Alla Verlotsky: 5/02/03

In January 2003 I found myself traveling to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, for the first time since leaving the Soviet Union almost twelve years earlier. This time, a colleague from the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Kent Jones, joined me to watch films, meet filmmakers and prepare for the upcoming retrospective of cinema from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

click to enlargeThe retrospective, "Films from Along the Silk Road." debuts May 2 at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater in New York, where it runs through May 29. After New York, the retrospective, encompassing 39 films, will go on a year-long tour of the United States and Canada.

While discussing the concept with Kent, we both decided not to cling to any agenda or theme, which sometimes curators tend to do. We were in for the best of what this cinematic tradition has to offer: its wealth and wisdom, beauty and passion, tragedies and dramas, failures and victories and, mainly, its people � the people who made and populate all these magnificent movies. For me, selecting films involved a very personal journey back to the countries and film communities that had forged my personal and professional path.

My late uncle, Leonid Verlotsky, was one of the major producers at Uzbekfilm Studio, and I had the good fortune of joining the formation of the phenomenal "Kazakh New Wave" during Perestroika, while I worked at the Filmmakers’ Union in Moscow. Americans can’t quite distinguish these communities yet, since these countries are sort of Russian, sort of Middle Eastern, and sort of Asian. But the September 11 events triggered a curiosity to understand them better as all of those "Stans" started appearing in the news headlines. The retrospective in New York City will present a question that has been basic to my work: what is the "Central Asian" identity in cinema, if it exists as a cohesive unit?

click to enlargeThe filmmaking traditions of the five Central Asian republics show some common elements and stark differences. Even before the Soviet Union took shape, lavish Uzbekistan was ahead of the other four countries in its acquaintance with cinema. Motion pictures were first shown in Tashkent in 1897, and Uzbekfilm Studio began work in 1924, charged with making "propaganda" films about the "free women of the East." These films aimed to encourage Islamic women to take off their veils, study in school and generally serve as useful Communists. They screened widely around the region, encountering particular resistance in their own country. It is no wonder that propaganda and indoctrination remained a focus of many great Uzbek film productions, among them Ali Charmer’s 1972 classic Without Fear, and Yusup Razikov’s sardonic Orator, made nearly three decades later in 2000.

Turkmenistan and Tajikistan both established film studios in 1926. Kazakhfilm followed in 1936 and Kyrgyzfilm began in 1942. In each country the first major film production was made by a Russian, not a local film director. Sovietization defined the region’s film communities for decades. Prior to World War II all the Soviet studios except Uzbekfilm were making documentaries to proclaim Communist ideas and to praise Joseph Stalin.

During the so-called "Great Patriotic War," all major film studios from Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev, as well as their filmmakers, were evacuated to the East. Such legends as Sergei Eisenstein worked at Kazakhfilm and others settled at Uzbekfilm. Émigré Russian directors thus influenced and stimulated the Eastern film industry. Also during the 1940s, collaboration among Central Asian, Russian and Ukrainian filmmakers produced some memorable films. One, an astonishing Uzbek production of a Romeo and Juliet story, will be featured in the series. This film, 1945’s Takhir and Zukhra, was directed by Nabi Ganiev, with cinematography by the great Daniil Dimutsky.

click to enlargeThe unforgettable 1960s brought the period of a "thaw" in the Soviet Union, with Premier Nikita Khrushchev bestowing "freedom of expression" on artists. The thaw encouraged many filmmakers to express individualistic visions. In so doing, it nurtured one of the most remarkable filmmakers of the region and of Soviet history: Kyrgyzstan’s Tolomush Okeev. The best Central Asian examples of this trend � Tenderness by Elyer Ishmukhamedov and Okeev’s There Are Horses and the Sky of our Childhood � will be part of the series. Okeev died in 2002, depriving Central Asian cinema of a great teacher, philosopher and father figure. The Kyrgyz Film Studio recently adopted his name, and our series will pay tribute to this great master as well.

The 1970s and early 1980s were challenging but rather productive. Waking up to a sudden change with Leonid Brezhnev’s "stagnation era," all Soviet filmmakers were forced to express their thoughts in a way that wouldn’t be obvious to censors. As a safe path, many channeled their energies into stories about establishing Communism in the region. Regardless of the main plot, you could read between the lines in these films and see an extreme and passionate resistance to the political course of the country. Most films showed the daily life of locals, like Okeev’s The Fierce One and The Daughter-in-Law, by Khodjakuli Narliev. The First Teacher by Andrey Konchalovsky and Without Fear, the Uzbekistani classic, are gems from this era.

After Perestroika, or restructuring, became state policy in 1986, I helped support the breakout of young filmmakers from throughout the region. Central Asian up-and-comers dominated even their Russian counterparts. The Needle, made in 1988 by young Kazakhstani Rashid Nugmanov, became a cult favorite and a cornerstone of the "Kazakh New Wave." Nugmanov presented a new Soviet hero, the Eastern-looking pop star Victor Tsoy, who captivated Western and Soviet audiences.

click to enlargeThe newly formed Association of Young and Independent Soviet Filmmakers, where I worked as an executive director at that time, put together a showcase of seven works by young filmmakers from Kazakhstan (The Last Stop by Serik Aprimov and Revenge by Ermek Shinarbaev are featured in the series), which were screened at the Moscow International Film Festival in 1989 and got invited to the influential Sundance Film Festival, in Colorado, in 1990. During Perestroika other young filmmakers made their first works and attracted attention on the festival circuits.

These international sensations included Bachtiar Hudoynazarov and Mairam Usupova of Tajikistan; Aktan Abdikalikov and Beyzhan Aidkuluev of Kyrgyzstan; Eduard Redzhepov, Murad Aliev and Usman Saparov of Turkmenistan; and Dzhanik Faisiev and Zulfikar Musakov of Uzbekistan. But just as such directors were gaining notoriety, the collapse of the Soviet system devastated Central Asian cinema very quickly. Suddenly there were no more state subsidies, no more Soviet agency in Moscow, promoting non-Russian films to Western festivals and distributors, and no film schools outside Kazakhstan for any Central Asian directors. (The former Soviet flagship film academy was now for Russians alone.)

The national film centers foundered. All major filmmakers left Tajikistan during its civil war; autocratic president Saparmurat Niyazov demolished Turkmenistan’s studio; and the stagnant Uzbekistani economy damaged the former dean of the region, Uzbekfilm. However, most filmmakers have stayed their home countries, even if many of them work in other businesses in order to raise their families. This enabled some positive developments to start taking place at the end of the 1990s. Resurgence became evident in Uzbekistan. After a long silence, Ali Khamraev came back to filmmaking. Films by Zulfikar Musakov drew intense recognition; Musakov became champion of domestic distribution and drew Japanese co-productions for his films. The films by Yusup Razikov, who also became a head of the Uzbekfilm Studio, are embraced by international festivals.

click to enlargeRazikov, whose Orator shows on the festival’s opening night, exhibits outstanding creative and personal dignity. His work is deeply rooted in these countries’ histories and traditions. He has become a powerful voice in regional film, calling to revive Uzbekistani cinema. Who knows? Maybe in five years the formerly legendary Tashkent International Film Festival, where as a girl I was introduced to celebrated Indian director Raj Kapur by my late uncle, will exist again.

In Kyrgyzstan, a true visionary named Tynay Ibragimov is rebuilding the film studio in more ways than one. He is renovating a recording studio, building a national film museum, and opening a tiny cozy restaurant on the premises of Kyrgyzfilm, where filmmakers could get together to share an inexpensive meal and chat. He is also actively seeking governmental support and trying to produce films by young filmmakers. At the same time, a spirited independent studio headed by Aktan Abdikalikov, called "Beshkempir," has exported Kyrgyzstan’s cinema to a United States distributor. (His film of the same name is part of the retrospective.)

Finally, Kazakhfilm Studio also shows signs of life. Foreign investors in Kazakhstan concentrated on oil and ignored celluloid, but the studio became a production facility for a blooming independent filmmaking movement. Major filmmakers such as Amir Karakulov, Ardak Amirkulov, Serik Aprimov, Darezhan Omirbaev and Murad Nugmanov have their own independent studios and get a lot of financial support from European film funds, as well as French and Japanese producers.

Hopefully, this overview reveals some similarities, as well as deep individual differences, in each country’s past and recent filmmaking situation. With no preferences for one nation over another, we hope our series illustrates the richness of this variety. We just wanted to show some of the best examples of each country’s cinema, in order to give the American audience a glimpse of these countries’ cultural heritage and people. It may be that projects like these help citizens of these remote "Stans" become less unknown. I believed on my January trip and believe today that the future holds some hope, regardless of the turmoil surrounding today’s’ political events.


Editor�s Note: Alla Verlotsky is co-curator of "Films Along the Silk Road." She was associate producer of the 2002 film Russian Ark.

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