The Boy Band That Rocked Kazakhstan

Application deadline: 
January 18, 2021

Film documents backlash against Central Asian musical act and potential for reconciliation.

Face The Music, a documentary film following the story of Ninety One, a wildly popular K-pop inspired band in Kazakhstan that challenged social mores with their dyed hair, makeup and piercings, was released on YouTube January 5 and already has over 150,000 views. It was screened in cinemas in Kazakhstan in summer 2019 to packed houses, with the band’s young fans often bringing their sceptical parents along to show them what all the fuss is about.

The film, which was supported by the Prague Civil Society Centre, is not just about a pop band. It addresses deeper questions of ethnic and gender identity, what defines culture and how it can be preserved without petrifying for lack of fresh influences.

“I like subjects in my films that connect people”, said Face The Music director Katerina Suvorova, a filmmaker from Kazakhstan. “In Kazakhstan people tend to live in bubbles. In this film we were especially trying to build bridges between Russian speakers and Kazakh speakers, and between younger and older generations”.

Formed in 2014, Ninety One came together like most boy bands—by audition and under the careful direction of a producer. But unlike other manufactured pop acts, they had a higher goal in mind: to synthesise influences from Western and K-pop music with Kazakh language and culture to make a uniquely Kazakh modern musical style that’s come to be called Qazaq-pop or Q-pop.

Filmmaker Katerina Suvorova, director of Face The Music.

They wanted to promote the Kazakh language in particular by singing in their native tongue, which is only spoken by about 60 percent of the population in the former Soviet republic. Even their name, Ninety One, derives from the year Kazakhstan gained independence, and their fans call themselves Eaglez, a word play on the national animal. But their boosting of Kazakh national symbols didn’t prevent a backlash from the more conservative parts of society, who saw their slightly androgynous look, typical of pop artists around the world, as both unmanly and un-Kazakh. The band received death threats and even had to cancel some concerts when angry protesters showed up.

Through interviews with academics, fans of the band and their parents, and leaders of the protests, Katerina shows how the band’s debut on the scene in Kazakhstan launched new discussions, not only on gender norms and what it means to be Kazakh, but also on the importance of individual creative expression in a free society.

“There were a lot of threats, but then society had a dialog and hopefully came to an agreement”, said Ninety One’s producer Yerbolat Bedelkhan in the film. “I hope in ten years’ time, Q-pop will be a real musical genre, a subculture even”.

Katerina says that while the “dark water of intolerant, paternalistic thinking” about how people should dress and act is still present in Kazakhstan, the youth of the country are engaging with global culture and making it their own, and are ready to take their place in public life and have an influence on their country’s future.

“In the post-Soviet period young people were mostly a-political, but while making this film I could feel this shift taking place”, said Katerina. “Youngsters really want to take part in political decisions. They are more contemporary in their thinking than our political institutions”.

Katerina believes film is perfect medium for conveying these perspectives that most people would not otherwise encounter, and hopes to see more films made by local directors taking on social and cultural themes.

“That’s the real power of documentary film”, she says. “We can bring people into the darkness and calm of a theatre or their living room and show the experiences of people they would never speak with in real life. They see things are not black and white over a series of small moments in the glow of the screen”.

--Emily Thompson

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