Director of TENGRI, the first French feature film made in Kyrgyzstan, talks about Tengirism, complex gender relationships, and the Mongolian coat of arm of her grandfather.
Q: Why TENGRI?
A: TENGRI, because this is the divinity of the nomads and close to what I feel concerning the religions in general. I’m not a religious person and think religions do separate people and countries from each other, provoking, most of the time, wars and destruction. The concept of Tengri is very large and carries in itself a concept of emptiness, “sacred” and infinite.
I think each man has in himself sparkles of divinity and should act knowing that he is responsible for what he is doing on Earth. We, human beings, should be acting in full consciousness with total modesty. This is how I understand the title of my film. Tengrism (editor: in Kyrgyz tengirchilik) in Kyrgyzstan is a concept which is well known and it is going through a revival process nowadays.
Q: Why have you made this film?
A: I have always been very interested by all these regions of Central Asia. I had an opportunity to read about Kyrgyzstan, to meet the previous president (Askar Akaev), and I don’t know how it worked in my head but suddenly I started to write and to visit and to re-visit Kyrgyzstan and to spend time there and to listen to people. Then I wrote a script and I worked with the man who helped me to structure the story and well, it was decided really spontaneously.
Q: Is it something that you began writing and the characters started living by themselves?
A: Well, I read a lot of stories about the Aral Sea. I was very much interested and also very shocked by what had happened there. I had a character and I wanted somebody playing something from this region. I also know the live at jailoos - mountain pastures quite well. I know them from Mongolia, and I went to Kyrgyzstan and met people in mountains. I became friends with girls, women and other people. I was in Bishkek, I listened to stories. When I came back I re-wrote my story and it started becoming really real for me. Also I have a lot of things, which are very important for me in life. I am very sensitive to the way the women are treated in the whole world. I was brought up with boys and I always wanted to be like my brothers, to be free, to study, to have same rights. When I started my life, I saw that often it was not the case. I had to fight much more to be respected in my work, there were never the same salaries as for men. These all would make me very angry. There is no one country (where they are in a better situation), may be it is America, but I am not sure either. That was a part of the concept I wanted to put in the film.
Also I travelled a lot and I worked with the Doctors of the World (of Bernard Kouchner from Doctors Without Borders, now the Foreign Minister of France). I was very interested in the economy of countries I was visiting. The most beautiful countries were always the most poor and economically less powerful than Europe or America. So I decided very long time ago that I would spend much time in these places and trying to bring information from these countries to Europe, so that people will become interested in these countries of beautiful human beings and beautiful humanity. In Mongolia, Tibet and Siberia I was very touched by the way we were always warmly accepted. I wanted to talk about this extraordinary hospitality too.
But the film TENGRI is a little bit dark compared to my earlier films from the region. I think this is because the relationship between men and women are more difficult. The jailoo which I am showing in my film is not a very happy place.
Q: For me jailoo has been always an idealistic space, something contrary to the city, very beautiful and human. Women are very patient, diplomatic and loving; men are strong, respectful and responsible.
A: No, women are not very happy there, and men are cruel. This is my experience. I always felt, men have more power. I don’t like power, but I like equality and fairness. Nothing is fair, in France either. A lot of people toiling in factories, offices and other places feel the same way. Look at the government (of France), there are two-three women only, and it is completely unfair. I am very interested by that. I think the relationship between men and women are not the way they should be.
Q: Still there is a common knowledge that in nomadic cultures of Inner Asia, women are strong and there is more equality with men than in other regions more into the South.
A: I don’t think so. I think women could be treated with more cruelty in places where religion has so much power. Religion is on the side of men, not on the side of women. Women are there to give birth and take care of children, cook, do all the hard work. But she knows what is living, she is generous, fundamentally she does not care about power. This is the same with the nomads today. In the nomadic culture, when religion comes, gives money to men to earn money, it destroys the whole thing, the whole relationship between people.
Q: Which money you mean?
A: I met these people who have this experience, who lost the meaning of the live. There is a character in my film, the man who is paid by a group of religious extremists, who have money. They send him to make war. This destroys the man’s life forever. When he comes back to his normal life, he cannot make it. He cannot love his wife, he cannot make children, he is not happy anymore. The woman is not happy either.
Q: You say that you were touched by the Aral Sea catastrophe and its tragic consequences. You also raise a very important question for the region: migration. Did you meet specific people, or it is more a general story?
A: I heard a lot of stories from the Kyrgyz people. There are also people who were in Central Asia, so they bring these stories out. With my writing partner Jean-Francois Goyet we had read more than 300 books about migrants and issues related to them. Where do they go, how are they are treated in different countries, in Europe, for example? They are not treated well at all; there is nothing which brings us some hope. I wanted to talk about it. I think it is absolutely horrible how rich nations treat the people they need, because they need these people who come to work, and after that, when they don’t need them, they simply through them out.
Q: In your Director’s statement for TENGRI you ask where do all the people, who come from the East and for whom Europe have no place, return to. But your ancestors did find the place in Europe, didn’t they?
A: It happened very long time ago. Do you want to hear the story of my grandfather?
Q: Yes, if possible.
A: Those were stories, but my grandfather would tell us: “We come from the East, from what is Russia now”. He told us beautiful stories, and I dreamt about that world.
Q: How much of that was true?
A: I don’t know, and I never knew. But he had a lot of stories.
Q: But there was the ring, wasn’t it?
A: Yes, there was a ring. There was a cote of arm of his family on it. It was an old family from Brittany. He would say: On my ring I have seven Mongol squares that show that my ancestors were big chiefs in Mongolia. It was for fun, but it was not fun, it was true. (It happened) long time ago, but we lost track of the lineage. He told us the stories that were kept alive throughout centuries and generations, and it reached me, I was the last one to receive these stories and it was fascinating.
Q: You travelled to Mongolia and other parts of the Inner Asia. Did you feel this connection through centuries?
A: Yes, I did.
Q: What was that?
A: Once in Tibet I stopped at the bottom of a big mountain which was called Miniak Konga, this is the name of my grandfather. Suddenly I started to cry. I walked a bit and saw a little house. I went inside. There was a monk sitting there all alone in this empty little house. I sat in front of him. There was a ray of sun falling on him. It was absolutely beautiful. I started crying while sitting in front of him. We could not talk because we did not speak the same language. But it was as if I was with my grandfather there. It was like going back after centuries. I was somewhere where my grandfather’s family was coming from. It was a very strange and a very strong encounter.
Q: And what happened to your relationship with Tibet? You have been arrested and escaped…
A: (The relationship) is still very intense. The arrest was not a big deal. I stayed 3 month in a hotel at Chandu, a frontier town. I was followed everywhere and could not leave the place. Finally I escaped with the sound-tape from my future film in my pocket. At night an American council took me and we ran. He sent me to Beijing. Later I came back after everything was settled and we obtained a permission to get my film out of China.
Q: What was your experience with local colleagues?
A: I worked with some 80 Kyrgyz persons, and it was the most beautiful experience in terms of energy and generosity. Also in terms of competence, they were really great actors. That was fantastic. And I am also happy, because we made some test screenings for public in Switzerland and France: everybody was crying, there was really a strong reaction.
Q: Asangul Baigaziev, a Kyrgyz graphic who is in Paris now for an art residency, told me that he cried a lot at the test screening.
A: Yes, he cried a lot, he thanked me. “I don’t know how you managed, but it is a portrait of our country. It is beautiful, it is so strong, very human”, he said. He was very moved indeed.
Q: It is a big compliment for your film, isn’t it?
A: Yes, I was very happy.
Interview by Janyl Jusubjan,
Paris, June 21, 2008