The Saga of Chengiz Aytmatov

From the 4th Eurasia International Film Festival in Almaty, Kazakhstan

When Chengiz Aytmatov went onstage in the spacious Palace of the Republic in Almaty at the

closing gala of the 4th Eurasia International Film Festival (23-29 September 2007) to receive

an honorary award from the Kazakh government, he was greeted with a standing ovation. And,

indeed, the applause was well deserved.

For the 78-year-old Kyrgys writer-diplomat is revered throughout Central Asia not only as a

gifted storyteller whose heartrending novella Jamila (published in 1958) was praised by

Louis Aragon as “the world’s most beautiful love story,” but also as the first Kyrgys

Ambassador to Luxembourg and the European Union in Brussels.

Moreover, during the high-water mark of the Khrushchev “thaw” (1956-65), when Chengiz

Aytmatov was appointed head of the Kyrgyzfilm Studio in Frunze (today Biskek), he fostered

there a path-breaking “director’s cinema” that helped revolutionize Soviet cinematography

altogether.How Chengiz Aytmatov accomplished this rather extraordinary feat still

 boggles the imagination today. But for the newly appointed studio head, it simply

meant sustaining a fading nomadic culture while fostering a native film tradition.

The story goes like this.

Upon receiving the 1963 Lenin Prize for Literature for his Tales of the Mountains

and the Steppes, and backed by a film studio ready and willing to do his bidding,

Chengiz Aytmatov had invited a talented 22-year-old student from the Moscow

Film School (VGIK) to direct the studio’s first film production.

Larisa Shepitko had sent him a script based on his own “Camel’s Ear” story

in the Tales of the Mountains and the Steppes collection. Aytmatov liked it and invited

 her to shoot the film on actual locations in Kyrgyzstan. Upon completion her

Heat (1963) seemed assured of instant success with the Central Asian public

by the very fact that this was the first production of its kind. But it hardly sat well

with the Soviet censors in Moscow for any number of reasons. Aytmatov, however,

as the film’s responsible producer, had held a hidden card up his sleeve.

Recognizing that Heat had challenged the then-sacrosanct principles of socialist

realism, he arranged for the film to be shown first at the 1963 Festival of Central

Asian Films in Dushambe, the capital of neighboring Tajikistan. There, as expected,

a release certificate was granted, and the film cleared for exhibition at least in the

Central Asian republics, if not throughout the Soviet Union.

Recognition in Dushambe, in turn, encouraged Kirghizfilm to enter Heat in 1964

at the First All-Union Soviet Film Festival in Leningrad, where it was awarded the

Prize for Best Direction. That same year, Heat was invited to the Karlovy Vary

International Film Festival, where the film and Kyrgys cinema were each hailed

as a phenomenon on the world film stage.

Following the success of Larisa Shepitko’s Heat at the Leningrad All-Union

festival, Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky, her colleague at the Moscow Film

School, also journeyed to Kyrgyzstan to direct his first feature film. And, of

course, Konchalovsky’s The First Teacher (1964) was based on another

Chengiz Aytmatov story, published under the same title in 1962.

When the film finally received Soviet permission to be screened at the

1966 Venice International Film Festival, Natalya Arinbasarova, in the role

of the “first teacher,” was awarded the Volpi Prize for Best Actress. It was

the second major Soviet film success at Venice, following a share of the

Golden Lion awarded to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood in 1962.

Thus, although the Khrushchev “thaw” was finished, a core of “Young

Soviet Directors” were to make the phrase a catchword at international

film festivals — thanks to the foresight of writer-producer Chengiz Aytmatov.


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