Retrospective: The Cinema of Central Asia

in 18th Fribourg International Film Festival

by Fritz de Jong

The cinema of Central Asia is not a cinema of the centre, but rather a cinema of the periphery. If films from Kazakhstan, Kyrghizia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have one thing in common, it has to be that they look upon the world with the eye of an outsider, an onlooker or a passer-by.

This appears to be especially true for productions filmed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A prime example is the Beshkempir-trilogy (1993 – 2001) by Kirghizian director Aktan Arym Kubat, who was formerly known by his ‘Russian’ name Abdikalikov. Even though he is telling the story of his own childhood – from being adopted as a baby, until leaving his village to join the Soviet army – the director’s narrative style feels strangely detached. Especially in the last episode “Maimil” (The Chimp, 2001) Arym Kurbat comes forward almost as a (somewhat poetical) documentary maker, distantly recording images from his own past.

Even more detached is “Jol” (The Road, 2001), the latest film by Kazakh director Darezjan Omirbayev. The journey of a young filmmaker, who travels through the countryside to visit his diseased mother, is more than just the journey of an artist in a spiritual and artistic crisis. It can easily be interpreted as the desperate search of a nation for a cultural identity.

If you really wanted to criticize the Fribourg retrospective on Central Asian cinemas, it would have to be that “Killer” (1998), Omirbayev’s powerful homage to Robert Bresson, wasn’t included in the program as well. Also, the films of Serik Aprimov, the figurehead of the so-called ‘New Kazakh Wave’ were missing. These omissions were, however, duly compensated for by a number of interesting films from and about the Soviet era.

The greatest find was the neo-realist drama “Taskent, gorod khlebny” (Tashkent, City of Bread, 1968), a genuine gem of a movie. Beautifully shot in black and white, and scripted by Tarkovsky’s collaborator Andrei Konchalovsky, this powerful melodrama tells the story of a young boy who undertakes the perilous journey to Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent, to earn some money for his hungry family. Filming in the periphery of the Soviet Union, in a time of relative political relaxation, director Shukhrat Abbasov actually dared to depict the poverty and famine that resulted from the Bolshevik Revolution.

More negative side-effects of the revolution are shown in “Voiz” (The Orator, 1998), a revisionist tragi-comedy by Uzbekistan director Yusup Razikov. Filmed as a stylish pastiche of Soviet-realism, “Voiz” tells the story of Iskander, a naive and humble man who gets caught between his revolutionary ideals and the traditional values of Islamic culture. As a gifted agitator he teaches women about emancipation, but at home he remains married to his three dedicated wives, despite being heavily criticized by his fellow communists. To complicate matters, Iskander falls passionately in love with the local Party leader. As it turns out this atheist, chain smoking and burqa burning woman will become the grandmother of the story’s narrator, who doesn’t fail to recognize the irony of his own existence.

Indeed, this kind of irony is much needed to appreciate the cinemas of Central Asia. The totalitarian Soviet Union may have caused a lot of damage to the traditions and cultures of the Central Asian peoples, yet it was the same Soviet Union that established prestigious film studios and film schools in Uzbekistan (Tashkent) and Kazakhstan (Almaty), thus laying the foundation for the Central Asian cinemas which still exist and flourish today.