In the early Nineties a hitherto blind spot on the world cinema map seemingly all of a sudden became one of its most colorful regions: Central Asia, a former outpost of the Russian Empire, in both its monarchical and Soviet incarnations. The region's several distinct film cultures, particularly Kazakhstan, seemed to have struck a chord with audiences on the international film festival circuit. Full of mythical places whose mere names conjured lavish and ancient images of a bustling multicultural world of plenty - Tashkent, Buchara, Samarkand, and the all-encompassing Silk Road, symbol of East-West exchange and the possibilities of fruitful cultural coexistence - perhaps this new territory appealed to Western viewers' inner Lawrence. And it fitted in with the Nineties fascination with Asian cinema - even if, as with Iran, Western viewers didn't see it in those terms. Moreover, Central Asia seemed so remote and otherworldly and so seemingly lacking in noteworthy political currency that its different cinemas could be enjoyed free from any historical burden. You could watch the films as films - what a relief after the propaganda-laden days of Soviet cinema! Perhaps this tabula rasa impulse explains why so many of the films that have been justly celebrated, like Darejan Omirbaev's Kardiogram (95) or Serik Aprymov's The Last Stop (89), are modest, (neo)realist works that play in a somewhat abstract semi-imaginary realm that recalls ascetic realists like Ozu, Bresson, et al., while some of the region's finest masterpieces, like Ardak Amirkulov's The Fall of Otrar (91), a historical epic steeped in Kazakh history, have never received the international recognition they deserve. That said, Central Asia's contemporary auteurs rarely touch upon political subjects.
Central Asia consists of five independent states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. During the Soviet era the region was also known as Middle Asia, excluding Kazahkstan, which, due to the resettlement of millions of Russians and Germans was at once the region's largest republic and the one in which the nominal nationality was actually a minority. A third, less political, more cultural definition of Central Asia would also include Afghanistan and China's western-most province, Xinjiang, where many Kazakhs live.
Although the region's population is of a mixed cultural heritage, its main religion remains Islam - all the more so since independence, especially in Tajikistan, where the Party of Islamic Rebirth was at the forefront of the Civil War of 1991-97, and in Turkmenistan, probably the least secular of the five states, which has a president for life and no political opposition. Kazakhstan remains the only Central Asian state with a parity between Muslims and Christians, although the latter's numbers - here as in the other states - are declining due to (re)emigration; in some parts of rural Kyrgyzstan there's also a strain of Islamic belief that's strongly influenced by much older, shamanistic religious practices which continue to have a certain presence in Kazakhstan's religious life.
Except for the Indo-Iranian Tajik, all of the region's nominal languages are of Turkish origin - although the region's lingua franca remains Russian; all of these languages are written in Cyrillic script, although Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have long been planning to change over to the Latin alphabet.
At first glance the question of the region's languages and spelling systems might seem marginal, at least compared to its religions. But in fact it strongly reflects the political changes these countries went through during the era of Soviet domination. Although the Central Asian states, as parts of the former Czarist Russian empire, were already part of the USSR's first incarnation in 1922, only Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan were granted status as Soviet Republics; due to the regional instability resulting from the struggles of various Islamic independence movements, the other three had to wait until 1936. The early Bolshevik era was generally characterized by a certain liberalism towards the non-Russian parts of the union: cultural independence was supported, particularly with regard to language: the Central Asian republics were permitted to use their native tongues as their respective official language alongside a general change from Arabic to Latin script in an attempt to distance them - and in due time the region's cultures - from their Islamic roots. With the advent of Stalinism all this changed: Russian became the official language and Cyrillic script was imposed. The Sixties Soviet Thaw produced only a partial reversal: while the status of the languages and their spelling was unchanged, a certain renewal of cultural autonomy was awkwardly promoted - local color was appreciated, although any stirrings of nationalistic feeling were always duly suppressed.
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