Tucked away between hotspots and flashpoints, the former Soviet Asian republics have been quietly turning out handcrafted masterpieces since the Sixties.
by Kent Jones
Above: The Fall of Otrar
Iāve never felt bad about missing out on the excitement of ćdiscoveringä a new, hitherto-untouched-by-western-eyes cinema, mostly because the danger of inflationary rhetoric and overspecialization is mighty high. Not that this has been the case with Central Asia. There is a wonderful camaraderie among filmmakers and their assorted champions, and the level of territorial wrangling is nothing compared to the titanic feuds and grudges between the Pacific Rim specialists.
Which raises the question: how is it that these glorious films, spread across roughly 40 years and five countries, with bursts of activity coming at different intervals, have never excited the land-rush mentality that took hold of us westerners when we got our first glimpse of product from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Iran? Perhaps itās because the great films from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tadjikistan are made by loners, more modest than a Hou or a Kiarostami. To be clear: itās not the films that are modest, but rather the sensibilities that shape them. Such modesty seems to float through the air breathed by an Okeev, an Omirbaev, a Narliev, or even an extroverted stylist like Ali Khamraev. Thereās an inherent distrust of grand statements÷itās impossible to imagine any of these filmmakers doing something as grandiose as the affirmation of life in The Wind Will Carry Us or the past/present fusion near the end of . Not to imply a judgment on anyone, but I think that these directors might be even more deeply caught up in a love of cinema per se than their peers in more economically robust countries. The Central Asian filmmakers have learned to distrust neither the power nor the value of art.
Despite its proximity to where the action is right now, Central Asia remains one of those corners of the world by which the west has never exactly been transfixed. We tend to be interested in a given country only to the degree that it affects our own interests (remember last yearās quickly evaporating fascination with Afghanistan). Iām not counting such purely mercenary phenomena as the steady stream of businessmen arriving in Kazakhstan in search of oil, or Uzbekistanās military base potential. The fact is that the films made in the five former Soviet Asian republics, sometimes known as ćCentral Asia and Kazakhstan,ä have never broken out of the festival circuit. Cultural remoteness aside, there are many reasons for this state of affairs: dissemination problems (initially caused by the Soviet Union, then by its sudden absence), a lack of artistic flamboyance, a heavy reliance on outside sources for funding, a dearth of any local film scene whatsoever (unlike, say, movie-mad Iran), and an overall immersion in a culture, or series of cultures, of which we westerners have absolutely no grasp. We canāt get our minds around these countries that are sort of Russian, sort of Middle Eastern, and sort of Asian. They know all about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but we know absolutely nothing of Manass, Ulugbek, and Timur the Great. Our colonialist hangover afflicts politics, business, and the arts as well. It even afflicts the very language we use. The unspoken rule is that a region is worthy of recognition only in proportion to the amount of muscle itās flexed, or how easily it can be defined or packaged. If this seems like a stretch, then read Peter Bart in a recent Variety on all the suckers out there who traipse off to far-flung film festivals like Ouagadougou÷unbelievably, Bart tried to milk the name itself for laughs. The Central Asian films resist easy categorizations, both cultural and cinematic. The best of them are stubbornly handcrafted and quietly local. It may seem like an easy generalization, but the films made during the Soviet era tend to cleave to regional history and cultural identity, while the post-Soviet films articulate that odd quality that Jim Hoberman nailed in the subtitle to his underrated book, Red Atlantis ÷ ćcommunist culture in the absence of communism.ä
Letās call it a cinema of collective solitude.
This January, I found myself in Central Asia with a colleague, Russian film programmer Alla Verlotsky. We went there to see films and meet filmmakers, in preparation for a retrospective of work from the region. In the past decade Iād fallen in love with the films of Kazakhstanās Darezhan Omirbaev, whose work÷Kairat, Cardiogram, and, most recently, The Road÷has received the most significant international exposure. Ardak Amirkulovās delirious historical epic The Fall of Otrar (90) astonished me at the 1997 San Francisco Film Festival, and that led to the contact with Alla. She opened my eyes to the astonishing riches tucked away in the five regions, made by names hitherto dropping exclusively from the lips of European festival-goers and the most dedicated critics and fans: the Kirghiz Tolomush Okeev, an ćoutdoorä filmmaker to rival Malick, but earthier and less cosmically minded, more grounded in the mountainous landscape where he spent his youth; the Uzbek Ali Khamraev, far and away the most flamboyant director in the entire region and an artist of rock-solid humanism and amazing expressive power (his 1975 medieval pocket epic Man Follows Birds merits comparison with Paradjanov, but it has a more boyishly melodramatic undertone); the other Kazakh masters Amir Karakulov, Serik Aprimov, and the man who more or less inaugurated the Kazakh New Wave, the supremely elegant storyteller extraordinaire, Ermek Shinarbaev.
The buildup to this trip was odd. When I talked it over with family and friends, there was a mixture of envy and puzzlement. As in: wow, how great to travel to such faraway places, but why those faraway places now? ćYouāre very brave to come here,ä said Yusuf Razikov, our host in Uzbekistan and the director of Uzbek Film Studios, as well as a sharp, sardonic filmmaker in his own right. I didnāt share his opinion, but since part of the American self-image is that everyone should be coming to us, itās easy to understand.
Since I knew the region only through its films, mental comparisons between the landscapes we were walking or driving through and the images Iād seen came fast and furious. It seemed poetically right that we should land in Almaty at 3 a.m. in a fog, and my first impression reminded me of another film from an artist not even remotely connected with the region. People milling in the darkness and fog and wood smoke, cab drivers waiting for a fare, men waiting to haul baggage, people waiting to be picked up, or just waiting. In straggling groups of two or three at most, or often alone, shuffling back and forth, hands in pockets. It was impossible to not recall Chantal Akermanās 1993 travelogue DāEst, shot in Eastern bloc countries after the fall of the wall. Akerman was really on to something there, with those mesmerizing tracking moves past waiting people÷this was a constant throughout my brief travels in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Perhaps only a filmmaker from outside could make something so substantial and revelatory out of such apparently insignificant activity. Another film that often came to mind was Alexei Guermanās Khroustaliov, My Car!, with its refrain of lone individuals wandering through monumental, dilapidated buildings. More appropriate, since Guerman was not only the co-author of The Fall of Otrarās screenplay but an instructor at Vgik, the film school in Moscow where most of the Kazakh filmmakers studied. All the way through our quick three-country tour, I had a strange sense of cinematic déjà vu: the images and sensations from the films were blending into the ones I was forming during our travels, of the mountains and steppes and snowscapes, the May-Day-parade-sized boulevards and grandiose buildings in the cities, the lonesome little eateries, the faces, the colors (somber Kazakhstan, warm Kyrgyzstan, blazing Uzbekistan), the gestures, the overall zeitgeist (lonely Kazakhstan, warm Kyrgyzstan, conflicted Uzbekistan). The more I saw, the more I was touched by these filmmakers committed to defining a sense of cultural identity without an ounce of nationalism, at this strange crossroads between the communist past and the free-market present, between Asia and the Middle East, between a faith-driven society (Muslim, in this case) and a secular one.
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