New cinema in Kyrgyzstan

By Aliya Moldalieva (Bishkek)

Since independence Kyrgyzfilm has produced three feature films—Cloud (Oblako, a musical film with Adil' Chekilov, dir. Erkin Saliev 2004), Petrarch's Readings (Chteniia Petrarka, dir. Nurlan Abdykadyrov, 2007), The Route to Hope (Neizvestnyi marshrut, dir. Temur Birnazarov, 2008)—which were made with state funds; another three films were produced with partial state financing: Saratan (dir. Ernest Abdyzhaparov, 2005), A Mother's Lament about Mankurt (Plach' materi o mankurte, dir. Bakyt Karagulov, 2004), and Paradise Birds (Raiskie ptitsy, dir. Gaziz Nasyrov, Talgat Asyrankulov, 2006). Films are also being made (albeit not many) at the studio Kyrgyztelefilm, and by independent directors at private studios with the support of western sponsors. Recently, more and more amateur films have begun to appear, which are made with private funds or local sponsors. Their directors have no formal training in cinema, but have learnt the ropes in television and advertising (and, what is interesting, they are all from the South of the country: they shoot there, although many have long ago moved to the capital in the North). Such filmmakers are motivated only by one desire: the dream of simply making a film.

Actually, the (increasing) cinematic activity itself of such enthusiasts would not be of interest—because such independent, small-budget, “unfettered” cinema is made everywhere—were it not for the fact that Kyrgyz amateur feature films, as opposed to state-produced, art-house festival or avant-garde films, have gained the ardent support of the people and even gross a small box office. Why is amateur cinema so successful with Kyrgyz audiences? Should we see this phenomenon as sad or, on the contrary, positive? Why do so many Kyrgyz people aspire to make films (most likely, the trends we note here only forebode a future film-boom in Kyrgyzstan)?

Moreover: such new Kyrgyz cinema is probably interesting also in the context of developments in other Central Asian countries. In Kyrgyzstan we judge the scale of the Uzbek film-boom by the abundance of films that can be found on pirated DVDs in any video stall. “Like mushrooms shoot up after the rain, so private studios began to appear, creating films under the influence of Indian cinema and grossing a huge box office,” the Uzbek director Shukhrat Abbasov complained during press conferences in Kyrgyzstan last year. In another neighboring country, Kazakhstan, passions ran high around the commercially successful crime drama Racketeer (Reketir, dir. Akhan Sataev, 2007). But Kyrgyz amateur cinema is not at all like Uzbek or Kazakh commercial cinema. The scales are different, the ambitions are different, the money is different, and the ideas, finally, also. But the spectator is the same for all the films: people watch the Uzbek drama Fatima and Zukhra (Fatima men Zukhra, dir. Bakhrom Iakubov, 2005) here in Kyrgyzstan, and Racketeer has been on release in Bishkek for a whole three weeks. Maybe the recipe for success is the same for all of Central Asia?

National, amateur, commercial?

How can we precisely define this gigantic process in Kyrgyzstan? Amateur cinema? But in the process of its development appeared young graduates of the Kyrgyz State Institute of Arts, Kamat Kasenov and Nazym Mendebairov. Theater and film director Kasenov thus explains his independence:

I haven't got enough patience to present the script to the artistic council of the film studio, wait for a month for it to be considered and confirmed, then start shooting, followed by more discussion, followed by another shoot, etc. This is a very long process, but I want to be mobile, compact, in a word—a “free artist.”

Commercial? Yes, Rustam Atashov's Love of a Minister's Daughter (Liubov' docheri ministra [Ministrdin kyzynyn makhabaty]) has grossed some ten million som ($1 = 36 Kyrgyzstani som), which is something the creators of art-house films Gennadii Bazarov, Ernest Abdyzhaparov, or Nurlan Abdykadyrov cannot brag about. But other amateur films have either not collected anything or collected very little, as most people watched those films on pirated DVDs.

The film critic Gulbara Tolomushova has called such cinema “popular” (narodnoe), because of the people's love for these unpretentious films. As I mentioned earlier, the “popularity” (narodnost') of these films is of interest, but I leave it to the reader to decide how to label this phenomenon.

Films and Directors

Temir Azem Uulu (Studio Azem) trained as director at the Tashkent Theatre Institute (for family reasons he had to abandon the course after the second year); he specialised as production designer and in the late 1970s and early 1980s worked on Osh TV; he played a part in and designed the set for U. Ibragimov's film Aisuluu's Field (Pole Aisuluu, 1976). He independently created five films: the documentary Revolution for the Sake of Truth (Revoliutsiia radi istiny, 2005)—a response to the March events; the feature Karagul my Little Camel (Karagul botom, 1998); the three-part social drama Chasm/Abyss (Tunguiuk, 2000); Autumn Leaves (Kuzgu zhalbyrak, 2003); and Mysterious Destinies (Tabyshmaktuu tagdyrlar, 2008). The lead roles in all of his fiction films were performed by himself and his daughter Gul'nur Asanova, who grew up along with the heroine. All the parts of the trilogy tell about the fate of the girl Altynai, who lost her parents early, and after leaving school was given in marriage (practically sold by a malicious stepmother) to an elder man, whose daughters from the first marriage saw her as a rival for the inheritance and banished her, taking away her small son. Subsequently destiny reunites her with her son who discovers the truth, and in the end they are all united in happiness.

In one of the episodes of the first part Altynai's father Jusup, a clever master who forced to live on occasional jobs after the closures of the factory, tries to get a customer's payment for the work done. As opposed to his degraded friends he refuses to seek consolation in vodka: he has hungry children at home. The shop owner shouts, throws him into the street, hitting and kicking him, while the strong Jusup, wiping the blood off his face as he lies in the gutter, cries from insult and humiliation: “God will punish you.” Further we see Jusup, now drunken in his hopelessness, rummaging and brawling on a dump (because of extreme poverty some Kyrgyz people are compelled to fleece the dumps for the slightest valuable object, which contains nonferrous metal, for example; dumps turn into entire tent camps with public catering points). Far from home Altynai's m other trades to make money (remarkably the woman leaves to earn while the man remains at home and looks after the children), one brother participates in non-authorized coal digging and is hit by a landslide in a mine; another brother earns extra on the market and falls victim to the racketeers… In the dreams of the 16-year-old Altynai her relationship with Melis are as beautiful as in Indian cinema, but reality is full of constant abuse and beatings by the stepmother, and harassment by the stepbrother… Undergoing all kinds of tests, Altynai manages to remain pure, kind, and bright.

Temir Azem Uulu gathered practically all the ugly phenomena of life and heaped them up in a single plot… This is no melodrama, unless we take into account the third part, with its fine and pensive heroes, with the poor men who are full of dignity, with drunkards who philosophize; where the sufferings are not convincing and emotions are conditional, while reality lies beyond the clouds. However, reality in cinema is uninteresting, and surely the purpose of cinema is—if to not give us a dream, then to invent people and events and improve their lot?

Why is our cinema the way it is: the answers to this question lie in our history, in our geographical features, in our political situation, in our social and economic situation and in the mentality of our country's inhabitants.

Undoubtedly, the vitality of events is so popular with spectators that we need not speak about the artistic qualities of these films. Video-pirates had stolen and distributed the working material of the first two parts. The director had made these on VHS and could not edit them for some years due to financial constraints (TV asked $3,000 for the work), so he tried to edit at home, for himself. The tape with these rough cuts of the first two parts reached the pirates, who digitized and copied the films. Thus the entire country watched these “rough” cuts from DVD, and Temir Azem Uulu made the third part (for $3,000-4,000, with better quality)—even if from the point of view of content the first part was the best. As a matter of fact, he generated an income from the last part. I watched Mysterious Destinies at a cinema on the twentieth day of its release. The hall was full and people loudly voiced their sympathy for the heroine. Some days later “at the request of spectators”, the film featured on the billboard again. However, the third part of Azem's trilogy reached the screens after the success of Love of the Minister's Daughter, so that the laurels for the trailblazer in distribution go to Rustam Atashov.

After the release of Love of the Minister's Daughter (dir. Rustam Atashov, script Rustam Atashov and Tynchtyk Abylkasymov, production Studio Zhan, 2006) people began to talk about “popular” cinema. The officials of the cinema department spoke negatively (it is amateur cinema, after all), but Gulbara Tolomushova added up that the film (produced for a few cents) collected about one million som during the first season, which was unprecedented for Kyrgyzstan (it was held that the Kyrgyz people do not like going to the movies). Then followed the second part and the third (2007, the budget is not disclosed but it is murmured that the director reckons it is not worth investing more than $20,000 in the making of a film), each being released three times, grossing in excess of ten million som. After two years of unprecedented security measures, the director neglected his vigilance, and the first two parts got to the pirates, leaving him quite upset (there was even a demonstrative confiscation of a set of counterfeit disks). But during these two years he earned enough to purchase his own equipment and studio, and can now afford to make a film with better technical quality. “Atashov's Love of the Minister's Daughter has, in percentage ratio of investment to profit, outstripped The Wedding Chest (Sunduk predkov, dir. Nurbek Egen, 2006) in Kyrgyzstan. With a large budget the film has to appeal to a large audience to cover the production cost. In this sense, The Wedding Chest with its one-million budget could not break even in Kyrgyzstan,” says Gulbara Tolomushova.

The Russian film by Kyrgyz director Nurbek Egen The Wedding Chest with a budget of $1,200,000 was distributed in Bishkek at the October cinema on a 50/50 basis, while the producer had huge expenses for advertising, air tickets, accommodation, presentation and so on. However, according to director The Wedding Chest was sold to 20 countries. Our “popular” cinema is clearly a product exclusively for internal consumption, and its creators are not yet on the level where they can think of distribution beyond Kyrgyzstan and the Kyrgyz diasporas abroad.

Love of the Minister's Daughter is based on the story of Bekmyrzy Rakhman Uulu. The plot: the peasant Zhorobek comes to the city to study and stays with his relative, a minister. The spoilt daughter of the minister, Madina, introduces him to her friends, and there the young man, who can perform songs to the guitar and move around his arms and legs like a superhero of action films, is noticed by Zina, the daughter of other minister. How can the provincial man resist the condescending advances of a rich girl from the capital? She clothes and feeds him, but she also gets him into trouble. He is first persecuted and then caught by some bandits. The hero, being a principled guy, gets involved with them only to help the valorous police expose and catch them, and of course he is successful in this. In the end he overcomes the temptation of the city, including Zina, a drug-addict who changes her sexual partners—which, in the eyes of a conservative provincial man who has been brought up in the spirit of national values, is not good at all.

The title already appeals to spectators: it is interesting to see that the rich also cry, and curious to find out how ministers live, and whom and how their daughters love. Besides, the film's release was announced in the press with the information that one of the roles was played by a former employee of the national security service who at that time was a deputy of parliament and an outspoken opposition leader: the successful businessman Kubat Baibolov plays the police colonel. However, expecting high-society glamour, I was disappointed. Instead of the life of ministers you see the life of the boss of a market complex from a remote town. This must be explained by the low budget of the film. The acting… well, the combat scenes are imitative.

The Arab's Shaitan (Shaitan araba [Chertova kolymaga], 2007, director and scriptwriter Myrzabek Aidaraliev, M&B Studio, budget: $27,000) is a dynamic action movie made by a graduate of the Theatre School and student of the faculty of theatre and cinema at the Institute of Arts, who works at the television's youth studio. The film contains shoot-outs, overturned and burning cars, chase scenes, fights, and shows gangsters gorgeously relaxing in saunas and nightclubs. The Arab's Shaitan has been nicknamed a “self-drive, horseless bullock-cart automobile.” However, the film's four-wheel main hero brings people only troubles, because some money that the gangsters have taken from collectors has been left in the boot. And the temporary owners of the car, some young guys, decide to give the money to a girl who needs an operation. In other words, the devil sits in the people and refers to their “greed”; but why the automobile? For absolutely no reason! The acting clearly reveals the handwriting of a man who has a good hand at making video clips. A purely commercial film, even though it has so far not made any money.

The Spring of Disappearance (Rodnik ischeznoveniia [Kaiyp bulak], 2007, dir. Nazym Mendebairov) is the first Kyrgyz mystical thriller and debut of the film's director Mendebairov, an actor of the drama theater and graduate of the Institute of Arts in theater direction. Young estrada artists take part, and their musical performances run through the film. Practically the entire action is set against the background of nature: a group of young people arrives for a rest near a spring called “Spring of Disappearance,” because of mysterious events connected with it. There are several morals to the story: you should not interfere with a loving couple (all disappearances in age-old times began after two lovers who were not allowed to marry hid near the spring); you must not behave inadequately in sacred places. Although I was tempted to run away from the dark auditorium after the first twenty minutes, professional curiosity nevertheless won me over, a fact I later regretted. If the director achieves his purpose and plunges the spectators into fear—does this mean anything?

The youth films The End of the Film (Konets fil'ma, 2006, budget ca. $1,000), Eternal Love (Vechnaia liubov', 2007) and The Oath (Kliatva [Ant], 2008, $20,000) were created by a team of young Osh stuntmen, the “Yug-Stunts” (their leader is the director and script writer of all these films: the actor, stuntman, and artist by training, Adilet Akmatov) together with the studio “Network Service.” Effective jumps, topsy-turvy trick s (without safety nets or insurance), real fights, humor, a little intrigue, pure sacrificial love…—well, how can we resist these young, handsome men? The first two films are debuts and consequently rather weak, although they have some potential, but something always stops the integrity of the films to develop. The Oath is undoubtedly a huge step forward, although it limps in its dramaturgy above all, largely because the film has been made to order, commissioned by the Department of Internal Affairs of the Osh Region. The film should have told about a special forces agent of the department, Nurlan Saidiev, who was killed whilst arresting terrorists in 2004, and should have been a song of praise to the courage and loyalty of the department's employees. However, the real fighters are no actors and therefore the young filmmakers took the basic burden upon their shoulders when they play the terrorists, avoiding all romanticization: the terrorists are not ideological martyrs and shakhids , but ordinary criminals who seize a school and demand money from the authorities. Some sceptics argued that the hostage-taking is over the top, but, on the other hand, the weapons, ammunition and other evidence found on the accomplices of the terrorist who blew himself up with Sadiev, are evidence that they were preparing for a “large plot.” However, the film shows that the filmmakers tackled such a theme for the first time.

The film Chaos (Bashalaman, which in Kyrgyz means chaos, disorder, mess; 2007) is an action drama directed and written by Kubat Shamshiev (budget: $1,200, production Creative Group Uku), which shows the young filmmaker's potential. It is certainly possible to criticize this or that, but the filmmakers are clearly capable. In this more integral film (when compared with the above-cited examples) there are no “allures,” such as real deputies (as in Love of the Minister's Daughter) or estrada stars (as in The Spring of Disappearance); there are no obviously commercial dodges such as chase scenes with shootings and special effects or car crashes. Fortunately so. The film is dynamic and fluent, in places there is pleasant humor; the acting is good, and Adilet Akmatov in the role of Urmat, the leader of the criminal gang, is quite brilliant. The film is truthful (in fact, the script is based on real events from the author's life), ascertaining criminal customs and the existence of severe disorder in the world of the young generation. It is also quite harsh, not least because of the bloody killings, but also because of the realistic detail. The plot: the young peasant Aman, a silent and modest worker and dreamer, turns into the cruel participant of a criminal gang, racketeers, drug dealers and petty thieves, but in the end he overcomes his delusions.

In summing up this section, we can conclude that independent cinema in Kyrgyzstan is shot on digital cameras, and filmmakers learn from the professional cinema that they see (and do we, the average spectators, not reckon that if gangsters and beauties do not look and move like in Hollywood pictures, it is just fake rather than cinema? Hollywood and Hong Kong have changed our perception of reality entirely). The roles are played by non-professionals, without make-up and wearing their own clothes. As for the plot: good triumphs over evil, where “good” means high moral qualities and national traditions. The heroes are young men, who are courageous, strong, and noble, capable of standing up for themselves and others; the heroines are modest. None of these films contains openly erotic scenes. In Love of the Minister's Daughter Zina is naked, but the position of the filmmakers towards here is condemning; except for these moments the films contain not just no sex, but not even kisses (which is typical of Kyrgyz cinema), but only pure love. The gangsters are punished or re-educated, while dissolute beauties are left without anything and virtuous acts are rewarded; love is capable of self-sacrifice and friendship of forgiveness.

Kyrgyz cinema demonstrates the Kyrgyz aptness at dramatizing, so even Kyrgyz comedies are more like satires and self-irony than serene laughter. Kyrgyz films always have a social component, to a greater (as in Chasm, obviously publicistic) or lesser degree. Even in the apparently lyrical Eternal Love, the main hero Ernis is an orphan trying to support the unemployed, drinking sister with her husband and nephews. In one of the episodes Ernis sees how his sister and her husband drink vodka, ignoring the crying child, and he begins to lecture at them. The element of recognition—of people and their character, of places, circumstances, events, problems, and time—these are the main features of these films and, it appears, the reason of their success with audiences.

Below I should like to bring to your attention some excerpts from interviews with Rustam Atashov and Kubat Shamshiev, which offer a first-hand insight into how these films were made.

How it was made

The director of the film Chaos is the debutant Kubat Shamshiev , who made the film together with a core film crew consisting of graduates from Osh State University: Eldiiar Aiylchiev, Adilet Akmatov, Zhanibek Derkenbaev, Rustam Batyrbekov, Myktybek Akmatov.

Kubat, how did you know how to make a film and write a script?
My parents worked at the Osh Drama Theatre, and when I was a student, I worked in this theatre as artist. Since childhood I had seen how actors and directors work. Certainly, the theatre and the cinema are different things, but I learnt my first lessons there. At university I set up a drama group with friends, then we teamed up as the stunt group of Adilet Akmatov. Together we voluntarily prepared our comic program “Scotch” for the university television studio. During the fifth year we decided to make a film together with this television studio, based on my script. It started quite well: we shot on VHS, but then we had to complete our degrees and once we had graduated we lost the entitlement to work at the university television studio, so that we never completed the film. We agreed that we should all part and meet again when we'd earned enough money so we could complete the film. And that's what happened: we met again two years later. I had earned extra money in Moscow. Eldiiar Aiylchiev, Rustam Batyrbekov and I were employed at the National Television and Radio Corporation (NTRC) and obtained assistance for the film's production. The management decided to help us, but only with equipment. Then, half way through the filmmaking process, NTRC changed their minds and withdrew the equipment, so we had to rent cameras at our own expense. Editing was even more difficult, because the money—including what I had earned in Moscow—was spent on the filming. We had to raise more money, and half a year later we picked up a computer and started the editing. We finished within a month, and made a presentation with the entire film crew. We made a video-clip with frames from the film, and—knowing that the pirates were impatiently waiting for the film's release, threw the disk with the clip on the market. Literally the next day we found our clip in five pirated compilations and were amazed. If you need good promotion, just work with the pirates. So with the help of the clip we advertised the future film.

Was the distribution successful?
NTRC had rights on this film since they had helped with the equipment. According to the contract, Chaos should be shown on air on the First Channel of the Kyrgyz TV after we had recouped the expenses for production through theatrical release. So we stretched the time while looking for an opportunity to edit the film, and as soon as that was done we hastily presented the film. So the commercial release was not for the masses, not for the box office; the ticket price was a symbolic amount of 50 som ($1,4, the ticket price is normally up to 100 som for standard cinemas and up to 200 com in more luxurious ones) only to cover the rent for the cinema. We showed the film at the Manas cinema only for one week. Right after that Chaos was shown on television.
Of course, we all understood that the quality of Chaos was not brilliant, but that it was more of a popular film. Somehow we got invited to a get-together at NTRC devoted to the discussion of the situation in Kyrgyz cinema. It transpired that the organizers wanted to show us in an unfavorable light: we'd spoilt the image of Kyrgyz cinema, pursued monetary interests, saturated the market with disks of our film. We had no commercial ambitions, we just wanted to make a film and express ourselves. Neither did we have the intention to become famous or get to festivals.

So making a film is an inner need?
Yes. As we say in youth parlance: for the thrill of it.

One director said that he specially tried to make a commercial film, therefore had a script written in accordance with the relevant formula: there would be fights, shooting, love, a beautiful life. Would you go for that?
No, it's good when a film makes a profit, but we still have a long way to go before we get to that level. In general all of us—that is me, Eldiiar and our friends—are apparently “disinterested people.” If we were so much after money, we would earn it more quickly and in a more reliable way. Certainly, there are moments when all want to throw it in and do something more “terrestrial”, more profitable. Therefore, when making the second film we won't refuse a possible income. Maybe we can at last make enough to buy our own equipment.

What kind of cinema do you like? Are there films that make you say: if only I had filmed that!
When our markets were flooded with western and Hong-Kong films, that was probably the moment when our views and tastes were formed, when the subconscious was influenced most. Therefore we were probably strongly influenced by action movies. But if you make such films now you won't surprise anyone. Therefore I want to get rid of former idols and find my own style and express my outlook on the world.

Rustam Atashov offers the following insight.

I'm a physicist by training. I simply dreamt for a long time of making films. For ten years I worked on television as editing director on the information program “Ala-too” and shot video-clips for stars. I had no idea how to make a film, because nobody gave me any money. Who would anyone believe an unknown man who has no idea about filmmaking? Then Bekmyrzy Rakhman Uulu suggested I should adapt his book Love of the Minister's Daughter. I read it and decided that it could make a good youth film, so I got started. I filmed of my own account. Since the book was long, I had to make the film in two parts, but because of financial difficulties after the first part I decided to show audiences what I'd made, with the hope that it would be well received so I could earn a little and we could finish the second part. In the autumn 2006 we showed Love of the Minister's Daughter at a cinema. First there were only some 200 people, but gradually the information about the film got around by word of mouth, and the audience reached such numbers that not all spectators could be accommodated in the hall. We filmed the second part and showed it in March, and it was also successful in distribution. The book had ended, but people asked for another part, so on general public demand we made Love of the Minister's Daughter 3 which I scripted myself. So my dream came true and I'm known now as film director.

What was the budget of the first part, and what camera did you use?
We had no budget sheet, and had to economize on everything. The camera was a digital miniDV, which I borrowed from friends, paying for the rental by working as cameraman for them, so because of the film I had to work twice as hard. For the rest (food, transport) I borrowed money from friends. The actors got no fees, they were simple guys from the street, non-professionals who wanted to try themselves at the cinema instead of earning money. The editors, sound producers, director and the rest all worked free-of-charge. If I had had to do a budget, pay everybody, rent the camera for money, this film would never have been made. The risk, the work and fanaticism—that is what we had, but no money. It could happen that we walked with the camera for two or three stops, that we took the bus, or sometimes got a lift from friends. As for the location, thank God, people helped us all along with that: having found out that I was making a film in these hard times and try to revive Kyrgyz cinema, they put at our disposal whatever they could—and with great pleasure. In the second film we invested a little bit of money, having earned some on the first part, and in the third that'll be even more. Now we have our own equipment: we bought two DVcams, which we used to shoot the third film, and the following films can be made without asking anyone for anything. There won't be any problems with money. But the style of work will be the same: to find talents and new faces among the people, so that the actors won't be recognized.

How did you know how to make a film?
I didn't know, I just did what I thought should happen, without any consultation. Maybe this is a new style, a new method of work, but I compared the script to other scripts: there's nothing special, it's almost the same. Everything to do with light and sound I had in fact learnt when making video clips.

What kind of cinema do you like? Maybe you imitated something or somebody?
Nothing and nobody, I did what I wanted to do.

But as a spectator: what cinema do you prefer?
I like Russian melodramas and Hollywood action movies, but I didn't copy anybody's ideas.

Why do you think your films are successful with audiences?
Because everything in them is natural: my films are like life. The most important thing in this cinema is its educational role. And, of course, you can't do without love. The simplicity and purity of the hero attracted spoilt city girls and forced them to compete. And there are comic moments, too. All this together created an effect; the elements taken separately might not have created such an effect. When my films are screened, nobody leaves the auditorium; people sit patiently for two hours. We showed three parts a day, and people sat there for six hours.

A bit of arithmetics

The directors with whom I could talk did not wish to disclose the amounts spent on production and advertising campaign, or the profits made. Obviously, if there is any income here, many people and organizations would make life intolerable and suffocate this budding plant before it has even flowered. Yet I hope my article is not read by such people, and I shall try to do some calculations to find out whether it is at all profitable to make films in our country.

Where did the figure of a million and tens of millions for Atashov come from? Judge for yourself. During the first season (2006) Love of the Minister's Daughter was shown at the cinema Rossiia in Bishkek for 17 days. The cinema's capacity is 500 people. We multiply this by two sessions per day and the amount of days in distribution, and we get 17,000 people who have seen the film. We multiply by the ticket price (100 som) and receive 1,700,000 som in proceeds. Well, this is certainly not an absolutely correct calculation, because the director said that in the first days there were no more than 200 people, but subsequently there was huge demand; moreover some money had to be paid to the cinema for the hire of the venue (at that time cinemas did not yet know that films might pull large audiences and ticket prices were not high); and some money had to be paid in taxes. There was also a release in Osh (17 days), in Karakol and Jalalabad (10 days). All in all, three parts of the film were made, which were shown three times in the cities of Bishkek, Osh, Jalalabad, Karakol for 20 days. The films were also shown in some Russian cities for the Kyrgyz diaspora.

“No more than $20,000 should not be invested into any film, and you can earn no more than one million som,” said the author of Love of the Minister's Daughter, talking of the possibility to recoup a film's production cost in a country with a population of 5 million, whose purchasing ability and tendency to visit the cinema is not huge. What is one million som or some $27,000 in Kyrgyzstan? Add to this sum another $3,000-4,000 and you can get a one-room apartment in the capital (and property prices are falling).

Now some figures from the makers of the film The Oath. The film's budget is $20,000, allocated by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and sponsors that the filmmakers had found. The figures for release in the capital: $2,000 (a little over 70,000 som) were spent on the advertising campaign and production of printed matter (radio and TV trailers, banners, posters, tickets), and the billboard services. The rent for the cinema Manas in Bishkek was 1,500 som per screening, that is 60,000 som for 20 days of hire with two sessions per day. The rent of the projector is 2,000 som per day, that is 40,000 for the period of the film's running time. The ticket price was 80 som, and with some 2,000 tickets sold (they could have sold 20,000 with a capacity of 500 seats) this made 160,000 som. This leaves a deficit of some 10,000 som, without taking into account the travel expenses of the film crew from Osh to Bishkek, their accommodation and subsistence in the capital. For Osh the data are almost the same, only the film was on show for 7 days with two screenings per day, the rent of the cinema Megadrive (500 seats) cost 14,000 som (1,000 per screening), and the ticket price was set at 50 som. The income did not exceed expenditure. Why? Director Adilet Akmatov considers that there was not enough advertising. Maybe they did not guess the desires of the spectators? Maybe action films are not really for us?

Today only one cinema in the capital shows new national releases: the Manas. The October cinema, the Ala-too and the Vefa, included in the network “Sinemateka”, are all equipped with modern technology and show films only on 35mm, while the cinema Rossiia is closed for reconstruction. The filmmakers could earn more if cinemas kept the films in repertoire longer, but there are too many films and only one cinema. As Temir Azem Uulu says:

We fight for it, we agree: 15 days your turn, 15 days my turn! And yet we could create two screens in the cinemas: one for 35mm films, one for digital media, and there would be extra income too. I would even agree to divide the proceeds fifty-fifty because in that case the cinema is also interested in attracting spectators and takes on some of the expenses for the advertising.

Kyrgyz viewers get acquainted most actively with new national cinema through pirated disks. Buying counterfeit disks is the same as buying bread or vegetables: in the markets it has become an ordinary picture that people, having done their shopping, approach the video stalls and ask for novelties. In fact, you can get a Chinese DVD-player for 1,500 som (almost $42), while a disk costs about 40 som (about a dollar); on that one disk you can get up to 20 films (I once came across a disk with forty strongly compressed Uzbek films). If you buy a disk with ten films, each film costs 4 som, or 11 cents. Would anyone buy a film on a licensed disk for 400 som—even if one Kyrgyz film were released for sale? Certainly not. If a licensed disk appears on the market, the next day all kinds of video production (and video stalls are more frequently found than kiosks selling cigarettes and Snickers) will offer a cheap counterfeit, even of high quality and with a color wrapper. The blessing of neighboring China means you get Chinese DVD-R disks and burners easily. I fear that this business is more vibrant than any other form of production. And then there are always kind people who will make the film available on the Internet or lend it and allow friends and family to copy it.

The working version (without proper sound) of the film Pure Coolness (Boz salkyn, 2007) by Ernest Abdyzhaparov appeared on sale before the film's release. Indignant and upset with the failure of distribution, the director held a press conference, asking citizens not to watch the pirated version and asking dealers not to distribute it. Straight from the press conference he went to the biggest market in the capital, the Osh market, accompanied by myself and a film crew of one of the television channels. Everywhere we found disks with his film, with a range of covers. The dealers, catching sight of the camera, picked a fight with the cameraman and swore at us, shouting at Ernest: “Who gives you the right to check, show us your papers!”, and he tried to prove that he is the author of this film. Of course, neither the press conference nor the appearance of the director among the counterfeit dealers had any effect. Another example concerns Kamat Kasenov's film Dreams of Childhood (Sny detstva [Boz baldar], 2008): I found disks on sale two weeks before the official release. It is obvious that Kyrgyz cinema is in demand and that filmmakers need to follow carefully the example of Atashov against “leakage” if they want to earn anything.

And who are the judges?

Why do spectators like these films? In order to find answers to this question I created themes at Internet forums (33 people responded), and with my colleague Mirbek Kadraliev, a journalist of a youth newspaper, I pestered cinema-goers (I took the opinions of 11 spectators and of a cinema manager). Of course, this is a symbolic survey, conducted without any coherent rules; but it gives some picture of spectator preferences. Jumping ahead, I'll point out that many spectators had never heard some of the art-house we named—Petrarch's Readings , Metamorphosis (Metamorfozi, dir. Gennadii Bazarov, 2006), Exodus (Iskhod [Tyianak], dir. Gennadii Bazarov, Erkin Ryspaev, 2008), Birds of Paradise, etc.

The first person of the survey is a young manager of a business company, a townsperson, Russian-speaking. We started the conversation with the film The Oath.

How did you know that this film is in distribution?
I saw a feature in the television news program, and then posters. My impression? The tricks are very good. The image of the special forces is not sufficiently authentic: this fascinating atmosphere of being the first, the first, I cover, you come on. In the beginning the plot is not clear, it is composed as a series of unrelated fragments, though in the end it all becomes clear.

And what is your opinion of their other works?
I did not like that in The End of the Film they started to copy the film Yamakasi; the second film is much more dramatic. Such films about love are probably needed for the masses. The Oath is the most qualitative of them.

In general what Kyrgyz films have you seen and are you interested in them?
I'm interested in Kyrgyz cinema and I liked The Wedding Chest and Pure Coolness. Those are of a higher quality and have a meaning, while the others are shot on low-quality cameras, and their dramatic plots have no precise structure. I didn't see Love of the Minister's Daughter.

What about Petrarch's Readings, or The First Frame (Pervyi kadr, dir. Sadyk Sher-Niiaz, 2007)?
No, never heard of those.

How often do you go to the cinema?
Five times a month, at least. I watch a film a day at home on DVD.

Here are some answers from people (three visiting students) leaving the cinema after The Spring of Disappearance.

Why have you come to see this film?
The actors, they're all singers.

And you listen to their songs?

What other Kyrgyz films have you seen?
Love of the Minister's Daughter—all three parts; the first I liked more, because it ties all the knots. Eternal Love, Pure Coolness, Saratan, and The Wedding Chest.

And what about Petrarch's Readings or Metamorphosis?
No. We saw only films in Kyrgyz.

Do you go to the cinema frequently?
Today is the third time.

Have you been to the “October”, the “"Vefe”, the “Ala-too”? [modern screens with a repertoire of world cinema]

Are there any critical remarks concerning the Kyrgyz films?
Everything's fine.

What films does Kyrgyzstan need?
Films with Kyrgyz customs.

A young man and a girl. The girl is from the city, the man a visitor; both are students.

You say you liked Pure Coolness, but what exactly?
The events of the film are taken from life, and we like Love of the Minister's Daughter for the same reason.

Some people say that Pure Coolness advertises the stealing of brides—how you see this?
They stole the film also before its release

Do you have any concerns about the quality of such films as Love of the Minister's Daughter?
All the same, a native film.

When I name some Kyrgyz films of the 1970s I discover that my interlocutors had not seen any. This it is not surprising: such films cannot be found at cinemas or on disks, they are rarely shown on TV and usually at inconvenient times.

A man with his entire family—wife and small children—declares: "The state of Kyrgyz cinema has improved in comparison with previous years. What did I see? Pure Coolness, Love of the Minister's Daughter… Why are they good? They are about modern life and still play an educational role. There are, certainly, technical deficiencies… The Chimp and Beshkempir—personally I didn't like them. I didn't see them but I heard that they are not for family viewing. It's not clearly why they got all these awards."

One of two friends answered our question why he does not like the films of Aktan Arym Kubat thus: “They're difficult to watch with parents.”"Because of the episode with the woman in the sand?"—“Hmmm. I don't know.” His friend says about the quality of amateur films: “The main thing is not quality, but meaning.”

Maksat, the manager of the cinema Manas informs us that "People eagerly watch The Spring of Disappearance, because young estrada stars appear in this film and the viewers are often their fans. This film is on release for the third time. The Oath did not have so many spectators. It seems that people prefer films about love, life, and youth. And films in several installments are successful. The greatest number of spectators came to see Love of the Minister's Daughter, where spectators even broke a door."

And personally, what film do you like?
The third part of Love of the Minister's Daughter (the first and second were so-so), The Arab's Shaitan and Chaos. These films are of a better quality. Chasm differs in no way from amateur films of weddings or family holidays. We have a hand to go and see Uzbek films: the quality they have is amazing! No, we don't have that quality.

Here some answers left by visitors of an Internet forum (Russian and Kyrgyz-speaking) on themes I created: “Saratan is a slum!”, “The Chimp is complete rubbish”, “Aitmatov is a classic.” Frequently Internets users (basically inhabitants of the capital) mention as the most favorite Kyrgyz films the films of the past, examples of the so-called “Kyrgyz miracle”: films with the participation of the Kyrgyz actors made in other republics (The Seventh Bullet by Ali Khamraev, Uzbekfil'm 1972), films of the Kyrgyz director Dinara Asanova which she made at Lenfil'm, and the non-Kyrgyz director Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovskii with his T he First Teacher (Pervyi uchitel', 1966), filmed in Kyrgyzstan. And also the modern The Wedding Chest and Pure Coolness.

In lieu of a conclusion

More and more people in the country aspire to make films, some independently, others by attending master-classes. They all start with bad attempts to make films on miniDV and involve their disinterested friends in leading roles, but instead of filming for themselves they want to get into distribution or festivals. But in due course they will gain experience (and wisdom too, I hope), and probably money, and these directors will advance to a new, higher level of creativity… I hope.

“Popular” directors today make their films from nothing (there are only ideas and desire); thus they create for themselves an opportunity to create tomorrow films from something and about something. And the day after tomorrow, having founded their own studios, they can already enable others, young beginners, to make their films, thus transforming this entire process into a stream, into an industry. All taken together this may develop in something acceptable... —and this was the reason for writing this text. I think that not only films with a primitive content can interest the national spectator. It is clear from the answers of respondents that rather “popular” directors are also Ernest Abdyzhaparov and Nurbek Egen: their films Saratan, Pure Coolness and The Wedding Chest (whose action unfolds in the Kyrgyz villages against the background of a picturesque landscape) were seen and loved by many Kyrgyz viewers. They managed to make films, which were not only appreciated by film judges in other countries, but also by the simple cinemagoer at home. And the “Kyrgyz miracle”, which was mentioned by all the visitors of Internets forums? Was that primitive (by contrast to the makers of that miracle, the present Kyrgyz filmmakers have not trained at the Film Institute VGIK)?

Maybe this is the way forward for Kyrgyz cinema, or rather for cinematographers guided by a domestic market (and there is no need to hope for another): to make films, maybe no more expensive than $20,000, but embedding the events in a very recognizable setting.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Aliya Moldalieva

Aliya Moldalieva© 2008

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Updated: 28 Sep 08