woman is more like a beautiful prop. To stand aside and be an observer meant the same as keeping silent — just like sexual victims’ relatives. On my journey as a writer-director, I met very young girls and women who share my mission and vision. To tell our stories in the most authentic way we joined forces and made two features, being the first all-female crew to work together in Kazakhstan. We face sexism on a daily basis, trying to prove our ability to make films and compete with men in the arena,” Kassymbek said.

“However, it’s important to note that this doesn’t mean I exclusively collaborate with women. We have incredibly talented male colleagues who are more than willing to assist us without preconceived notions,” Kassymbek added.

“Madina” is produced by Kassymbek and co-produced by Abid Aziz Merchant for Sanat Initiative (2020 SXSW title “I’ll Meet You There”). “Aizhan’s succinct pitch ‘a film portraying the life of a single mother trapped in monotony, who uncovers a family secret that shatters her existence,’ instantly captivated me and piqued my interest in the project. Following just one Zoom meeting, I was certain that I wanted to be part of this endeavor. Aizhan’s clear vision and unwavering determination were so evident that it took me only a day to make the decision to wholeheartedly support her and the project,” Merchant told Variety.

Merchant showed a rough cut of the film to Apoorva Bakshi, producer of International Emmy winner “Delhi Crime,” with whom he was collaborating on another project and she boarded “Madina” as an executive producer, as part of her Awedacious Originals slate.

“Freshly story-engineered, the story of ‘Madina’ is strikingly empowering. Our future plans for the film include a substantial festival presence, worldwide sales and distribution and an awards campaign aimed at celebrating the film’s excellence and contribution to the world of cinema,” Bakshi told Variety. “Aizhan’s journey from scripting to post, braving the volatile political climate in Kazakhstan has been nothing short of extraordinary, which makes this a first from the region.”

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