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Kazakhstani Actress Wins Best Actress Award at 71st Cannes

By Aygul Ospanova May 22, 2018


Italian actress and activist Asia Argento (left), Kazakhstani actress Samal Yeslyamova, and American film director Ava DuVernay (right). / Alberto Pizzoli / AFP

Kazakhstani actress Samal Yeslyamova won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, the first time the coveted film prize was clinched by an actress from the Caspian region.

“Probably, I still have not realized that I won this award as it feels like a dream,” Yeslyamova said in an interview with “Vechernyaya Astana” newspaper on Sunday. These are pleasant feelings. Our crew sought to win the highest reward, and we did everything [to achieve] it.”

Though Yeslyamova faced stiff competition from the likes of Hollywood star Penelope Cruz (“Everybody Knows”) and Vanessa Paradis (“Knife + Heart”), her outstanding performance in the feature film “Ayka” proved undeniable to the jury of the prestigious film parade.

“The issue raised in the film is not ordinary. This is a psychological drama, and that is why the shooting was also difficult,” Yeslyamova added.

Directed by a Kazakhstani-born director representing Russia, Sergey Dvortsevoy, the film tells the story of Ayka, a young Kyrgyz woman who lives and illegally works in Moscow. After giving birth to a son, she leaves him in a hospital; after a while, her maternal instinct pushes her to go in search of her child.

Dvortsevoy took seven years to shoot the movie, while the idea came from a rather dry newspaper statistic on how many babies were given up by mothers from Kyrgyzstan in maternity hospitals in Moscow.

“I was in shock for a long time after reading this,” Dvortsevoy, told the organizers of the film festival, which was celebrating its 71st year. 

“What could be the reason behind Kyrgyz mothers voluntarily giving up their babies en masse, abandoning them in a foreign country? What could force them to commit such an act, unnatural for any woman, much less women from the intensely family-oriented cultures of Central Asia?”

Yeslyamova, now age 33, made her screen debut in “Tulpan,” Sergey Dvortsevoy’s award-winning film which premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. At the time of filming “Tulpan,” Yeslyamova was 19 years old and struggled to adjust to household chores and motherly duties required of her during the month she spent living in a nomadic yurt for the film shoot. In addition, she was the only actor on set without any previous professional experience.

This year’s Cannes Film Festival saw star Kate Blanchet leading the jury. Besides Yeslyamova, Italian actor Marcello Fonte took home a prize for his performance in “Dogman,” while “Shoplifters,” directed by Japanese Hirokazu Kore-eda, grabbed the Palme d’Or, considered the top prize overall.

A Special Palme d’Or was awarded to the “Image Book” movie directed by Jean-Luc Godard, a prolific French-Swiss film director, screenwriter and film editor.