Central-Asian Competition: History and the Present, Stories and Explorations

in 11th Eurasia International Film Festival, Almaty

by Hanna Margolis

The aim of the 11th edition of Eurasia International Film Festival, which took place 19-25 September 2015 in Almaty, the former capital of the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan, was to show a wide range of films, from Far East Asia to Europe. This year, Eurasia in fact combined two festivals in one: “Eurasia” and “Shaken’s Constellation”, the latter focusing on new films from neighbouring Turkic-language states. Competing for the FIPRESCI Prize were films from the programme of “Shaken’s Constellation”, including entries from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, and other countries that, twenty years ago, were part of the USSR. In the Soviet period, these countries could not have their own political or historical narratives, their film industry, their film education. At present, they are in the process of building their statehood, as well as their widely understood cinematic structures and identities. Therefore, the films shown in the Central-Asian Competition of “Shaken’s Constellation” were as varied as are the strategies of film industries in these countries. The work of the FIPRESCI jury, having to choose between extremely different films, was not easy.

Taking part in the competition were movies such as the big-budget Kazakh production Stranger (Zhat, 2015) by Ermek Tursunov, and auteur films concerning the difficult history of the peoples of Central Asia, as well as the complexities of Russia’s neighbourhood, such as Kazakhstan’s Kunanbai by Doskhan Zholzhaksynov, or the Azeri film Nabat by Elchin Musaoglu, all of which were very good in terms of the artistic level of film-making.

There were also traditional, narrative films by filmmakers who largely graduated from the Film Institute VGIK in Moscow, such as Oktay Mir-Quasim’s Death With Vengeance (Kiegin Alyp Olu, Azerbaijan) or Yolkin Tuychiev’s In Life (Omirdie, Uzbekistan) – typical of Soviet cinema of the 1970s and 1980s (there was a similar cinematographic phenomenon  in Poland in those days, which critics called “cinema of moral anxiety”).

In both cases the films were probably showcasing the priorities of film industry of young Central Asian countries. However, most films in the FIPRESCI competition were from the periphery of the field of cinema. These were mostly low-budget films made by young directors. The strategy of these filmmakers is not exactly “historical cinema” or “cinema of moral anxiety”. They see what the older generation of filmmakers to overlook: growing social problems and areas of poverty in the emerging countries. This phenomenon is interesting, though disturbing.

These films show the life of the lower social classes. The situation of women is particularly dramatic. Abandoned by their husbands, with children, they have no support either in traditional family structures which are collapsing, nor in the resurgent Islam, which – instead of helping –oppresses them. Often they are victims of financial structures such as banks, especially those with practices that are prohibited in developed democracies. These women and their children can not count on social care, which does not yet exist in their countries, except from the point of view of Western culture, in the form of the 19th century. However, these phenomena are not the subject of the films. Instead, they rather contemplate poverty in its formal beauty. The directors seem to say, paraphrasing Goethe’s “Verweile doch, du bist so schön” to “Stay now, poverty, you are so beautiful!”

What is disturbing in films such as Dalmira Tilepbergenova’s Under Heaven (Aspan Astynda, Kyrgyzstan) or Marat Sarulu’s The Move (Kosh, Kyrgyzstan) is that they only “show” poverty, in very long shoots, using it as a pretext to display formally beautiful images. The dramatic line of “the story” is enigmatic and illegible. The viewer, though conscious of the documentary strategies applied, is placed in the position of a stranger, a voyeur who cannot empathize with the characters. Moreover, these films are intended for the film festival circuit and have hardly any chance for commercial distribution in cinemas. Do the directors believe that festival audiences are indifferent to the realities of life in distant lands, and must be seduced with “beautiful images of poverty”?

“Showing” poverty, however, can be knowingly used as a strategy of directing. In Saodat Ismailova’s 40 Days of Silence (Chilla, Uzbekistan, Netherlands, Germany, France), which was supported by a number of festivals, including Sundance, it is used to construct an intimate drama about the violation of universal cultural taboos.

In the Central-Asian Competition there were, however, two films that not only “showed” poverty, but explored its mechanisms. These were Daniyar Salamat’s Sagyntay’s First Wife (Pervaia zhena Sagyntaia, Kazakhstan), a very intimate film, imitating the strategies of a low-budget television documentary; and Zhasulan Poshanov’s Toll Bar (Shlagbaum, Kazakhstan). It was apparent in the festival competitions that Kazakh cinema is financially the strongest, most interesting and most varied in the region of Central Asia.

The FIPRESCI jury agreed that Toll Bar showed best the realities of life in the young country through its two main characters: a poor boxer, balancing on the verge of physical survival; and the son of a wealthy, influential man, who feels that his father wants to destroy him. Both are determined to change their fate, and both fail. Still, the latter gets a second chance. The FIPRESCI jury decided (unanimously!) that the prize must go to Toll Bar, for “exploring social problems which are actual all over the world, in a professional manner in all aspect. We particularly want to insist on the quality of script and directing”.

Edited by Birgit Beumers