Iusup Razykov and Contemporary Uzbek Cinema

By Seth Graham (Stanford University)

[pdf version]

Iusup (also known as Iusuf) Razykov’s 2003 film The Healer (Dard) opens with a close-up of a cancer patient’s face. The distraught man’s surgeon, off-screen, is telling him that he will die without a risky stomach operation. The film ends with a close-up of the same man’s face, this time healthy and smiling, his forehead smeared with fresh sheep’s blood, a sign of the sacrificial thanks he has brought to the surgeon who, it turns out, has indeed saved his life. Razykov is fond of such visual and narrative book-ending, and uses the device in various ways to various effects. I will return to The Healer and other such instances of symmetrical framing below, but I want to begin this survey of Razykov’s work by suggesting that the “book-end” model is also a productive way to position for scrutiny the six feature films he has directed since 1998: The Orator (Voiz, 1998); Women’s Kingdom (Ayollar Saltanati, 1999); A Dance for Men (Dilhiroj, 2002); Comrade Boykenzhaev (Ortok Boykenjaev, 2002); The Healer; and The Shepherd (Erkek, 2005). [1] These half-dozen films, which represent about 20 per cent of the total feature-film output of Uzbekistan during the period, lend themselves to discussion in pairs. I am not claiming that Razykov’s oeuvre is a series of dilogies (in the way that Aleksandr Sokurov, for example, works in interwoven trilogies), but his six major works, I demonstrate in what follows, yield well to a trio of analytical juxtapositions. First, however, some context.

Born in Uzbekistan on June 5, 1957 into a military family, Razykov studied philology at Tashkent State University while also working part-time as a gaffer at Uzbekfilm Studios. In 1981, after completing his army service, he enrolled in the screenwriting department at the Soviet State Filmmaking Institute (VGIK) in Moscow, where he studied in the workshop of Valentin Chernykh (author of the screenplay for Vladimir Men'shov’s Oscar-winning 1979 film Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears). Since graduating in 1986 Razykov has worked as a playwright, a screenwriter, and a film and television director at Mosfilm and Uzbekfilm. Between 1983 and 1993 at least six feature films were produced based on his screenplays, including Mikhail Tumanishvili’s Wolfhound (Volkodav, 1991) and Valerii Pendrakovskii’s Very Faithful Wife (Ochen' vernaia zhena, 1992). His first directorial project was the film Under the Mask of the “Black Cat” (Pod maskoi “Chernoi koshki” 1991), co-directed with Olim Irgashev. Razykov directed his first solo feature, Angel in a Fire (Angel v ogne), in 1994, and wrote and directed the first Uzbek TV soap operas, Domla (1994) and Order (1997) (Abikeeva, Heart 80). He served as General Director of Uzbekfilm Studios from 1999 to 2004. His most recent project, a detective mini-series for the Russian television channel NTV based on Tat'iana Ustinova’s novel My General, began shooting in Moscow in August 2005. Razykov also recently made his acting debut, playing the lead in Fatykh Zhalalov’s 2005 film The Jealousy of Memory.

A Preemptive Epilogue

President Islam Karimov’s decree of 9 March 1992 is the founding document of post-Soviet Uzbek cinema, and its underlying principles are state control over all stages of film production and national autochthony in financing and training (Mesamed 181). [2] Reliance on foreign sources of funding, common in recent Kyrgyz and Kazakh filmmaking, has been virtually unknown in Uzbek film, even though the promised subsidy by the state of 6 to 9 feature films per year has often fallen short. Another problem is the shortage of professionals, exacerbated both by the emigration of leading film personnel and the fact that Uzbekistan stopped sending students to study at VGIK in Moscow in the early 1990s, leaving the training of native film workers largely to the cinema department of the Tashkent Institute of the Arts (Mesamed 181). As a result, there is a widening gap between the youngest generation of actors, directors, cinematographers, etc., and the “old” and “middle” generations of Uzbek film personnel, who are products of the Soviet system (Razykov himself is considered part of the middle generation).

The state film agency, Uzbekkino, employs an “expert commission” to monitor film production (both state and privately funded) for content that is, in the words of the chair of the commission, film critic Saodat Khojaeva, “unacceptable for the Uzbek mentality.” Other commission members include representatives from the health ministry and a sexologist (Yanyshev). One film whose distribution license has been held up for three years is the children’s picture Bombastik-3, produced by Abdurahman Davlatov. The problematic content is a scene in which the child protagonists of the film fly in a hot air balloon to a “magical country where wondrous creatures and giants live.” “We were told,” says Davlatov, “‘How can that be? Citizens of Uzbekistan simply flew across the border? Where were our border guards?’ They say that we made Uzbek border guards look like fools” (Yanyshev). Also targeted for censorship (most often, as in the case of Bombastik-3, by means of denial of distribution licenses) are “thrillers,” “pornography,” and films containing “violence or inter-ethnic conflict” (Yanyshev).

Observers both within and outside the Uzbek film industry, however, have used the term “Uzbek boom” to describe the state of that industry with some regularity since 1998, when Razykov’s The Orator made the international festival rounds to great acclaim (Razykov, “Aktual'noe interv'iu”). Tashkent’s enthusiastic subsidizing of feature filmmaking, as well as aggressive state advocacy of films that appeal to a domestic audience, are cited as crucial distinguishing features that set Uzbek cinema apart from that of other former Soviet republics in Central Asia. Gul'nara Abikeeva predicted in 2002 that the Uzbek model of filmmaking “is going to lead the way five to ten years from now” (Heart 16). Yet Uzbek filmmakers have recently expressed deeply pessimistic and harshly critical opinions of the industry and the state’s control over it. The most vociferous statement on behalf of film professionals in Uzbekistan is director and animator Nazim Tuliakhodzhaev’s “open letter” to the leadership of the state film agency Uzbekkino in March 2004, in which he expressed the outrage of many of his colleagues over the heavy-handed censorial policies, inaccessibility, and even the drunkenness of Uzbekkino head Murad Mukhammad-Dost (Tuliakhodzhaev, “Krik dushi”). Although Mukhammad-Dost himself was “reassigned” to a different cultural post outside cinema in 2005, the events in Andijon certainly do not bode well.

At the risk of over-extending a metaphor: the earliest and most recent films in Razykov’s 1998-2005 filmography may in retrospect book-end a discrete mini-period in Uzbek cinema, given the convergence of recent events and circumstances. Razykov was removed from his post as General Director of Uzbekfilm in 2004, and in 2005 began making films outside of Uzbekistan, specifically, in Russia, for the first time since before The Orator. The Uzbek government’s crackdown on dissent following the unrest in Andijon in the spring of 2005 is another potential augur of changing cultural politics in the country.

Before he was removed as the director of Uzbekfilm, Razykov lamented the current relationship between the studio and Uzbekkino. The studio, he said in a June 2005 interview, “is turning into a film factory. Previously we could say that the studio director was responsible for putting out films, but that is no longer accurate. Now Uzbekkino just sends down a screenplay, complete with a director and financing. And the studio makes its services available for the director’s use—sets, costumes, vehicles, and so forth. It is a purely service-sector function” (“‘Vremia kino’”). Razykov’s blunt cynicism, and his consistent use of the third-person to refer to an entity that he himself was in charge of for seven years, underscores the import of the current transition underway in the Uzbek film industry. So, again, a retrospective look at the director’s films is timely.


Comrade Boykenzhaev and The Orator

The respective settings of Razykov’s two films that foreground specifically Soviet chronotopes themselves frame the Soviet period: The Orator takes place in the 1920s, at the dawn of Soviet power in Uzbekistan, and Comrade Boykenzhaev is set during the twilight of that power, at the end of the 1980s. Moreover, both combine socio-historical commentary (though in two different genres) with often lyrical portrayal of the personal tragedy of a single member of that society as he negotiates the tectonic shifts of a volatile historical moment.

A glance at the titles of Razykov’s features is sufficient to betray his interest in questions of gender: Women’s Kingdom, A Dance for Men, and The Shepherd, the Uzbek title of which, Erkek, means “man” (the Russian title is Devichii pastukh, “shepherd of girls,” which was the working title of the film during production). The Orator is also crucially concerned with gender, specifically the early-Soviet reform of Uzbek women’s rights and marriage policies. Razykov said in an interview: “My favorite costume is the veil. It’s much more interesting to peek under that shroud, which expresses nothing but conceals a great deal” (“‘Vremia kino’”). Of the two films I choose to pair in this section, only one, The Orator, has a sustained focus on questions of gender. But Boykenzhaev delves under a symbolic “shroud,” as well: the struggle between the state and the individual over control of one’s death.

 

Boykenzhaev stands out among Razykov’s films by virtue of its sustained humor. Although it is commonly categorized as a “tragifarce,” the film is firmly in the tradition of Soviet film satire—as Evgenii Gusiatinskii argues—on a formal as well as narrative level (41). It is in fact a doubly retro work: a post-Soviet production that could very well be a perestroika parody of a Stagnation social satire. [3] The titular comrade is a lowly Communist-Party bureaucrat in a nondescript region of perestroika-era Uzbekistan. Boykenzhaev is a Soviet Akakii Akakievich: meek, naïve, and abjectly obedient to authority (Bobrova). He embodies the barely smoldering ember of revolutionary ardor left by the late-1980s, and not only by virtue of his unshakable obedience to the Party: he is literally the local Lenin. In his first appearance on screen he is dressed in full Vladimir Il'ich regalia, on stage at the orphanage where he himself was raised, performing at the birthday party of a little girl he treats—for reasons left unexplained—as his daughter. His interpretation manifests the avuncular Lenin, carrying a bag of sweets for the children (a prop choice for which he is chided by the orphanage director, who tells him afterwards, “Lenin is not Santa Claus”). Boykenzhaev’s homage to the founder of the Soviet state is also flawed in a flashback to another performance, a May Day parade. Unable to squeeze his feet into the shoes provided just minutes before he must mount the float, he is forced to portray a barefoot Lenin, an image that itself efficiently encompasses the tragifarcical, at once sots-art (Gusiatinskii 42) and poignant, for Boykenzhaev’s lonely, doomed enthusiasm.

Before we even meet Boykenzhaev, however, the plot of the film is set in motion by others. A visiting party bigwig shares his vision for an “international” cemetery where Muslims, Christians, and Jews can lie in posthumous brotherhood, in the spirit of the Revolution. When the official keels over and dies immediately after telling the local party boss about his idea, the boss prioritizes the realization of the project as a testament to his departed friend. Boykenzhaev is assigned the task of organizing the construction of the cemetery and, most importantly, finding a suitable (that is, ethnic Uzbek) corpse for the ceremonial first burial. The comedic episodes that ensue (which obliquely echo another Gogolian motif, Chichikov’s search for “dead souls”) revolve around Boykenzhaev’s search for the “lucky” first “client” in the new cemetery. Not a single member of the community, of course, wants their loved ones to end up in the Soviet boondoggle of “mandatory brotherhood” for eternity, and the conflict over control of their bodies fuels the comedy.

Tipped off that Boykenzhaev is on the way to their house, one family desperately stages an ersatz celebration, transforming the body of their freshly demised patriarch into a marionette (à la Ted Kotcheff’s 1989 film Weekend at Bernie’s) sitting at the table, cup in hand, lest he be chosen for burial in the infidel graveyard. Boykenzhaev’s imminent arrival at the terminal ward of a hospital sends the patients into a panicked exodus. The increasingly desperate apparatchik even visits the local underworld boss, asking if the boss wouldn’t consider expediting the whacking of some enemy he had marked for elimination anyway. Late on the eve of the funeral, Boykenzhaev returns to his tiny room, bringing (like Akakii) his “work” home with him. He turns on Beethoven’s Apassionata, lies down on his bed, and stops his own heart by mere force of will (note that his death is the matching book-end for the death of the party official that opens the film). The next day he becomes the first (and, a voiceover narrator tells us, the last) “resident” of the new cemetery, and a symbol for the ideological ghost-town of Soviet power itself (the star-shaped cemetery is reminiscent of the hammer-and-sickle headboard of Evdokim Kuznetsov’s bed/mausoleum at the end of Sergei Livnev’s 1994 film Hammer and Sickle).

Boykenzhaev is certainly in the “little man” tradition, but he is a Soviet little man: his “immunity to cynicism” is a fatal flaw, a mental illness in a society in which cynicism is not only ubiquitous, but has become crucial to survival. Boykenzhaev is not a gentle caricature of the collective (the post-Stalinist model of social satire), nor is he a diseased cell within the social organism that must be excised via laughter (the Stalinist model). He is the embodiment of a worldview that appears to be on the verge of obsolescence, but which in fact is already a corpse (a barefoot Lenin).

Again, Razykov’s breakout film, The Orator, [4] takes place at the opposite historical extreme—the dawn of Soviet power in Uzbekistan—though it portrays a similar impulse: the state’s aspirations to control biology and ritual (marriage, procreation, death). Like Boykenzhaev, Orator features voiceover narration (in the latter case, by the titular protagonist’s future grandson) to effect a fable-like, earnest yet subtly ironic portrayal of a specific moment in the society’s history. Also like Boykenzhaev, Orator does not sacrifice its lyrical focus in the service of historical or political commentary; the orator Iskander’s unwitting rise to the status of “voice of the revolution” does coincide with a seminal period of 20th century Uzbek history (the establishment of Soviet power and liberation of women campaign known as the khudzhum in the 1920s and 1930s). Yet, as in Boykenzhaev, Razykov (the director and screenwriter) does not let his protagonist crystallize into a mere metaphor for a collective (or for the disintegration of a collective), which marks both films as unmistakably post-Soviet narratives.

Women's Kingdom and The Healer

Razykov’s first feature after The Orator was a departure from the earlier film both thematically and stylistically. Impressionistic rather than sequential, more philosophical than socio-historical, Women’s Kingdom follows a troubled, middle-aged writer as he moves back and forth between reality and fantasy (although which is which is not always clear). Unable to balance his commitments to the women in his life, one day he impulsively and desperately puts his arms into a mud wall under construction, telling the masons to mortar him into the wall, aspiring simultaneously to self-destructive stasis and to escape into a different reality (Razykov, “Our Self-Sufficiency is the Reality” 79). Afterwards, his wrists bandaged (suggesting a suicide attempt [Abikeeva, Kino 225]), he is driven by a friend and dropped off at the edge of a forest in which he discovers an idyllic community of women, some of whom are women from his “waking” life. As he chases one of the women who has stolen his glasses (another metaphor for transition to a different realm of perception), he passes through a cave to a second fantasy space, a “woman market” in the middle of a desert. There he encounters the women in his life again, this time as four “wives” his friend has purchased on his behalf. Yet a third fantasy (?) subplot involves the protagonist’s quest for a magical healing root to save one of the women.

Titled The Healer in English (a translation of the Russian title, Lekar'), the Uzbek title of Razykov’s 2003 film, Dard, in fact means “pain,” a title that more accurately signals the film’s depiction not of a single doctor, but a group of characters (patients, doctors, and others) with a variety of traumas. The multiplicity of perspectives, however, is not accompanied by a multiplicity of loosely connected chronotopes—the major shortcoming of Women’s Kingdom—and so The Healer is ultimately a more powerful narrative. Moreover, the later film is notable because it features the director’s only female lead to date, or at least his most fleshed-out female protagonist: a Ministry of Health doctor sent from Tashkent to a provincial hospital to investigate the death of a patient at the clinic of a famous surgeon. As in many “stranger comes to town” narratives, the doctor/inspector’s back story is filled in gradually for most of the film, with a dramatic reveal near the end: her father was a cancer patient whose suicide upon learning his diagnosis left the family not only traumatized, but shunned in a culture where suicide is a powerful stigma. The personal (or biological) intersects with the social in several subplots, as well: a young female medical student was saved from cancer by the doctor’s intervention, but was left unable to bear children and thus is un-marryable; an aging actress with breast cancer who decides against the life-saving operation; and the man whose visage book-ends the visual plane of the film, as I describe above. All three of these minor characters find happy endings: in addition to the healed cancer patient, the actress is apparently convinced by the doctor/inspector to reconsider her decision, and a local policeman tells the medical student he wants to marry her and adopt a child. The catalyst for these three results (the direct cause in the case of the actress) is the incursion of the female doctor/healer into the community. Her ultimate effectiveness as a centrifugal, harmonizing influence on the community is in contrast to the impotence and confusion of the protagonist in Women’s Kingdom, and demonstrates (as A Dance for Men does, argues N.a.) the fundamental reliance of the society on women’s agency.

A Dance for Men and The Shepherd

Razykov often organizes the pacing of his films around the representation of rites, especially sacraments: birth, coming of age (loss of foreskin or loss of virginity), marriage, death. Quotidian and other cyclical rituals, customs, and behaviors also figure prominently, if quietly, including meals, prayers (though never in a mosque), dancing, [5] handicrafts and other domestic labor. Yet the “ethnographic” is never the determining visual mode, as it often was in Soviet films from Central Asia (which were expected to embody the Soviet trope of “national in form, socialist in content”). Nor does Razykov allow the ethnographic scenes to overshadow or distract from the specific narrative of the film as a work of aesthetic fiction, as such scenes sometimes do in post-Soviet feature films from the region, including Aktan Abdykalykov’s Beshkempir (Kyrgyzstan, 1998), Serik Aprymov’s The Hunter (Kazakhstan, 2004), and Marat Sarulu’s short Mandala (Kyrgyzstan, 2000).

A Dance for Men and The Shepherd are linked by their rural settings: Dance takes place in a small, non-descript village (kishlak) and Shepherd is set in the remote, mountainous region of Baisun, in southern Uzbekistan, near the border with Afghanistan. Dance is symmetrically framed with opening and closing shots of a little girl waving her hands at a blind grandmother. The arc from death to life that connects the “book-ends” in Healer are reversed here; in the final shots, the grandmother has died (the girl thinks she is asleep), and in the opening scene, she is foretelling her granddaughter’s future life, specifically her marriage to a local boy. The rest of the film bears her words out, and the series of obstacles to the marriage must be overcome with the help of that same matriarch; she tells her granddaughter that she mustn’t let even her own (the grandmother’s) death prevent the wedding from taking place.

 

The eponymous “shepherd” in The Shepherd (and the eponymous “man” of the Uzbek title) is thirteen-year-old Jamshid. His brother, like a large percentage of the working-age men in the economically stagnant region, has gone abroad to earn a living. In his absence, Jamshid is responsible for chaperoning his brother’s young bride, Matsura, wherever she goes. On a bus trip back from a visit to Jamshid’s mother in the hospital, the bus driver stares at Matsura lasciviously in the rear-view mirror. She allows the eye contact and is convinced that she has committed adultery. While her “shepherd” sleeps in the seat beside her, she gets off the bus near a legendary mountain cave where young maidens turn into stones.

Jamshid spends the rest of the film searching for his sister-in-law, and—as in Women’s Kingdom—it is not entirely clear what happens. Does she turn into a stone, or a deer (which according to local legend is a possible fate for young girls overcome with shame), or does she return home safely? In a sense, her fate is irrelevant to the central movement of the film: Jamshid’s passage into manhood, a passage he makes in the absence of male role models, and in part via the agency of women. In one scene, after Jamshid dresses down a soothsayer for propagating superstitions, she remarks, “finally a man has appeared in our village.” The other representatives of his gender in the narrative, including his absent brother, who has not so much as written for over six months, are contrastively represented. One village man who has just returned from working abroad cannot remember the names of all seven of his children, and, after promising to stay, takes off for the airport early the next day, after re-consummating his marriage. Jamshid’s proven devotion to family, and his demonstration of his bravery in defense of those he must protect (he stares down the moving bus in his search for his sister), suggest not only Razykov’s continued interest in gender, but an emerging concern with generational shifts in Uzbek society. Razykov’s “youngest” film also has his youngest protagonist, indicating that, in this time of upheaval in both Uzbek cinema and Uzbek state-society relations, the pessimism about the film industry’s future that the nation’s dominant film artist expresses in the quotation above has not infected his ultimately optimistic vision of the nation as a community.


Notes

1] I am excluding Angel in a Fire (Angel v ogne, 1994), Razykov’s feature directorial debut, because I was not able to watch it. The film is frequently left out of his filmography entirely.

2] For a recent (2004) update of the Karimov government’s official cinema policy, see “Postanovlenie.”

3] The narrative arc, surprise ending, and the ultimately fatal naïve earnestness of the protagonist recall Evgenii Tsymbal’s perestroika-era short film Defense Counsel Sedov (Zashchitnik Sedov, 1990).

4] The Orator is a landmark not only, or even primarily, in the director’s own career, but in Uzbek film generally. The previous year, the malokartin'e that plagued the film industries of all of the former Soviet republics had reached its nadir in Uzbekistan, which produced only three feature films in 1996 and 1997.

5] On the use of dancing as “punctuation” in the film, see N.a. “Dance for Men,” the program notes for a screening at the 2002 Pittsburgh Russian Film Symposium: Global Amnesia.


Works Cited

Abikeyeva, Gulnara. The Heart of the World: Films from Central Asia. Trans. Dana Zhamanbalina-Mazur. Ed. Jonathan Mazur. Almaty: Complex, 2003.

―. [Abikeeva, Gul'nara]. Kino tsentral'noi Azii (1990-2001). Almaty: IREX, 2001.

Bobrova, Natal'ia. “Nemnogo solntse v kholodnom kino.” Kinoshock website.

Gusiatinskii, Evgenii. “Leniniana Iusupa Razykova.” Iskusstvo kino 3 (2003): 41-44.

Mesamed, Vladimir. “Uzbek Cinema: A Slow Revival.” Central Asia and the Caucasus 5 (2004): 180-84.

N.a. “The Dance of Men.” Program notes for the Russian Film Symposium 2002: Global Amnesia (2) and the Politics of Cultural Space: Contemporary Central Asian Cinema.

“Postanovlenie Kabineta Ministrov Respubliki Uzbekistan Ob organizatsii deiatel'nosti Natsional'nogo agenstvo ‘Uzbekkino.’” Uzbekkino website.

Razykov, Iusuf. “Aktual'noe interv'iu. Iusuf Razykov: Uzbekskoe kino protiv Gollivuda.” Interview with Svetlana Khokhriakova. Kul'tura (6 March 2004): 1.

―. “Menia v Uzbekistane nazyvaiut russkim.” Interview with Svetlana Khokhriakova. Kul'tura (21 November 2002): 4.

―. “Our Self-Sufficiency is the Reality.” Interview with Gul'nara Abikeeva. Abikeyeva, Heart 78-80.

― and Jurai Jakubisko. “‘Vremia kino’: Iurai Iakubisko i Iusuf Razykov.” Interview with Ol'ga Galitskaia. Radio Maiak (23 June 2005).

―, et al. “Kinematograf Uzbekistana: Tendentsii razvitiia i perspektivy.” Sanat 2 (2004).

Sinyshev, Anton. “V Uzbekistane sniat ocherednoi ‘nekhoroshii’ fil'm.” Fergana.ru (31 January 2005).

Tuliakhodzhaev, Nazim. “Krik dushi ili Razmyshleniia o sud'be uzbekskogo kinematografa.” Fergana.ru (1 Mar. 2004).

―. “‘Otkrytoe pis'mo’ Nazima Tuliakhodzhaeva razbudilo kinematograficheskuiu obshchestvennost’.” Interview with Nikolai Katin. Tribune-uz 18 Mar. 2004).

Yanyshev, Sid. “Uzbek Film Industry in Crisis.” Institute for War and Peace Reporting Website (7 May 2005).

Seth Graham© 2006

Updated: 14 Jan 06