What Future for the Central Asian Cinema?

in 8th Almaty Eurasia International Film Festival

by Shahla Nahid

For a long time, rare were those who knew something about Central Asian cinema.

However, under the great banner of Soviet Union, national and local cinemas developed, largely inspired, at least formally, by Russian cinema.

The fact was that, the five Muslim republics of Central Asia attracted some important Russian filmmakers, script writers and other cinema industry professionals, not only for their specificity but especially for their distance from Moscow during the Second World War. A war which obliged great filmmakers such as Eisenstein and Vertov to move to this area for making their films and to preserve, as much as possible, the Russian cinematographic heritage from destruction. Their presence allowed local filmmakers, especially in Kazakhstan where, taking place since 1998 (and now in its eighth edition), the Eurasia International film festival, has been able to profit from their cinematographic knowledge and to become, at their turn, a part of Soviet cinema.

However, these cinemas knew periods of emptiness and development, particularly more extreme in the case of Tajikistan which suffered from a civil war for a duration of eight years after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989.

For example, and in spite of the crisis, in 1998, 14 full­length films were produced in four other Republics of Central Asia at a rate of eight films in Kazakhstan, three in Turkmenistan, two in Uzbekistan and one in Kyrgyzstan.

These figures are naturally increasing and, for example, according to Gulnara Abikeieva, artistic director of Eurasia film festival in Almaty, the Kazakh film studio, the most active studio in Central Asia, produces annually 22 films, the majority shot in 35 mm. Consequently, they could program 11 Kazakh films in different sections of the Eurasia film festival this year.

As far as their quality is concerned, one can say that with the arrival of a small group of filmmakers such as Darejan Omirbaev (very well received in French festivals), the link with ‘socialist realism’ has been broken. Although these filmmakers seek another direction in their films, their works remain impregnated by nostalgia for the lost values of the past. Unfortunately it is noted that, except in some rare examples, this breach with the past, means breaking with the Soviet cinematographic standards which, in spite of all exaggerations and propagandist use of films, were based on a great knowledge of the art of the cinema.

When one sees films like Virtual Love (virtulanlnaya liobov) by Amir Karakulov, considered one of the important figures of Kazakh cinema, one has the right to wonder where passed the glorious legacy of the Soviet cinema which cradled all filmmakers of this region? Although the film poses the true problem of the virtual world and its dominating place in the life of individuals today as well as the hypnotic capacity that the Internet exerts on youth, the scenario, the actors performance and the treatment of the subject merely culminates in a bunch of unimportant plans around the beautiful face of the actress Bibigul Suyunshakina and a catalogue of fashion to make young girls dream while some deafening music is heard.

Forgetting the standards of the past prevailed also in the short films of some young Kyrgyz filmmakers, gathered in a ‘feature’ film named Kyrgyzstan, I love you. These were films made without any discipline or preoccupations of the quality of image and storytelling. This, in spite of the fact that in the second half of the 20th century Kyrgyzstan brought about a poetic cinema completely shaped by the clearness and rigor of the Soviet cinema schools. A cinema which gave some great names such as Tolomoush Okeev, Bolotbek Chamchiev, Ernst Adbyjaparov or Marat Sarulu to the world of Soviet cinema.

However, in Almaty, the surprise came from the least productive country as far as the cinema industry is concerned, Tajikistan.

The two films presenting this country, one, Presumed Consent (Presumptzia soglacia), by Farkhot Abdullaev, in the International Competition section of Eurasia Film Festival, and the other, the first full­length film by Iskandar Usmanov, The Telegram, in the Asian Panorama section, surprised by their depth, good direction and very good set of actors, particularly in Presumed Consent.

Although they both evoked the problems of uprooting and nostalgia for the lost worlds, they were dissimilar.

The first put in stage a qualified postgraduate Azerbaijan citizen who finds a job in a hospital of a small city not far from Moscow. But he faces xenophobia, something which has infected Russia since the fall of the wall and is obliged to face a hostile human and natural environment: a cold and snowy climate for a man who comes from a hot country. In contrast, the second film brings back to his native village a young man well integrated into the capital city’s life. Returning to the village makes him feel the difference existing between him and townsmen or more exactly people who belong to another world.

The rather exotic universe of The Telegram, which is reminiscent of Jamshed Usmanov, another filmmaker from Tajikistan, could very well launch its author onto the festival stages. If so, this would emulate Jamshed, who was successful in some French festivals, in particular thanks to the participation of his film To Get to Heaven, First You Have to Die in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes Film Festival in 2006.

Anyway, the Eurasia International Film Festival, far from wanting to compete with its competitors like the Busan Film Festival, Tokyo, or the Golden Apricot in Armenia (and some others), could (perhaps exclusively) obtain the Central Asian films and thus impose itself as the window of the cinemas of this region. The attempt by the organizers to attract, through this offer, producers and distributors from the whole world, cannot but help to improve productivity of these cinemas in the future.

Edited by Steven Yates