Check out photo albums and accounts from Lisa Olken's travels abroad on her five city tour for "Urban Rez" in Kazakhstan. 

The Power of Documentaries

After the screenings, people have come up to me and told me that the film touched their soul. They have cried while watching Urban Rez. People have felt a strong affinity with American Indians. They have thanked me over and over again for reflecting back their culture by illustrating someone else's. They are grateful. I am grateful. We hold each other’s hand and we thank each other for sharing our stories with one another.

My visit to Kazakhstan over these three weeks has had a profound effect on me as a person and as a documentary filmmaker.

Stories with compelling characters, drama, conflict and triumph--- these are the types of stories that Rocky Mountain PBS tells best. Stories of diversity. Stories that reflect our personal victories fought and won. At its best, documentaries illustrate universal feelings, behaviors and beliefs that others can identify with, even from the other side of the world.

Documentaries are not journalism. They can be journalistic when based in fact, but documentaries move people beyond the numbers and facts, beyond the news reports of what happened and when it happened. Documentaries are creative interpretations of reality. They use fiction techniques to tell seemingly small stories that are actually part of a much larger story.

Documentaries take people where they have never been and show people something that they would never see. They allow people the chance to meet other people that they would never meet and they show the world from somebody else's perspective. They touch people in ways that are profound and immeasurable.

And that's what I love about non-fiction storytelling. Whether they are mini-documentaries for Arts District, our award winning, weekly arts and culture series, or longer form docs, such as Red Power Energy - my current film about energy independence and tribal sovereignty through the lens of tribal energy development - documentaries are a mirror into our souls. Well told, documentaries can have immense universal appeal, and resonate far beyond their borders. They are larger stories, told through personal experiences. Documentaries are visual poems that uniquely illustrate just how similar we all really are.


Kasteev Art Museum

The Kasteev Art Museum has the largest collection of decorative and fine art in all of Kazakhstan. These photos illustrate the Soviet style of painting, which like the outdoor murals I showed in past blogs, depicts sturdy, hardworking people working for a common goal. I’m also including pics of quilted wall hangings, contemporary art and realistic depictions of everyday life.

The graphic paintings with the different shapes are prime examples of Russian Constructionism. You can see similarities between some of the paintings I have included as well as Chagall or Kandinsky because these artists were contemporaries. Look at the painting of daily life depicting the drying of little white balls on the wooden table. This is kurt- salted cottage cheese balls. They are a traditional Kazakh food, and even though I love cottage cheese... and salt, kurt is actually quite sour and I am definitely not a fan.

Karaganda Regional Museum

Karaganda's regional museum of history and ethnography included examples from the Bronze Age as well as the inside of their infamous yurts. Yurts were the homes of the nomadic Kazakhstanis who roamed the Steppe, much like many of the Plains Indians in America. The Golden Man is a national treasure and is depicted everywhere around the country in various forms. He was found in an archeological dig with large quantities of gold artifacts surrounding him for the afterlife. However, it is rumored that the Golden Man is most likely a woman!

Street Scenes in Almaty

I shot these street scenes in my fourth city, Almaty. It is by far the warmest city yet, with abundant sunshine and an autumn climate. I've actually met several Colorado folks here; some are Americans working for the State Department or teaching English, but I've also met local Kazakhs who have been to Colorado. One petroleum engineer student is applying to the School of Mines in Golden!

Metal Work

Kazakhstan is the most economically stable country in all of Central Asia, and is the only post-Soviet country who can claim that they have all the periodic table elements! They also claim fame to the apple and the tulip, both of which originated here!

With Russia to its north, China to its east, and a whole host of unstable governments to its south, Kazakhstan is the beacon of hope between the bear and the dragon. 

It’s also a country of coal miners and iron workers. The iron gates, grates and fences are amazing

The Russian Orthodox Church & Green Market

This Russian Orthodox Church is the second tallest all wooden structure in the world. Services were being held while we were there. The choirs sang so beautifully, so magnificently, that I was mesmerized into simply standing there, listening to the angelic, chanting voices. It was meditative and exhilarating at the same. We also went to Green Market, where I tried their sensational whipped honey, and saw fresh meat, vegetables, fruits and other local offerings. 

Lenin & the Palace of Metallurgy

Here are photos of the Palace of Metallurgy with the original architecture, chandeliers and parquet floors. This building was built by Japanese prisoners of war. The building is under renovation by Miras University, where I presented Urban Rez and spoke to many international students and teachers.

There's an obvious conflicted relationship that the Kazakhstan people feel towards the Soviet Union. Lenin and Stalin offered hope for many improvised impoverished people, at in the beginning... however, mostly their regimes destroyed cultures, ethnic languages, and imprisoned many, many creative, innocent and intellectual people. In Karaganda, the 3rd city I visited, there was a work camp/death prison called 'Wives of Traitors'.

This is, of course, a very simple explanation but it prefaces these photos. This huge Lenin statue is the last remaining Lenin statue in the southern city of Shymkent. I am near the Uzbekistan border. Shymkent is a very Kazakh city so they speak Kazakh much more than Russian. In fact, I have learned how to say Hello and Thank You in Kazakh as well as Russian.

Soviet Influence

The Republic of Kazakhstan recieved its independence in 1991 when the Soviet Union broke apart, so much of the art and architecture still reflects Mother Russia. 

American Corners

The American Corner is a place for locals to learn about the United States. They have English classes, libraries and many different activities that help Kazakstani residents understand our country. I have met with young people in American Corners in each of the five cities I have visited. They are very interested to know about the film, Urban Rez, and about the lives of Native Americans. It has been especially rewarding to visit with young filmmakers, as well as TV professionals, to share ideas about storytelling and exchange cultural attitudes about media.

I've also been interviewed on live radio shows, newspapers, magazines, and television. Posing next to me in the selfie is Drew Peterson, U.S. Embassy Cultural Affairs Officer.

Kazakhstan Cuisine

Like other ancient and rich cultures, Kazakhstan's traditional foods come from the available resources, plants, herbs and animals that surrounded the country in the harsh landscape of the Steppe region. Kazakhstanis were also nomadic like many American Indian Plains tribes who followed the great bison herds. Flying from Asatana to Kostanay reminded me of flying over eastern Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas. Here, the nomads were divided into 3 main jüz: the junior jüz, middle jüz and great jüz, pronounced Ghooz. They see themselves as descendants from the Mongols. They were also an oral tradition, same as Native Americans.

For Kazakh people, the meat delicacy is horse meat and the most traditional meal is Beshbarmak. Since they moved around a lot and couldn't carry utensils, they ate with their hands, hence the word "besh" meaning five fingers. I tried the horse meat, which is as delicious as brisket, which I love. I also drank horse milk and horse broth; both of which are acquired tastes, one is very sour and the other is very gamey.

Urban Rez Screening and Master Classes at Kaz Media Center

700 people attended the screening of Urban Rez and Buck at the Kaz Media Center in the capital city of Astana. This was the largest event ever hosted by the US embassy in Kazakhstan. Besides meeting with many local citizens, I met ambassadors from such countries as Czechoslovakia, France, and Lebanon. Other diplomats include the World Bank and the Pope's representative.

I am shown posing in front of the AFS banner with fellow filmmaker envoy Andrea Meditch. The photo of me sitting is with my marvelous interpreter, Olga, who also worked with me during my daily master classes teaching filmmaking techniques.

The last couple of pictures include both young students studying filmmaking as well as adults working at the Kaz Media Center. Kaz Media houses all media such as newspapers, local TV and radio. All media in Kazakhstan is controlled by the government and everything is censored. During these master classes, people wanted to know about American cinema and media, what if anything is censored, how films are made, who gives the 'orders' to have films and television programs made, and how much money people make producing films. While there is filmmaking in Kazakhstan, the vast majority are fiction films. There is not a history of documentary filmmaking, which is why people are so hungry for the AFS screenings and master classes in their city. 

Städel Art Museum

On my layover to Central Asia, I toured the Städel art museum in Frankfurt, Germany. To avoid allied bombings during World War II, the collections were sent to Bavaria where they were discovered by the men of the Monuments Men.

I viewed the magnificent paintings and sculptures from Rodin, Monet, Rembrandt, Picasso and Renoir- these pics are from their contemporary art collection.

The Madona painting a juxtaposition of consumer society and religious iconography while the Victor Vasarely piece is a stunning example of painting over and around photographic parts and pieces.

The chairs in the curtained roomed were quite intriguing. On all four walls, what looked to be floor to ceiling curtains was really just painted to look like curtains! It was a serene place be and very memorable.

City Sites of Astana, Kazakhstan

Astana is like peacock, proudly strutting its vibrant and bizarre architectural feathers like a beacon in the cold tundra. This was barely a city fifteen years ago when the president made it the country's capital. While it loudly proclaims its Las Vegas city in the night status, the architecture during in the daytime is equally impressive. Many of these structures were designed by international architects.

Also pictured is the largest mosque in central Asia, the Hazret Sultan Mosque. It has a capacity of up to 10,000 people. However, the country is rather secularized, and not at all religious so even though three quarters of the population identify with Muslim, the capacity has never been tested. There are many animal motifs and traditional Kazakh symbols which would never be allowed in an Islam worshipped mosque. The red ropes define the boundaries of where men worship, which is the interior, and where the touring public are allowed, which is outside the ropes. The women pray upstairs or behind a screen.

Kazakh National University of Arts

At the Kazakh National University of Arts in Astana, we spoke with first year students studying filmmaking, documentary photography, directing and cinematography. We had interpreters who translated Russian to English and English to Russian. The students asked thought provoking questions such as: can we believe documentaries? How does the director influence the facts? Isn't making fiction films easier because nonfiction films simply portray reality? My favorite question was: Why aren't American Indians or Native Americans not called Native Indians because this term seems truer to fact?  

They teach many cultural disciplines beside filmmaking, such as ballet, choreography, music, painting, and visual arts. They are using their traditional textiles of wool and felt and re-imagining it into new art forms. Felt is an ancient textile that has been used for thousands of years. Astana is in southwest Siberia so it gets extremely cold and there is actually tundra in the soil here. The south of Kazakhstan is a bit warmer than here up north.

Press for Urban Rez's International Tour

Read the full release here.

Read the Denver Post article announcing the tour here

Read the article featured in the Astana Times (the capital of Kazakhstan) here

Read the Caravan's article, a Kasakhstan publication here

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2013 Winner

of the Heartland Chapter Emmy Award

for Best Cultural Documentary





Selected for the 2014 American Film Showcase cultural exchange program in Kazakhstan.

Executive producer and director, Lisa Olken embarked on a five city tour to promote the film as well as represent Colorado and America as an ambassador. Explore her tour here! 

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Moses Brings Plenty: Representing for 'Urban Rez'

Brings Plenty took a few moments to speak with ICTMN about his participation in the film and the effects it had on him as an artist and a Native person. Click here for the full story.