My Life at 11, 000 Kilometers Away From New York
(Interview with Ali Khamrayev)
Ali Khamrayev is a film director from the same generation with Andrey Tarkovsky, Sergey Paradzhanov, Otar Ioseliani. They all are prominent artists of the Soviet cinema of the so-called warming period [of the 1960s, known for liberal governmental policies that resulted in a spurt in the arts]. This generation manifested the values of the intellectual auteur cinema. Today, Ali Khamrayev continues to work in the area of grand concepts and universal values.
Ali Khamrayev was born May 19th of 1937. In 1961, he graduated from VGIK, the workshop of Gregory Roshal. In 1969, he was honored for outstanding achievements in the arts by the government of Uzbekistan. Ali Khamrayevís film The Seventh Bullet was seen by 22.5 million viewers Ė an unheard of audience for Central Asian movies. He received many awards at various international film festivals. He directed his films in Uzbekistan, Tadzhikistan, Russia and Afghanistan. Each of his motion pictures became a brilliant event in the Soviet cinema. Since the end of the 1980s, he has lived and worked in Moscow.
Gulnara: Your visit to Almaty is a great event for us. Yesterday you gave a master class for our film students, and they were looking at you like at a living legend. It is unfortunate that our countries lost connections after gaining their independence.
Ali: It was entirely our fault. We panicked. We all ran to hide into our "national" apartments to hide. The financial arguments started, like money was everything between us. In reality, it is always possible to find money and send two or three people in a cultural exchange. We live eight hundred kilometers away from each other and the travel does not require lots of money. Itís all sustained on personal contacts. And I would not come here if I didnít know that you would be here. After all the Kinoshock Film Festival in Anapa made us close friends.
Gulnara: Yes, I remember how the film critics were backing your film Bo Ba Bu. The jury and the critics stood on opposite sides of the barricades: the critics named Bo Ba Bu the best picture of the year but the jury even didnít note it because it wasnít in the competition program.
Ali: The fate of this picture was not an easy one. The producer of the film, an Italian lady, couldnít decide how she felt about the completed film. First, after raving complements in Variety she was in heaven from happiness. Afterwards, we started to have disagreements. She was complaining everywhere that the film was weak, crude and tiresome; that she made a mistake choosing the director; and that Khamrayev lost his touch. Practically, the film was shelved. I appealed in Italian court and they removed the prohibition to screen my picture. I hope that situation will improve soon. Viewers should see the movie. Interpress, an American company, had liked the film and promised worldwide distribution.
Gulnara: When I saw this film, I had a feeling that it was a very philosophical picture, in which the civilizations of the East and the West were contrasted. A European woman, like a piece of broken glass, found herself in Asia. The main intrigue was built on the speculation whether or not the environment would accept her. This way, the two worlds were compared -- the East and the West. Was this the goal of your film?
Ali: No I didnít mean it. Often critics find something that wasnít there in directorsí concepts. Sometime ago I penciled the premise of this film in my notebook: it should be a triangle -- he and she meet, fall in love, but then she meets and falls in love with somebody else, and this way the conflict ripens. You can plug two friends and a woman or two sisters and a man in this triangle. They are all variations on one theme. I have two main characters -- father and son. The third main character is a woman. The father finds her in a desert and brings home. Thatís all.
Gulnara: What does the caption "11, 000 kilometers from New York" mean?
Ali: When people ask me this same question, I always give them the same answer Ė take a map and a compass and measure this distance, and then you will understand what it means. I recall a funny story that happened to me because of this. First, our government administration wanted to remove this caption. I told them about a compass, so they probably measured the distance and calmed down. They thought that it is better that the action takes place in the neighboring Turkmenistan, rather then in our Uzbekistan. They decided to leave everything as it was.
Gulnara: I think that even without a compass there was a reference to Turkmenistan. When the protagonist travels to a festival in some Eastern city, he meets a gathering of men in Turkmen hats. There is a khan with his wife in the middle of the circle. It looks that they sit on thrones. Did you refer to the presidential couple?
Ali: The picture was filmed in Uzbekistan; that just was the Khoresm area; and the costumes and dialect there are close to Turkmenís. The khan and his wife represented any local self-proclaimed ruler.
Back to your question about my contrasting the West and the East. No, I even didnít have these thoughts. I was in a deep depression and my oldest daughter (she graduated from VGIK, the film critics program) suggested to me that I snap out of it and return to work. She reminded me that I had many interesting plots and one of them was about two shepherds. I looked through my notes and saw that was true --the story was curious, the action was chamber in scale and therefore probably a low budget film could come out of it. I sat down and wrote a treatment, using a father and a son as the protagonists. I thought: "What if I place them in a desert? Then how did this woman get to them? Maybe the father stole her from another pasture? No, thatís not going to work. To steal Ė thatís pseudo-Asian myth, exoticism, Caucuses, Pechorin, Bella...What if the shepherd finds her in a desert and saves her life when she was dying from thirst and starvation?" I decided to cast a white Russian woman in the role. I started negotiations with Irina Kupchenko. She refused claiming that she was already a grandmother and too old for this role. The producer suggested an Italian actress. Finally, we cast Anry, a French actress.
Gulnara: Even though you suggested that film critics complicate everything, it is obvious that a film becomes open to various interpretations after its release and takes on a life of its own. I found the film interesting because it was very Asian, Turkic, not only by in appearance but by its mentality. There is a legend about two brothers escaping a Jungar attack. And when one brother loses his horse to the enemyís arrow, the other one commands his wife to give up her horse to his brother because he can find another wife but cannot find another brother...
Ali: I think one of your directors made a picture on this subject, didnít he?
Gulnara: Yes, it was Amir Karakulov. He made a film called Homewrecker. Did you see it?
Ali: No, but I heard about it. I donít think this is an Eastern characteristic. An Uzbek man, knowing that his woman is the mother of his children, would never allow this to happen to his wife. He will always protect her and will go to his end saving her life. On the other hand, a woman is always his property. This is a different issue; itís a tradition and a lifestyle. The problem is that women immolate themselves because of this traditional treatment. Uzbek women commit self-immolations because of social matters in ninety percent of the time. Usually, the last drop in their ocean of pain is a mother-in-law and other relatives on the husbandís side. A husband in this case is helpless because he cannot disobey his mother. It is a horrifying lifestyle and it continues its existence. I always think why these women commit a suicide in this horrific and barbarian way -- they burn themselves alive in front of everybody. Probably, they naively believe that by doing it they will make their offenders suffer. However, they donít understand that their offenders stepped way over the line of human compassion. It is too naÔve to think that their family members will ever reconsider their actions towards these women.
The self-immolation of Eastern women is a special topic. Do you remember a Turkmen film called An Accident in Pre-School? It was about a self-immolation of a little girl. Later this subject became taboo in our cinema and never found artistic self-expression. In my film White-White Stork, I came very close to touching on this problem. My main heroine was a woman with a very strong character. She protected her dignity, her love and didnít allow anyone to step on her. Other women in film did it and they were destroyed. If God gives me enough health, I will make another film dedicated to this subject.
Gulnara: In Bo Ba Bu, an Uzbek actor played the son, a Kazakh actor played the father, and the character of a "new-Asian" was performed by a Kazakh actor, too. In your film we see various national traditions -- feasts, dogfights, ect. There are not many characters but every one of them represents an ethnic type: Uigur, Kazakh, Uzbek, Tadzhik, Turkmen -- we already accounted for five of them.
Ali: I can continue by saying the movie contains Khoresm, Persian and words made up by me. People asked me: "What language is it?" I answered: "Mongolian." You are right to say that this is an ethnographically eclectic picture.
Gulnara: I heard some Kazakh words, too.
Ali: Yes, this is a film about the whole Central Asian region. I made my goal to create an eclectic image of the region and the times. Everything is mixed together in my picture. The same way it was in Timur -- he had three bloods in him: Mongolian, Turkic and Persian. In reality the film represents our whole region, our whole territory, that lies 11, 000 kilometers east of New York.
October 11, 2000, Almaty
Gulnara Abikeeva, 2003
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