Central Asia



Ten Years Under the Winds of Different Ideologies

The cinema of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tadzhikistan

"Nation is not something taken for granted but a socially and historically specific idea of community. As an ideal concept at least, a nation is defined by unity and shared characteristics among its national citizenry, as opposed to the hierarchies of differences structuring the subjects of monarchies, empires, and religious realms." (1) Benedict Anderson

If at the beginning of the 1990s, the moment of the fall of the Soviet Union, the countries of Central Asia were approximately in the same situation economically and socially and one ideology dominated the whole region, then during the ten years of independence there were many changes, and the destinies of these neighboring countries unfolded differently.

First, we felt acutely that from an industrial economy we stepped down to the third world. I still cannot accept that definition, even though there probably is nothing condescending about it.

Second, I don’t know if it was for good or for bad, but we understood ourselves as Asia. China, Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey – despite the fact that we had always shared borders – remained for us distant and exotic countries. In one night – to be more exact, in the day of the fall of the USSR – they became our tangible neighbors with all the pluses and minuses that involves.

Third, as the Russian saying goes, a holy place is never empty and several ideological and religious movements simultaneously claimed stakes in the void of the dissolved-in-nothingness Soviet ideology.

"The most potentially dangerous effect of the collapse of the Soviet Union was that it created an ideological vacuum. It was not only that the economic and administrative framework within which the modern Central Asian states had been developed abruptly ceased to exist, but that the theoretical justification for their formation was discredited," – wrote Central Asian expert Shirin Akiner. (2)

What ideas were most popular in the region during the ten years of independence?

-The idea that Pan-Turkism could unite the countries of Central Asia, as well as Azerbaijan, Bashkortostan, Tatarstan and other regions, according to the principle of ethnic identification with the Turkic group (this idea was mainly promoted by Turkey and was widespread at the beginning of the1990s);

-The idea of Eurasia was formulated at the end of the nineteenth century by Russian academics that considered Central Asia to be the connecting link between East and West (this idea gained popularity during the second half of the 1990s and became part of the cultural policy of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan);

-The idea of the Islamization of the region has never been proclaimed officially to be the main point uniting the Central Asian countries, but some articles appears discuss the idea of creating an Islamic Caliphate.

-The West promotes the idea of creating democratic societies by financing democratic institutions, foundations and the activities of different projects and organizations.

What did the individual feel as a result of these trends and influences? The individual who lives in one of the Central Asian countries? Just imagine that during seventy years we built the Socialist Society and in one day – in the autumn of 1991 – we understood that this way was finished and independence was established. We received unexpected results.

Ideological trends appeared and disappeared in waves. If we speak about individuals it is most important to understand the type of mentality he/she possesses. I divided these mentalities into four main planes, or categories (see diagram):

    1. A Soviet mentality, mainly typical of the older generation where loyalty to the previous social and political formations is obvious;
    2. An ethnic mentality still dominated by national customs, traditions, and outlooks of a patriarchal type of society;
    3. An Islamic religious mentality – returning to the Muslim type of regulation of life.
    4. A Western mentality focused on building a modern democratic society.

Imagine a person (see diagram) who had to maneuver among all of these four planes: he is either thrown from one extreme to another or establishes himself in one of these planes and lives there by ignoring the other mentalities. One has to take into consideration that the ethnic mentality traditionally is bound to the religious one, and the Soviet mentality is the antitheses of the Western perception.

Throughout the centuries, and therefore the most stable, is the ethnic mentality (correlated with Muslim traditions) and this is why eighty percent of the population of Central Asia exists in these planes. Moreover, government structures building the institutions of power monopolies encourage the vector of hierarchy in people’s minds.

Some part of the population continues to exist in the Soviet mentality; this is mostly senior citizens and members of the still existing Communist Party. They account for ten percent.

Accordingly, the remaining ten percent are the intelligentsia, which supports various ideological innovations such as pan-Turkism, or joins the camp of the current democrats.

This scheme works for whole countries as well. For example, Turkmenistan lies one hundred percent in the ethnic plane – the regression of the entire society to feudalism is obvious. The khan-like power of the president established an absolute cult of personality with an oath of vassal loyalty required of all citizens. Tadzhikistan and Uzbekistan remain between the ethnic and the religious planes. The Muslim religion plays the dominant ideological role because Islam had an historically strong influence in these countries of settled civilizations. The tendencies of westernization are more pronounced in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan; even the Western mass media calls Kyrgyzstan an island of democracy in Central Asia, but, in my opinion, Kazakhstan specifically has a greater predisposition for building a modern secular state.

In Kazakhstan the very first anti-totalitarian manifestation took place in December of 1986, when students organized a demonstration in the main square of the country, protesting the authoritarian decision of Moscow to appoint a new governor of Kazakhstan. And here, in Kazakhstan, today in 2001, after ten years of declared independence, there are political movements of so-called mladodemocraty (young democrats), who may lead the country to real democracy.

It is commonly known that arts and culture respond first to the changes in a society, and cinema, as the most dynamic type of art, started to change before the others. The new cinema wave was born in Kazakhstan; moreover, it became a symbol of the changes in lifestyle in the entire post-Soviet territory; and here the strongest vector of westernization was initiated.

In the celebrated essay, "On National Culture," by Franz Fanon, we can find three separate stages of developing post-colonial cultures:

  1. 1. A concern primarily with the culture of the colonizing power;

  2. A return to an idealized view of the traditional culture;
  3. Uniting with the people’s struggle in an authentic way. (3)

The cinema of Central Asia passed two stages of this uneasy path during the ten years of independence.

Kazakhstan: Westernization Against Russification

Isn’t it remarkable that the center of Soviet cinema moved to the East at the end of the 1980s? The Kazakh new wave was born in Almaty, even though all its representatives were trained in the Soviet school of cinema – VGIK. But that was the point, and it was obvious, that something new had to replace the Soviet cinema at the end of the perestroika period.

The so-called chernukha (dark and depressing cinema) of the 80s – Interdevochka, The Little Vera, The Thieves in the Law and many others – revealed the dark side of the Soviet reality andcriticized the existing problems, but the cinematic esthetics remained Soviet in style.

In the films of the Kazakh new wave a new perception of life became apparent. It wasn’t Soviet anymore and it wasn’t Asian yet. Of course, the Kazakh filmmakers were influenced by western cinema, and perhaps therefore, the Kazakh new wave was named after the French new wave.

Andrey Plakhov, a critic, precisely defined the most dominant vector of influence upon the young people of Kazakhstan by naming his article French Lessons (4). I would like to add that it wasn’t only French influence. In general it was the vector of westernization.

One can remember, at the start of the 1980s, a much-admired poster that criticized the current popular culture: a young man in a black leather jacket, but instead of the face – emptiness. I would name this poster Waiting For A New Hero. At the end of the 80s Viktor Tsoy became this hero. The new hero had an Asian face – it was remarkable. And The Needle (1988), directed by Rashid Nugmanov, became the symbolic picture of the new era for the entire Soviet Union.

What was new that Kazakhs brought to the esthetics of post-Soviet cinema?

First of all, the directors stepped out onto streets, entered the real homes of real people, purposely didn’t build any sets and never altered reality. If The Needle deliberately contrasted the luxurious interior of the home of a doctor involved with mafia and the back-alley habitat of street boys – patsan, – then already in The Final Stop (1989), directed by Serik Aprimov, there were openly destitute villages –auls-- and unhidden toilets. The documentary look was a big part of the style.

Second, it was a full renunciation of professional actors. In The Needle: Victor Tsoy was a rock star, the symbol of the era, but the rest of the cast were just familiar faces – musician Peter Mamonov, film director Alexander Bashirov and others – but none of them was an actor. In The Final Stop the backgrounds of the main four characters were almost documentary-like in their truthfulness – they are real villagers of Aksuat whose real names and lives are used. In The Little Fish in Love (1989, directed by Abay Karpikov), the main characters were performed by architect Bopesh Zhandayev – a friend of the director; by Ablay Karpikov – the brother of the director, and Assan Kuyate – a classmate of the director. Practically every director of the new wave came into cinema with a very personal and unique universe, with his own actors, his own atmosphere and his own worldview.

Third, the perception of the hero was changed. He was still the winner (he is very far from the characters of chernukha films) but he was already a little bit ironic, silent and detached. This how Victor Tsoy was portrayed in The Needle, and the protagonist in The Final Stop, the main characters of Kairat (1991, directed by Darezhan Omirbayev), and the brothers in Homewrecker (1991) were presented. Westernization was obvious even though not openly stated – the Beatles poster on a wall, the costumes of the characters, the obviously not-Soviet interiors, the different music and the different atmosphere.

The theme of an escape, a road and change for the better was superbly expressed in the lyrics of a song by Victor Tsoy – Changes! We Desire Changes! The deconstruction of the Soviet mentality was not the exclusive province of the Kazakh new wave films. This phenomenon took place in cinema of the entire Soviet Union, but the brightest examples were born in Central Asia. Besides the previously cited examples, it is important to highlight Siz Kim Siz? an Uzbek film (1989, directed by Jakhangir Faiziyev) and Bro (a slang for "brother"), a Tadzhik film (1991, directed by Bakhtiyar Khudoinazarov).

Fourth, in the 1980s the Soviet people were so weary of moralizing, nagging and overly ideological films that they refused to take anything seriously, and as a result the youth culture clearly protested against the old ways through rock songs, jokes and cinema. The Soviet realities were ridiculed first, and then the political changes took place.

Fifth, it is interesting that not only the Soviet mentality was deposed but also the ethnic one. The public objected to Serik Aprimov’s display of the problems in the Kazakh provinces. He was accused of raising his hand against the holiest of places – the Kazakh aul.

Serik Aprimov and Rashid Nugmanov created the two most important pictures in the entire Central Asian region – The Needle and The Final Stop. These films toppled the most dominant mentalities of that time – Soviet and Ethnic (in their negative characteristics) – and they cleared the way for new, just-conceived mentalities.

Other film directors came on this cleared path and started to build theirown new worlds and cultural concepts. Homewrecker, by Amir Karakulov, and The Little Fish in Love, by Abay Karpikov, have been compared to the films of Truffaut and Godard; Kairat, by Darezhan Omirbayev, with the films of Bresson and Bunuel; Woman of the Day, by Bakhit Kelibayev and Alexander Baranov, with Blow U,p by Antonioni; etc.

This only means that the world saw the qualities of modern Western cinema in the Kazakh new wave. The world saw it, was surprised and accepted it. Why did this happen?

Historically, Kazakhs have been living in the region of the intersection of the West and the East, and as nomads, they have been very adaptive to various cultural influences. The Kazakh filmmakers used this cultural ability to adapt and enriched it with a thorough knowledge of Western cinema and Western techniques of filmmaking; this made their films understandable and open to the whole world.

Here, I would like to make an analogy to Japanese cinema. Akira Kurasawa, the most Western of Japanese filmmakers, had to come first, to be critically acclaimed in Europe, and only then did the West accept the other Japanese film directors.

The Kazakh new wave, being the most Western among the Eastern ones, opened the cinema of Central Asia to the world. The westernization of Kazakh cinema came about as the protest of a colonized country against Sovietization.

Kyrgyzstan: The Search for National Identity

Kyrgyz filmmakers chose their own path. They didn’t repeat the steps of their Kazakh colleagues; and by passing over the first stage of developing their post-colonial cultural identity (defined by Franz Fanon), they started the second one – the return to an idealized view of the traditional culture.

Actually, the generation of the filmmakers of the ’90s worked with the same set of goals as the generation of the ’60s – Tolmush Okeyev, Gennadi Bazarov and Bolatbek Shamshiev. There was only one difference: the generation o the ’60s founded their films on the literary works of Chingiz Aitmatov and Mukhtar Auezov. The generation of the ’90s primarily based their films on their visual esthetics.

Aktan Abdikalikov, a young film director, created the most interesting movies representing the search for a national identity. A fragment of my interview gives an idea about the creative processes among Kyrgyz filmmakers:

"Some time ago, someone – I think it was Godard – said that there are cinematic nations and listed them, and there are all others, which are far from the esthetics of cinema. That hurt me. Since then I have been seeking something that would express the essence of the esthetic of Kyrgyz cinema. I don’t know if Kazakhs have it but Kyrgyz call it a kurak. Kurak is a technique of making patchwork blankets.

"You remember that during our funerals, these bits and pieces of cloth are given away… The family buys lots of fabric, then tears it apart – approximately one elbow-length – and gives the pieces away to everybody who comes to bid farewell to the deceased. This is how bits of different fabrics are collected in a household. Our mothers and grandmothers sew a kurak from these pieces of cloth. In essence, a kurak accumulates the memories of dead people – it becomes a patchwork of remembrance.

"For myself, I named Beshkempir a patchwork of my childhood. The film is constructed according to this principal. There is no linear story in it but there are fragments of my memories, my impressions, and when you put it all together, you get a kurak. It is a different matter whether or not I assembled it in the correct way. But traditional craftsmen never over-analyze their designs. It’s an unexplainable and spontaneous thing – it either flows along or not. I think that this essence of putting things together is very much like filmmaking."

Aktan Abdikalikov creates his own space, first, through accurate details of home objects, for example: the tumar (a lucky charm made out of a prayer from the Koran sewn into a triangular shape) on a boy’s neck, and the kurak, a colorful patchwork blanket. When, in Selkenchek, I saw a scene with blankets put out in the sun to dry and children playing by and hiding among them, my heart ached – this how acutely I felt the breeze of my childhood. Or the cat’s cradle, when intricate patterns are born right on one’s fingers; or apashkas (grannies) dressed in colorful dresses and wearing antique jewelry on their kind hands…The village life of the Kyrgyz is portrayed so organically that it is even strange that it never existed before in Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan. However, it is true. Nobody created an image so perfectly picturing the world of Kazakhs and Kyrgyz before Aktan Abdikalikov. Here is the reason why. After the first level of picturing the material objects of the home, there is the second level of understanding the culture – traditions and rituals. Positioning an infant in a cradle, burial rituals, etc. There are not many of them in the films but after them there is a whole new level of representation of the nation – the philosophy and worldview of the people.

Aktan Abdikalikov is not alone in his pursuit to represent the worldview of the nation.

The Mourner (1992), a film by Artik Syuindikov, describes the burial ceremonies. Koshok, the ritual of weeping for the dead (zhoktau in Kazakh) is not only a physiological response to the loss of a loved one but also an oral and poetic art form, in which words of sorrow are recited and the virtues of the dead are acclaimed. It is an ode and a ritual farewell to the world of the ancestors – aruakhs.

Tenant (1992), a film by Bekzhan Aitkuluyev, demonstrates the powerful presence of Manas, a traditional epic hero, in the everyday life of Kyrgyz people. The protagonist is always comparing himself and his actions with Manas and this is not just a whim of the film director. In fact, Kyrgyz people, being raised on strong oral poetry traditions, comprehend reality through the prism of their legends and fairytales. Manaschis (traditional storytellers of Manas, memorizing the legends by heart and without any written documents from their fathers and grandfathers) are still alive and actively perform. These traditions are still vivid because of the strong genetic memories of the nomadic past (the actual nomadic lifestyle was present in Kyrgyzstan just eighty years ago), and most importantly, because the nation identifies itself with its epic past.

Of course, Kyrgyz filmmakers are not the only ones who tried to recreate an ideal view of their traditional culture. This kind of motion picture was made in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan but Kyrgyz filmmakers were the most effective and consistent in understanding and portraying the image of their national world.

I think that the first stage of the development of post-colonial cultures in Central Asia was the protest against Soviet colonization and Russification. Kazakh filmmakers made this step by protesting against the Soviet mentality. Moreover, they replaced the Soviet values with western ones: European and American. This was the stage of Westernization.

Kyrgyz filmmakers skipped the first stage and moved on to the second one – a return to an idealized view of the traditional culture. Through their films, Aktan Abdikalikov, Bekzhan Aitkuliyev and Ernest Abdizhaparov tried to formulate the most important questions in modern Kyrgyz self-identity and to define the most important tasks of Kyrgyz society. At this point I would like to recall Benedict Anderson’s idea that nation is a community of citizens who share certain basic general ideas.

Uzbekistan: Easternization Versus Westernization

Uzbekistan and Uzbek filmmakers selected a third way of development.

Here everything started the same way as everywhere else in Central Asia. At the end of the ’80s Jakhangir Faziyev made Siz Kim Siz?, a completely pro-Western motion picture criticizing the Soviet mentality and the ethnic traditions.

Later the process of finding self-identity was started, and started not by administrative edict – that would take place in the 1990s, when Uzbekistan would be drowned in a flood of poor quality films with historic subjects – but by creative individuals measuring themselves with the vertical ruler of history. The brightest examples of that are The Secret Emir’s Journey (1986) and The Last Journey of Kaip (1989), films by Farid Davletshin.

In the middle of the ‘90s, Uzbek cinema became totalitarian cinema, and the government firmly controlled it as a tool of the new Uzbekistan ideology. All films were produced for national distribution. The genres of comedy and melodrama were primarily developed. Uzbekistan, with 22 million people the most populous Central Asian country, aimed to created a phenomenon similar to Indian cinema. The new films promoted the idea of an independent Uzbekistan and criticized both Soviet and Western society. For example, in one film, Uzbek astronauts even fly to the moon.

Undoubtedly, the motion picture that best recreated the internal life of an Uzbek man is Until The Daybreak (1993), by Yusuf Azimov. Even though the story is set in a silkworm breeding farm, the director vividly portrays the mood and lifestyle of a farmer and the structure and relationships of his traditional family.

For a few years CIS film critics did not consider Uzbek cinema a subject worthy of their attention, even though one after another independent film companies were established and produced up to fifteen motion pictures annually. There are very few artistic innovations in these films but there has been tremendous progress in the process of becoming a profitable industry. Uzbekistan claims the position of a Central Asian cinema empire, similar to India – where the entire country watches nationally produced films. With its population of 22 million people and a predicted increase to 50 million by 2010, it is entirely possible. Islam Karimov, president of Uzbekistan, fully understands this and began planned government subsidizing of the film industry, starting in 1996. In a certain way, this model recalls the development of Iranian cinema during the last decade.

If I had to forecast which Central Asian cinema is going to lead the way five to ten years from now, I would say that most likely it is Uzbek cinema. Uzbekistan is positively predisposed to this situation: it has the government support of filmmaking; a fully understood goal of distributing Uzbek films internationally via international film festivals and the extraordinary interest of the population in its nationally produced movies.

It is logical that Yusup Razikov, a film director and the president of Uzbekfilm studio, states its self-sufficiency in his interview: "In the present situation Uzbeks are ahead of the others. When all the republics declared their independence, it turned out that Uzbekistan could be totally self-sufficient. We build new factories; produce agricultural products and so on. Our self-sufficiency is the reality… It is impossible to reach other worlds without a sense of self-worth and self-sufficiency. Consciousness has to ripen and it ripens only when it undergoes the search of self-identity." (7)

The Orator (1998), a film by Yusup Razikov, is an example of praising the traditional Uzbek society. At the same time it is a satire of the establishment of the Soviet authority in Central Asia. The film demonstrates how the Russians fought against the parandzha (the Uzbek traditional face veil). The khudzhum was a most cruel episode in the social transformation of the region. Many women committed self-immolation as an act of a protest against the khudzhum. Many men escaped the Soviet Union because the Russians destroyed the traditional Uzbek family structure. For the Russians, the success of the khudzhum was an ideological victory. For the Central Asians, it was a defeat and brutal rape: the honor and dignity of the community was suddenly and monstrously violated.

It is interesting to note that the film covers three periods: the beginning is set in the pre-Soviet period; the middle unfolds in the Soviet era; and the end as well as the protagonist’s concluding opinion is set in the post-Soviet days.

The Soviet regime barged into Uzbekistan and attempted to destroy the traditional community and family structure. Yusup Razikov accurately reconstructs the historical events of the establishment of the Soviet authority in Central Asia:

During the post-Soviet period Iskander meets as an old man. Everything is reversed as if the seventy years of the Soviet Union never happened – the most important values are family and makhalya (community) – and grandpa Iskander, a supporter of the Soviets, now is not looked upon as a hero but rather a traitor of the traditional values.

In conclusion: it took only eight years after the collapse of the Soviet Union for a film that reversed the plus and minus signs to be created. What was valued during the Soviet times became evil and embarrassing now, and visa versa. For example, participation in the October Revolution used to be an admirable fact, and now it was considered part of the shameful past. If traditional Uzbek marital polygamy was a Soviet taboo, now films pictured it as an element of an ideal existence.

Let us recall our conversation about the different mentalities present in Central Asia now. It becomes obvious that Uzbekistan renounced its Soviet past and embraced the ethnic and traditional mentality.

It is clear that Uzbekistan turned its vector to the East, to the reinforcement of the traditional hierarchy in the minds of people.

Turkmenistan: Back to the Past

However, the most difficult situation in cinema among Central Asian countries is certainly in Turkmenistan. In 1996, Turkmenfilm Studio was closed because of the construction of a new highway, which was supposed to go through its property. All films produced during the previous years of independence were prohibited from public viewing. This includes the following films: Mankurt (1990), by Khodzhakuli Narliev, Little Angel, Make Me Happy (1992), by Sapar Usmanov, and many others.

Saparmurad Niyazov shocked the world by announcing the closing of the theatre, opera and ballet house, and circus in Turkmenistan. His explanation was that these forms of art are not typical of Turkmen traditional culture. As for cinema, it no longer exists in Turkmenistan. However, before the gates closed, Turkmen filmmakers tried to communicate their problems through their metaphorical films. Why did this happen? The reason is the totalitarian regime of the president of the country.

Speaking of the artistic and metaphorical qualities of Turkmen cinema of the period, it is necessary to emphasize its mythological and epic characteristics.

Once again according to Fanon, I would define this cinema as a return to an idealized view of the traditional culture. It is not accidental that Khodzhakuli Narliev adapted a chapter of an epic novel by Olzhas Sulemenov called A Day Lasting Longer Than An Age. The film director chose the chapter covering the legend of Mankurt (a Turkic zombie). The process of becoming a mankurt symbolizes the loss of identity and national roots; and the novelist considers it "one of the most important problems of today." Little Angel, Make Me Happy, by Usman Saparov, is an epic work as well because it represents a farewell to the Soviet realities.

However, something very different then took place. Karma and Redemption by Khalmamed Kakabayev elevated the discussion of human behavior to a new level. Redemption tells the story of one of the so-called new Turkmen, the newly self-proclaimed financial elite of the society. He chases after status symbols: money, expensive cars, computers, and prestigious friends. In this pursuit, he forgets about the most important thing – his mother, representing his motherland. When his mother comes to the city to visit her son, he doesn’t have a spare moment for her. He doesn’t introduce her to his friends because he feels embarrassed to have such a villager for his mother. His mother returns to her village and dies. The son comes to her funeral and realizes how thoughtless he has been and how very vain his glamorous city life seems to him. He becomes an ascetic dervish, travels through the desert, and asks God for redemption for his sins against his mother.

This vector returns into the loins of the traditional culture. Despite its general westernization and urbanization it doesn’t have an over-saturated and decorative atmosphere like The Orator, an Uzbek film; it rather has a deep and profound philosophical quality. In this case, I see some parallels to the Iranian cinema of the ’80s and the ’90s.

Thinking about Central Asian cinema of the last decade, I often ask myself: "Where does the phenomenon of Central Asian cinema lie?" The answer is – in its metaphors and artistic generalizations. Many Turkmen films of the ’90s express this within the following parameters:

  1. Prototype of a family
  2. Language of symbols and types
  3. Artistic generalization

For example, the film Rovoyat tells the story of a father, his seven sons and a daughter. The father represents a cultural hero. Like Huan Di, the first Emperor of China, the father has to distribute universal roles among his family: one son is to become a shepherd; the second son is to become a farmer; the third son is to become a craftsman; the fourth son is to become a hunter; etc. The proto-father and his family represent universal order and a nomadic tribe stands for chaotic evil. This is an example of an artfully presented mythological construction. Therefore, a sea in the beginning of the film is not just a sea – it’s a substation that is the origin of everything alive. The earth is the symbol of proto-nature. The film contains the plots of myths and legends of various cultures that created tales of their transition from "the wild" to "the cultured" – the creation of human civilization. Why did the filmmakers return to the beginning of the beginning, to the zero point? I think that it is a direct reflection of the social and political processes in the country. Isn’t this reversion to the feudal period from the age of computers and space exploration horrifying? This belongs to the category of things that are impossible to accept or even comprehend. Isn’t this why the family is destroyed at the end of the film? There is no hope for survival. The rest of the tribe is promised that they will find a mountain that leads to paradise. How honestly this reflects everything that is happening in Turkmenistan today.

Artistic generalizations and national metaphors are the qualities of post-colonial cultures.

Frederic Jameson, a theoretician of third world literature, writes:  "All third world texts are necessarily, I want to argue, allegorical, and in a very specific way: they are to be read as what I will call national allegories, when or perhaps I should say, particularly when their forms develop out of predominantly Western machineries of representation, such as the novel. Whereas the culture of the Western realistic and modernist novel ‘involves’ a radical split between the private and the public, the Third World text – even those which are seemingly private and invested with libidinal dynamics – is necessarily a project with a political dimension in the form of national allegory: the story of a private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third world culture and society." (8)

This allegorical nature is characteristic not only of Turkmen filmmakers but also of all filmmakers of Central Asia.

In their short film named The Stop (2000), Aktan Abdikalikov and Ernest Abdizhaparov presented an image of Kyrgyzstan as a country standing on the side of the road of world progress. Ali Khamrayev, an Uzbek film director, warned in his film Bo Ba Bu (1998) about possible outcomes, in my opinion, if Central Asian society reverts back to the feudal khans and medieval relationships.

It is obvious that the vector towards hierarchization of the society reached its maximum level in Turkmenistan, and its cinema simply reflects its socio-political trends.

Tadzhikistan: View From Outside

Tadzhik cinema of the 1990s is a unique phenomenon. During the four years of civil war, the film industry ceased to exist in Tadzhikistan. Today, practically all of Tadzhik cinema is made in immigration.

May 2001. Moscow. The House of Filmmakers. I remember that one day Tadzhik filmmakers living outside of their homeland – about fifteen people – gathered together in the corridor of the White Hall. It was amazing, but these people created the current Tadzhik cinema and brightly illustrated Benedict Anderson’s definition of a nation as an imaginary community.

Every director of documentary or feature films creates this thin ephemeral substance called nation. Every film, like a mosaic piece, contributes to forming one complete view of a country and its people.

There were not many films shot in Tadzhikistan during that decade but every one of them has its special place.

Kosh Ba Kosh (1993) by Bakhtiyar Khudoinazarov received the Silver Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival and put Dushanbe, Tadzhikistan, on the map. Dushanbe is a city of romantic lovers and random gunshots during the Commandant Hour (a military condition prohibiting anybody’s presence on the streets during certain hours); funiculars – lovers’ hiding places – and corpses floating in the city’s canal. But what is most important is that there are real passions and deep feelings. It turns out that war and love can coexist.

The Presence (1995), a film by Tolib Khamidov, was shown in the forum of the Berlin Film Festival. It communicates the same complex atmosphere of desperation and hope of people living under the conditions of a civil war. The protagonist, a young intellectual man, frequently looks through an album of famous French photographs. The photographs convey carelessness and harmony and represent a desired paradise for the protagonist. Concluding, I would define the vector of mentality as pro-Western in these films. However, in The Flight Of The Bumblebee (1998), a film by Jamshet Usmonov, the vector is geared towards the ethnic and traditional planes.

Interestingly, even documentaries: The Business Trip (1998), by Mairam Yusupova; The Return (1999), by Farkhad Abdullayev; and Sweet Motherland (2000), by Orzy Sharipov have their own vector demonstrating the view of the author. The Business Trip was shot in the manner of Russian documentaries – minimal production value and exact-detail observations, and as a result – a post-Soviet city rises before our eyes. The Return looks more like a television report from the Middle East – Asian male faces in Afghan scarves; life in refugee camps, traditional long robes for men, colorful kerchiefs for women, and their return, not to their city apartments but to huts in remote mountain villages. Sweet Motherland idealizes the traditional lifestyle of Tadzhiks and creates nostalgia for the lost harmony in life.

Tadzhik cinema of the decade of its independence is a direct reflection of the situation in a country torn by war and its consequences. Besides its function as a reflection of reality, this cinema undertakes the goal of defining of moral coordinates and ethical values by asking the eternal question: "What is Motherland?"

Finally, in 1999, Moon Pap,a by Bakhtiyar Khudoinazarov, came to the screen and displayed its eclectic image – like life itself. This motion picture admirably conveys the various vectors of mentality and the absurdity of life in Tadzhikistan and Central Asia in general.

The protagonist is a girl named Mamlakat ("Motherland" in Tadzhik) who gets pregnant but doesn’t know by whom. The premise of the film is that her family – her choleric father and her mad brother – try to find the father of the future baby. A local Tadzhik con artist decides to marry Mamlakat and adopt the child but he gets killed. The real biological father, a Russian pilot, identifies himself but falls into a coma. Poor Mamlakat doesn’t have anybody to support her and her only hope is to fly away on a magic carpet.

Everything is mixed up in Moon Papa. The West and the East, the Soviet and post-Soviet realities, good and evil, truth and fantasy, countries and continents – everything is spinning in a circle of madness and disarray. Only water, representing death, and earth, representing life, the original elements of nature, remain fixed in the space where everythingis lawless and disordered. Again, everything is leveled toground zero, to the point ofreconstruction of the cultural model at its base.

Is this good or bad? This is not the question. It is obvious that the potential for future reconstruction is more than enough. It means new films are to be made, and new ideas to be expressed, but it is going to happen not "because of" but "in spite of." In spite of the fact that Tadzhikfilm Studio doesn’t exist due to lack of finances, and in spite of the fact that Tadzhik cinema was supposed to become extinct. In this there is another phenomenon of Central Asian cinema.

Passionate situations occur not because of money or government directives, but because of the major responsibilities placed before an artist by time and society.

In general we can say that in the post-Soviet Central Asian countries, film production situations and films themselves reflect the social and political problems and indicate directions of development in the transitional period. They convey not only ideological trends but also the mentalities of people in their everyday life.

Instead of a Conclusion

In this cacophony of various cultural and ideological trends, in this almost geopolitical war for the cinema of Central Asia, one is forced to ask: "What is the cinema of Central Asia like?"

Interestingly, Amnesia or Anemia, an article by Dmitriy Karavaev for Global Amnesia: Central Asia and Political Space, an international symposium, (May 2002, Moscow) states:

"In order to understand the current situation in the cinema of Central Asia, it is appropriate to seek analogies. For a long time, I studied Chinese cinema, which has many converging points (socially, ethnically, historically and culturally) with Central Asian cinema. The same ideas apply to the artistic styles of films. In modern China, where the film industry has rapidly developing technologies, a highly evolved visual sensibility, and sensitivity to foreign influence and genres, the powerful principal of ideological castration remains unyielding. This model of cinema development can be successfully adapted to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenia." (9)

I think that the parallels between To Liv,e by Chjan Imou, and Surzhekey the Angel of Death, by Damir Manabaye,v are obvious in their aspects of reconstruction of the historical past. The Fallen Angels, by Van Karvay, and The Needle, by Rashid Nugmanov, or The Little Fish in Love, by Abay Karpikov, have their parallels as well, because the film directors are troubadours of modern urban life. The films of the new generation of young Kazakh filmmakers resemble those of the young Taiwanese cinema.

Going further, the Tadzhik films of Jamshet Usmonov obviously recall Iranian cinema; and this, without a doubt, is because both countries have common historical and cultural roots. The modern Uzbek cinema gravitates towards Indian films because of its preference for the melodramatic genre. These tendencies surfaced during the last two or three years.

In my opinion, an actual unlocking of the cultural borders took place. Central Asia transformed from Soviet to Asian territory. Time will tell if these trends will strengthen or shift into a different direction.



  1. Anderson, Benedict; Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London, 1983, p.

  2. Akiner, Shirin; "Between Tradition and Modernity: the Dilemma Facing

  3. Contemporary Central Asian Women," article in Post-Soviet Women:

  4. From the Baltic to Central Asia, Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 283.

  5. Quotation from Roy Armes, Cultural and National Identity, University of California Press, 1987, p.25.
  6. Plakhov, Andrey; "French Lessons", Isskusstvo kino magazine, Moscow, 1991, #3.
  7. Abikeyeva Gulnara; Central Asia Cinema. 1991-2001, Almaty, 2001, p. 65-66.
  8. Quotation from Roy Armes, Cultural and National Identity, University of California Press, 1987, p.26.
  9. Abikeyeva, Gulnara; Central Asia Cinema. 1991-2001, Almaty, 2001, p. 229.
  10. This quotation is from the article by Asish Rajadhyaksha, "Realism, Modernism, and Post-colonial Theory" in World Cinema: Critical Approaches, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000, p.35.
  11. Dmitriy Karavaev; "Amnesia or Anemia", Kinoforum magazine, Moscow, 2002, #3, p.

Gulnara Abikeeva, 2003

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