Central Asia



The Esthetics of Kyrgyz Cinema, or How To Learn To Mix Colors a la Kyrgyz

(Interview with Aktan Abdikalikov)

Aktan Abdikalikov is the leading director of the new Kyrgyz Cinema. He is an absolute natural talent. He never studied film formally. But he has a truly unique cinematic vision, a naturally sensitive ear and the ability to emotionally edit his films.

He was born in 1957 in the village of Kuntuu. From 1976 to 1980 he studied at the Kyrgyz two-year art college. In 1980 he worked in Kyrgyzfilm Studio as a set decorator, then he was promoted to production designer. As a film director, he started with a documentary and then moved on to narrative feature films.

1990—A Dog Was Running, documentary

1992 – Where Is Your House, Snail?

1993 – Selkinchek, short

1995 – Beshterek, documentary

1996 – six video clips on social problems

1997 – Asan-Usen, short

1998 – Beshkempir

2000 – Beket, short

2001 – Maimil

Gulnara: In my opinion, Aktan, you are the pioneer-discoverer of the national Kyrgyz worldview through the medium of cinema. In Beshkempir there is something very simple but fully expressing the existence of Kyrgyz people, which is very close to the life style of the Kazakh people. I felt, for the first time, that I was immersed in the reality of my people; memories of childhood floated by -- because the process of comprehension of one’s environment takes place in the early childhood of a person. I have heard this kind of reaction to your film from many Kazakh people. How do you understand the Kyrgyz identity?

Aktan: Sometime ago -- 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.

Gulnara: Kurak is a technique of making patchwork blankets.

Aktan: Yes, yes. Moreover, I would like to emphasize the unique poetry of the kurak. These bits and pieces of cloth are given away during funerals. The family buys lots of fabric, then tears it apart – approximately one elbow-length – and gives the pieces away to everybody who came to bid farewell to the deceased. This way, bits of different fabrics are collected in a household. Our mothers, more often grandmothers, sew a kurak from these pieces of cloth. In essence, a kurak accumulates 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 I assembled or not 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.

Gulnara: Only after my third viewing of the film did I see these accents -- like brushstrokes -- colorful objects: tumar, the lucky charm of a boy; rings and other jewelry of his mother; a cuckoo-bird chick flapping against a window pane…

Aktan: Yes, I fractured the black-and-white picture by adding colorful objects. Of course, everything was thought through but there was not much opportunity to analyze it during the process. This was why many ideas came spontaneously. Probably there are some titans, like Peter Greenaway, who are able to estimate everything mathematically. That is why he uses giant backlots, where everything can be controlled and the exact color can be achieved – it comes out like a painting on canvas. When somebody talks about color film, I become very cautious. When one makes a black-and-white picture, the graphic minimum comes into the play. Why do we say that black-and-white film has a special magic? It is because everything trivial and everything colorful gain some special esthetic.

Gulnara: It is interesting that you experiment with color a lot, even though you are an advocate of black-and-white cinema. It is hard to imagine Selkenchek in color…

Aktan: The use of black-and-white and color film was based on one very simple principle in the Soviet cinema: that color was something good and black-and-white was something bad. Unfortunately, I cannot recall anything else. But everybody forgets that color is always associated with emotions. Where did this method of adding patches of color to black-and-white film come from? In my childhood I had a little ball – red on one side, blue on the other and a yellow stripe down the middle. This is my earliest remembrance, I think; I was still crawling back then. Once this ball had rolled under a low bed and I hurt my neck very badly trying to reach it. My neck hurt for a long time and was a big problem. So, everything from this period I remember in black-and-white but the ball is always in color for me. This example is an ideal explanation of why I used these bits of color in my black-and-white film. This is why the bird that flew inside of my room always remains in color for me; my grandmother’s jewelry; and the money, which I begged for and didn’t get. I think everybody remembers the color of a ten-ruble bill back then. I mean that all things that are valuable always remain in color for us. For example, grandmothers – I always remember them being very colorful. I don’t remember how they looked at home but, when they came to visit somebody, they had colorful scarves, nice dresses and coats – they always were full of color for me. This world probably will always remain in my memory. …Or a green meadow, or a rainbow, there are always things that stay in color. I don’t know if this effect of adding a color to a black-and-white film had an emotional reason before, but in my films a color appears because of that.

Gulnara: Aktan, it’s amazing that you’re saying, almost word to word, what Andrey Tarkovsky said in his Conversation About Color. He said that color doesn’t exist in real life, in a way. Maybe only when we cross a road and wait for a red light, sometimes we remember some sights, mostly sunsets and sunrises. And it’s totally different in cinema – color is always a concentration of an emotion and attention. In The Mirror fire and nature are important and everything else is in monochrome.

Aktan: And the same way with music. In real life, when I am thinking about something or talking to somebody, I don’t have a musical background. There are many natural things – wind, the drumming of rain… I prefer having a sound engineer record many sounds and conduct them like orchestrated music.

November 29, 2000, Bishkek

Gulnara Abikeeva, 2003

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