KinoKultura: Issue 29 (2010)

Topical Reflections from Twenty Years Ago:
Valerii Vilenskii's and Konstantin Orozaliev’s Ailanpa. The World on its Circles (1989)

By Aliya Moldalieva (Bishkek)

Valerii Vilenskii and Konstantin Orozaliev’s documentary Ailanpa. The World on its Circles (Ailanpa. Mir na krugakh svoikh) dates from 1989. For almost twenty years it has been shelved; in other words, viewers had no access to it until 2008, when—in connection with the 80th anniversary of the writer and public figure Chingiz Aitmatov, and sadly also in connection with his death—the film was shown to the public. I had he opportunity of attending the public screening introduced by Aitmatov’s widow Maria Urmatovna, who told the audience that the narrator’s text for the film was recorded by Chingiz Torekulovich himself. “It is about the past, about the present and probably also about the future,” she remarked.

The epic texture
The film Ailanpa makes a huge impression. The unique archival footage from newsreels is fascinating, as is the ruthless and disclosing tone of the narration, the bitter truth stated by the authors—and Aitmatov can here truly be called a co-author. Vilenskii and Orozaliev dedicated the film to him: he appears on the screen, as do his parents and relatives, his native lands, and the people dear to him. The selection of other footage was inspired by Aitmatov’s literary works. Overall, therefore, this is an epic work on the conditions and circumstances of formation, on the blossoming of the writer’s genius, the themes of his work, and the problems and issues that worried him. But, after seeing the entire material, Aitmatov added the narrative voiceover on request of the filmmakers—and the film became his confession, since it tells his own story and renders his own reflections about the twentieth century, as well as his concern and alarm for the future of the earth and mankind.

aitmatovAitmatov is both witness to and participant of a whole era, and therefore Ailanpa is a portrait of the entire twentieth century—with its changes and upheavals, tragedies and victories, conflicts and threats. Yet it is not simply a portrait, but also a statement of Aitmatov’s non-indifference: his concern, pain and regret. The early Aitmatov wrote about the fates of separate people, about their actions and decisions; his later stories served to disclose political realities; these were soon replaced by bitter reflections about the human essence, about the destiny of the earth and of mankind. This development is also contained in the film. However, the courageous civic position of the filmmakers should not be forgotten: it is distinct in the film, which formulates a bold accusation of totalitarianism. This boldness demands respect, especially when taking into account that the film was conceived in 1971. As a matter of fact, Valerii Vilenskii and Konstantin Orozaliev, going beyond a biography illustrated with footage and photos, have created an epic texture that reaches “past, present, and future.” Although the film was completed during the period of glasnost that was publicly announced from the high tribunes of political power, it went straight to the notorious shelves for the “culprits.”

What happened in the 1970s and 1980s in the world, in the Soviet Union and in the Kirgiz SSR, as one of the fifteen union republics was then called? On 1 January 1977 the new text of the Soviet anthem was confirmed, in which the words about Stalin were finally deleted. On 25 December 1979 Soviet troops entered Afghanistan.

hundredyearsThe 1980s were marked by the beginning of a new Arms Race. In the Kazakh settlement of Sary-Ozek—the same place that features in Aitmatov’s novel The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years (I dol’she veka dlitsia den’, 1980), where it is renamed “Burannyi Railway Stop”—the first four of 2,400 nuclear warheads (ICBMs) of the USSR and the USA that were subject to liquidation according to an agreement, were destroyed on 1 August 1988.

Perestroika, glasnost, commodity deficits, rationing… in 1989 the beginning of an economic crisis in the USSR was officially announced. The communist regimes in Eastern Europe are being overthrown. Cracks also begin to appear within the Soviet Union.

The events of 1986 in Alma-Ata become known as “Jeltoqsan.”[1] The exact death-toll is not known until the present day; different sources give different figures. The chronicle “Alma-Ata December 1986” and the book Materials about the Genocide organized by N. A. Nazarbaev against the Kazakh people in December 1986 (on the site of the movement “Freedom”) specify that 168 people perished, 155 of them demonstrators and the others representatives of the power apparatus. The current President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbaev, was then Chairman of the republic’s Council of Ministers (that is, head of government). Most often sources list the students Qayrat Risqulbekov and Lyazzat Asanova as victims of those events: both were posthumously awarded the ranks of National Heroes of Kazakhstan and declared “victims of Soviet rule.” Chingiz Aitmatov and the Kazakh poet and writer Mukhtar Shakhanov devoted their joint play A Night of Remembrance about Socrates (Noch’ vospominanii o Sokrate) to these events.

Then, anti-Soviet meetings occurred in different parts of the Union, including Moscow; bloody interethnic conflicts erupted in the republics; and anti-Russian, nationalist societies sprang up. The “Singing Revolution,” the declaration of sovereignty and independence followed. The suppression—by the Soviet army and internal armies—of demonstrations in Tbilisi (16 people died); the execution (and not only) of the inhabitants of Baku (according to the Azeri Ministry of Health over 100 people perished) in response to anti-Armenian demonstrations mingled with demands for independence… these events also followed suit. But those were the last days of the Soviet Union.

What happened in Kirgizia? What was the atmosphere and the mood like? The socially dissatisfied Kirgiz youth tried to solve its housing problems: from April to June 1989 the lands around Frunze (nowadays Bishkek) were seized without any authorization. This trend to solve social problems developed further in the first four months of 1990 and escalated into mass meetings, making demands not only of a social nature, but also of a political one. Thus, the struggle for independence of the republic really began.

The struggle for state recognition to the Kyrgyz language was one of the manifestation for independence. On 23 September 1989 the deputies of the Supreme Soviet of the Kirgiz SSR passed the Law “About State Language,” which declared the Kyrgyz language as the official tongue.

The Russian-speaking schools of the republic started to teach the Kyrgyz language, the country’s history and geography, and also the works of Chingiz Aitmatov. The number of Kyrgyz-speaking schools and nurseries started to grow in the capital. Illegal, alternative communist parties and political organizations were formed at the same time. In May 1990, the “Democratic Movement of Kyrgyzstan” is born through a merger of several organizations.

In early June 1990 a tragedy happened in Osh: interethnic collisions between Kyrgyz and Uzbek nationals. The reason was the short-sightedness of the authorities: the heads of administration had allocated a plot of land in the middle of a residential area of ethnic Uzbeks to young Kyrgyz people who were seeking social support. Some Uzbeks met this decision with hostility, and it soon gave rise to an ethnic conflict. Moscow interfered by sending a special military unit to the troubled region. The capital reacted to the events in the south of the country with a series of meetings. At the beginning of June a curfew was imposed in Osh, Uzgen and some other regions, and on 7 June also in Frunze.

In the village of Chon-Tash, near Bishkek, a burial place for victims of the repressions of the 1930s was “discovered” in June 1991. The village inhabitants knew perfectly well even before that 137 people had been shot and buried here in 1938, and indeed they specified this place. Among the victims of repression was also Torekul Aitmatov, the writer’s father. Chingiz Torekulovich was buried on the same cemetery, which has received the name “Ata-Beiit.”

Could Valerii Vilenskii and Konstantin Orozaliev have foreseen these events in 1971, when they embarked on the creation of the film? In any case, they were witnesses of the age for the seventeen years they worked on the film and probably their initial concept changed. Thus, not only Aitmatov is the film’s hero, but also the age. The writer, political figure (as adviser to Gorbachev he lobbied the ideas of perestroika and also established the Issyk-Kul forum) and a man whose destiny was connected with that of his people and the state, Aitmatov facilitated understanding. The film therefore has two levels: one created by the filmmakers, and one that appeared after Aitmatov added his text.

The visual message
The first frames of film show balbals (stone obelisks of people made from one single stone), which testify the existence of our ancestors. Right away comes a contrast: a rocket soaring into space, an achievement of the twentieth century. The cosmonaut in open space against the background of the planet Earth, and again the earth, the steppe, and the kumbezy (Muslim mausoleums) on a cemetery. An obvious reference to Aitmatov’s novel The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years; the old man leading a bridled horse could easily be the figure of Edigei. The frames, obviously selected under the impact of the novel, will appear again in the film, alternated by the demonstration of other events. Their meaning, as well as the basic idea of the novel, is as follows: in our time of fast changes, technical and scientific achievements, can we manage not to forget about the main thing—to remain humane and wise, live in harmony with nature and remember eternal values? The film, as well as the novel, as well as one day, contains the entire century.

balbalBlue-white mountains and Aitmatov, in his native place, alongside his elderly aunts and fellow countrymen... These are the writer’s roots that nurtured his creativity. Sayakbai Karalaev, whose performance of the epos Manas has once made a huge impression on Aitmatov. The storyteller of Manas is also a symbol: of sources, culture, history, and the consciousness of the people.

The beginning of the twentieth century, the pre-Revolutionary era. Before our eyes appears archival footage of the everyday life of those times. A male dancer performs to the komuz—the national Kyrgyz instrument. His movements are slowed down (later in the same, slowed-down pace a dance to a Russian national song is performed). To achieve the desired effect, the filmmakers often use slow motion, accelerations, repetitions, echoes, and juxtapositions of frames. The images are accompanied by music: drumbeat, deformed bravura marches of shrill horns, the sounds of Asian instruments and alarming tunes, sometimes echoing tragic themes.

Often in the film there are images of crowds: joyful, marching, serious, or mourning the leader’s death… The relationship between the people and its leaders—the vertical people-power link—is also a subject of the authors’ reflections.

The film has many recurrent motives: trains, blue-white mountains, the balbals, the laid-back faces of a woman sitting in the twilight of her yurt, faces of the repressed sons of the nation. First these faces of subsequently repressed youths of the young Soviet republic appear when the narration touches upon the establishment of Soviet rule in the regions. These people are the founders of the Soviet Kirghiz State, the first people’s commissars, the top of the Kirghiz intelligentsia: Abdykerim Sydykov, Kasym Tynynstanov, Yusup Abdrakhmanov, Bajaly Isakeev, Imanaly Aydarbekov, Ishenaly Arabaev, Abdykadyr Orozbekov, Torekul Aitmatov…We will see these photos again in the film.

aitmatovBetween these continually returning frames (with continually new meanings) stand eye-witness accounts: adults and children study the Cyrillic alphabet; the women drop their paranja; on the squares are rows of little men, synchronously and unnaturally performing some physical exercises: arms to the breast, upwards, and to the sides. Rows of praying Muslims stopping their bows… The filmmakers compare the hypnosis of totalitarianism that arrived in the first days of the Revolution with religion—the “opium for the people” (as Marx called it): the same skilful conducting of a crowd of marionettes, the same management of minds. Columns of marching adults and children… The marches roll out to some nomads wanderings with their yurts, and women in scarves lining up in rows do physical exercises: arms to the sides, stretched out, up and down. Explosions rock the quiet valleys and mountains, then huge iron monsters appear: grinding, rumbling, howling and growling technology. The formerly measured and quiet life changes irrevocably: the nomads dissemble their yurts and are torn away from their habitat. The frames with the tiundiuk (the top part of the yurt and symbol of the home—and the Kyrgyz way of life) and with the cradle are symbolical: the places of the ancestors have been deserted. The grand plans are implemented across the huge space of the land: construction, construction, construction… And here is the “power” that conducts this construction of a new way of life: a man pointing his finger—and wherever he points, the building work happens. The filmmakers render well through visual means the atmosphere of building and turn the spectator’s attention to important issues.

Here we also find the leader of the Soviet people showing the path to a new life: Stalin. On the screen the walls of a Christian church are destroyed by an explosion: another hint from the filmmakers. A new god, Stalin, presents himself to the people; therefore the people must have no other belief and no other gods. Again, those little puppets stretch their arms into various directions. Everyone out of line is an enemy: Abdykerim Sydykov, Kasym Tynynstanov, Yusup Abdrakhmanov, Bajaly Isakeev, Imanaly Aydarbekov, Ishenaly Arabaev, Abdykadyr Orozbekov, Torekul Aitmatov.

A railway line passes through the steppe; one train stock follows another—“trains in these border-zones went from the east to the west and vice versa”—and the steppe had its own life: the children go to school, the elders complete their prayers. The trains rush to the cities: through filmic montage the carriages of the freight trains turn into grey, look-alike, multi-storey panel housing that fly past the train windows.

Then our own time appears on the screen: big cities with their bustle, haste, high speed, new technology, smoking factory chimneys, new alarms and threats. Some boys fire in a shooting gallery at targets, which is followed by shooting at real targets: saigas and wolves. This, too, is a reference to Aitmatov’s work, to his novel Executioner’s Block (Plakha, 1986), following The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years (published initially under the title Burannyi Railway Station [Burannyi polustanok]), with its ecological and humanistic motifs.

Lines of bulldozers which rip up the ground; a small plane spraying chemicals on the fields; and the apocalyptical landscapes of the dried-up Aral Sea. Mankind stands on the brink of self-destruction, and of the destruction of the planet: thus is the idea of the late works by Aitmatov, which is reflected in Ailanpa. More terrifying than the biblical apocalypse is the apocalypse that we approach—which is man-made.

The film closes with the same frames that stood at the beginning: the cosmonaut in space against the background of the planet Earth, the balbals, the woman sitting with a laid-back look and who represents the eternal. In our time of fast changes, technical and scientific achievements, can we manage not to forget about the main thing—to remain humane and wise, live in harmony with nature and remember eternal values? This question (formulated above) remains open, leaving it to the individual to find answers.

Aitmatov’s reflections
Here follow some citations from Aitmatov’s voice-over narration.

The first testimony from the cosmonauts, who saw our planet as a blue star, remains in memory for the whole life. They said: our planet would fit into the palm of a hand. They wanted to rock it and sing lullabies, cherish it like an only child. We went into space to look at ourselves from the side, and the juxtaposition of this absolute truth with our everyday life causes deep grief. Perhaps it is the greatest drama of past and present.

They had lived in these regions for a long time, and those are my roots. They continued to live as before, like their ancestors; they were still ignorant about the coming hurricane of the innovative and shattering historical path. They were the last before the Exodus. The hypnosis of totalitarianism came into their life in the first days after the Revolution. It was new, scary and tempting.

In that whirly, somnambulistic self-bewitchment we lost the sense of the real; we did not notice this, and then we tried to not notice the divergences between word and deed, between the postulate of theoretical doctrines and what they turned into.

And if all their ideas had been carried out without rash words and decisions, if all the action had been linked to the law and truth of goodness, if they had not tried to jump across entire decades to reach a different social and economic level overnight, then perhaps we could have achieved a lot. Socialism won, and—winning—it generated its own, cruel denial.

Deprived of the past, man is terrible. He has none of those binding rules that he absorbed with his mother’s milk, with those songs and legends she told. And if man is deprived of all of this, if he has no memory of his people, no memory of the heart, and if such a condition of the spirit is intentionally cultivated, then nothing will stop him in his actions which are forever void of good and compassion. Then the crazy phantom of the legend about the mankurt becomes an everyday reality.

Spiritual slavery can be voluntary.

When people have been humiliated for a long time and are incapable of resisting the arbitrariness of cruelty, then they begin to worship evil itself, and find in it the internal indemnification of their own powerlessness.

The transformation of the leader and the crowd continued.

In fact everybody watched, understood and remained silent. Was there no occasion for bitter reflections about conscience? About double morals and hypocrisy? A compromise suits many people: those who do not trouble their conscience, and those who are honest but cannot renounce a convenient life. Thus half-truths, half measures, the peaceful co-existence of moral and vice take the upper hand. Thus the disintegration of personality, the crisis of society accrues, and the human spirit disappears from the environment. And again, this is the fault of all of us, and my fault, too.

The greatest deformation of the purpose of socialism happened when not ideas serve the people, but the people turn into the means of applying these ideas like hay for a fire.

The greatest misfortune for man is to live in those days when words and deeds are at odds, when the souls break and when what you see and feel and know is in complete contradiction to what is ordained from the top.

Our descendants will judge us not on our good impulses and intentions, but on the soil which they inherit.

The story of Jesus Christ gives occasion to tell modern man something secret and new, which we recognize today; and to specifically tell about the global vulnerability of the world. For centuries people have been plunged into sacred horror through paintings of the Apocalypse. Today the comprehension of the reality of this threat enables me to prove that we have to fear not an invented, mystical doomsday, but what we ourselves can make and what can become a terrible reality at any moment. And still we want to believe that ultimately man will win over the state, culture will win over politics, conscience will win over violence. We would then see the celebration of reason.

These words of Aitmatov are surprisingly topical and echo some events of our time. In fact, not communist ideology generated totalitarianism, and the crimes that were committed in the Soviet era—in the center or in the periphery—by those at the top of power are possible under any regime. Some republics experienced a euphoria in the 1990s believing that, once they had got rid of communist ideology and the building of socialism, they could at last try the fruits of democracy and freedom; and they collided again with totalitarianism in the context of their own, new states. Quoting Aitmatov, we can say: “The transformation of the leader and the crowd continued.” Or has the threat of an apocalypse that we approach through our thoughtless attitude to nature, to the planet, and to mankind lessened?

“How it was made”: An eyewitness report by the film’s editor, Rakyia Satakulovna Shershenova  

The work on the film continued for 17 years; it was ready in 1988, for Aitmatov’s 60th birthday. All this time the filmmakers were searching for footage across the Soviet Union: in archives in Tashkent, Dushanbe, Leningrad, Moscow, Krasnogorsk, and so on. The rules for access to state archives were very strict, and it they had to obtain permissions; they spent much time and effort on this. For three months Orozaliev sat in Moscow and copied materials onto a new negative. The chronicles of the 1920s and 1930s were filmed at a different speed from the one we use today: they run at 8 or 16 frames per second (instead of 24 fps). Therefore, a film from the Uzbek cameraman Zhindibey, which was filmed in 1927, had to be transferred onto a new negative, whilst every frame had to be prolonged in the ratio 1:2, 1:3.

Once the film was ready, the filmmakers showed it to Aitmatov. Before the screening he warned us: “I’m tired, and if I fall asleep, then don’t hesitate and wake me up.” The seats in the studio were quite uncomfortable, and we regretted not to have prepared an armchair. But he did not fall asleep; he watched, sometimes changing his pose, and from time to time he sighed deeply. When the lights came on, he sighed again, turned round and said: “You have made a serious film, and you need a text. I never thought that a chronicle could move the spectator so much. In such a foreshortening view, we see the mistakes we all made. A text is a must.”

The filmmakers made a preliminary selection what citations from Aitmatov’s works and essays might fight which scene; Leonid Diadiuchenko also took part in the work on the text. This served as a draft version of the text, which they gave to Aitmatov. For three months we waited for Aitmatov’s version. The studio had a weekly management meeting, and every week Vilenskii was taken to task in a harsh manner for the untimely delivery of the film. Then Chingiz Torekulovich brought the text, which hardly needed any editing:  we had written up the sequences of the film for him and he had composed the text accordingly. When it came to the title of the film, the filmmakers suggested the title “The World on its Circles.” Aitmatov had his own suggestions, but we shook our heads in negation. Then I asked: “How would the Kyrgyz be for ‘the world on its circles’?” and he said “Ailanpa.” Thus the title was born.

Now we had to record the voice-over. When we had made our film about Aitmatov in 1978, he had read the text himself; therefore Valerii Vilenskii was surprised when Aitmatov asked who would read the text: “What do you mean: who? You!” He replied that he had no time and asked us to wait; yet he promised to call the studio management so we would not be reprimanded for further delays. A few days later he sat in the announcer’s booth to read the text, often without a break. I had a lump in my throat: his words came from within.

In the 1990s the studio received a call from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, asking for a film about Aitmatov to be shown to a French delegation. I suggested Ailanpa. Within an hour the delegation arrived and watched the film with a translator. One of delegates said: “May I record his voice?”— “Certainly.” So we had to project the film again. They were amazed and stunned, and full of admiration for the film. I did not tell them that the film had been shelved. I also showed the film to the sponsors of the Kyrgyz-Japanese Center for Aesthetics. It was never shown at any festival. So I’ll tell you about the premiere now.

We had finished the film. For some time there was silence. Then the head of the Cinema “October”, Gul’zhan Kakeeva, organized a premiere screening; the production manager Evgenii Efimovich, Vilenskii and myself were present. We went onto the stage and briefly presented the film, explaining that it had been made for the 60th anniversary of Chingiz Aitmatov. The hall was full, yet there was absolute silence, and even the noise of the projector could be heard. Very rarely people would whisper an occasional comment on the film: “Our grandfather was also taken to a camp and did not return;” “That did happen…”.

When the film ended and the lights went up, silence reigned in the hall: everyone was transfixed. Then applause gradually turned into ovations. Some spectators came up to thank us and shake our hands. Then there were questions about when and where, but this remained the only session at a cinema—and that was it. Twice the film was shown on television, at my request.

Why was Ailanpa shelved? The management of Kirghizfilm was not to blame, as this decision was taken higher up. Chingiz Torekulovich once met Vilenskii in the House of Cinema and asked him: “So, Valera, you had to pay for me?” Something else should be noted: the 45-minute documentary Chingiz Aitmatov took part in the All-Union Festival in Tbilisi in 1978. When it emerged that the film would receive the main prize, it was removed from competition following a telegram from the government.

Twenty years later, after the death of Chingiz Torekulovich, the film Ailanpa was shown on all television networks. The work on Ailanpa was huge and we are glad that Chingiz Torekulovich appreciated the film and thanked us: this is a precious recognition! Valerii Vilenskii and Konstantin Orozaliev are now in Moscow. Konstantin finished his last film about Aitmatov in Kazan, where he spent several days with him, before his illness. He said how happy Aitmatov was to see him there. They are people of great intelligence and professionalism. As directors of photography, they made Mother Earth (Materinskoe pole, dir. Gennadii Bazarov, 1968) and Red Apple (Krasnoe iabloko, dir. Tolomush Okeev, 1975), both based on Aitmatov’s work; and as directors they made the documentary Chingiz Aitmatov—before making Ailanpa. They appreciated Aitmatov as an outstanding person.

I am deeply indebted to the directors for entrusting me with the footage. I am always the first witness at the birth of a film. I am glad that I took part in the creation of Ailanpa and other films about Aitmatov. I have kept all the frames that were not used in the film, because they are invaluable.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Aliya Moldalieva


1] Protest by students and young people from 16-19 December 1986 against the appointment of the ethnic Russian Gennadii Kolbin as First Secretary of the CPSU of Kazakhstan (replacing D. Konayev). The events are known as Jeltoqsan (the Kazakh word for December).

Ailanpa. The World on its Circles, USSR 1989
70 minutes, 35 mm, color
Directors, scriptwriters, DoPs: Valerii Vilenskii, Konstantin Orozaliev
Editor: Rakyia Shershenova
Voiceover: Chingiz Aitmatov
Production: Kirghizfilm, with participation from Tsentr-nauch-fil’m

Aliya Moldalieva © 2010

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