KinoKultura: Issue 74 (2021)

How to become a film-worker in Central Asia (1920s-1960s)

By Gabrielle Chomentowski

This article offers a broad overview on film-making training for Central Asia people. It has been adapted from a presentation given in the framework of the goEast Film Festival in Wiesbaden in April 2021.

Do we need to be trained to work in film industry? This question is not just rhetoric: most of the famous film-makers in the world did not graduate from a film school, but started by working in other artistic fields, such as the circus, theater or at the lower salary scale in the film industry, as did Sergei Eisenstein, Friedrich Murnau, and Charlie Chaplin—to name but a few. However, after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, in the political context of the Soviet Union and, then, of Central Asia, film training issues came to light very early, as reflected by the creation of the first film school of the world, the State Technicum for Cinematography (Gosudarstvennyi Tekhnikum Kinematografii, GTK; later All-Union Film Institute [Vsesoiuznyi Gosudarstvennyi Institut Kinematografii], VGIK) in 1919 (see Salazkina 2016; Miller 2007). In addition, film training does not only concern film-makers but all film-workers, including technicians working on a film. Furthermore, film training may offer the possibility to go beyond discussions regarding the definition of a national cinema: historians of cinema are still debating about the year of the creation of Uzbek, Kazakh, Tajik, Turkmen or Kyrgyz cinema as depending of the nationality of film-makers or actors and as depending on the place of film-making. The question of the definition of a national cinema is not just specific to Central Asian countries, of course, and the answer could be compared with other areas which are politically, economically, and culturally dominated, as is the case in some colonial spaces. But the situation is also very different from other imperial situations because, by comparison, the dominating power—here the Soviet Power—was strongly involved in the development of cinema in Central Asia.[1] Film training and, moreover, the issue of the transmission of film knowledge exceed the national question because of the foreign trends in cinema that nurtured each film-maker.

Taking into consideration the domestic policy of the Soviet Union and Central Asian countries, this article focuses on four moments of film history in Central Asia that seem strategically important to understand the development of cinema in this area: the film training policy organized in different parts of Central Asia in the 1920s and 1930s; the impact on film transmission in Central Asia with the evacuation of Russian and Ukrainian film studios to the area during World War II; the circulation of the different generations from Central Asia who came to Moscow to study at the film school VGIK during the 1960s and 1970s;[2] and the Asian, African and Latin American film festival in Tashkent as a place for film transmission.

The Revolution and “cinema for all peoples” of the Soviet Union
Most studies dedicated to Soviet film history begin with the famous sentence attributed to Lenin: “For us, cinema is the most important of all the arts.” Actually, we have to interpret arts here not only in its artistic dimension but as a medium, a communication tool. In this context, all cinematic infrastructures were nationalized in 1919. But because of the Civil War and the New Economic Policy (NEP) that mixes free market structures with state control, this nationalization was more theoretical than practical—at least until the end of the 1920s. Given the vastness of the Soviet territory, after the Civil War the Bolsheviks needed to legitimize the seizure of power and let people know, even thousands of miles away from Moscow, how the new power differed from the tsarist one, and how the new power provided equality for everyone no matter of religion, nationality or social class. Films had to tell them about the advent of a new social order. Those who were in charge of communicating about the new power wanted to reach the mind as well as the heart of the people. The best way to touch the mind and heart of an Uzbek, of the nomads in the Kazakh and Kyrgyz regions, may be then to ask someone with good knowledge of local customs and culture to make these films. And who better than an Uzbek, a Kazakh or a Turkmen could be aware of the reality of local life?

On a broader scale, one of the ideological premises of the Bolsheviks was to remedy the serious injuries suffered by the non-Russian population before the Revolution. In this context, the Bolsheviks called for the promotion of cultural identities, that is the creation of newspapers in national languages, the creation of theater troupes playing in national languages, the promotion of national revolutionary heroes in literature or films made by local artists. The Soviet government also applied affirmative action in Soviet institutions to give the possibility to non-Russian people to access political and professional positions that they could not access before the Revolution (Martin 2001).

Moreover, those in charge of propaganda expected that cultural and cinematic production clearly differs from colonial and exotic films produced by the imperial powers and the United States at that time. Indeed, as film screenings were not entirely controlled in the 1920s, American films such as The Sheik (dir. Georges Melford, 1921), The Son of the Sheik (dir. Georges Fitzmaurice,1926), The Thief of Bagdad (dir. Raoul Walsh, 1924), or other adventure films were very popular in Moscow and in other parts of the Soviet Union, and they inspired some film-makers. These film-makers, full of enthusiasm, had come from Moscow to Bukhara to make films in order to illustrate the social changes facilitated by the Revolution. But these films were not always appreciated by the power and considered as too exotic: “In cinema we have noticed a lack of people familiar with the Orient who create Oriental films. We observed two unwanted tendencies: the first one is to perpetuate the old tradition of portraying the Orient in film, that is the creation of a stereotyped Orient in cinema with piquant stories that remind us of A Thousand and One Nights. […] The second tendency that appears is the inclusion of overly strong propaganda. […]. Obviously, cinema development for Oriental people has to be in the hands of the Oriental people” (Skatchko 1925).

Minaret

“Minaret and belly dancer, belly dancer and Minaret, is this all Orient?” Kino 6 April 1926

It is in this context that the joint-stock company Vostokkino (“Eastern cinema” or “Oriental cinema”) was created in the second half of the 1920s to unify all local projects and to promote non-Russian artists in cinema. Kazakhstan and Kirghizia were autonomous republics inside the Russian Federation at that time and became shareholders of Vostokkino, while Uzbekistan and Tajikistan rejected the idea of becoming shareholders, arguing that each republic already possessed a film industry. Consequently, Vostokkino was much more dynamic in Kazakhstan and Kirghizia, but was also present in the other republics of Central Asia. What was the mission of this film organization? First of all, Vostokkino organized film screenings, worked with local organizations to buy, sell, and rent film reels and projection equipment for both travelling and fixed-location cinemas. It also published books and newspapers about cinema in local languages to share film vocabulary and skills. But to be efficient, it is not sufficient to let equipment circulate. Vostokkino needed people to organize screenings and project films. Therefore, in a first step Vostokkino organized training for projectionists and film technicians so they knew how to use an electric generator, to install a screen, to answer the spectators’ questions about the film. For example, in Kazakhstan, in the beginning of the 1930s, some twenty people received training to become projectionist (see Chomentowski 2016).

vostokkino

Shareholder Corporation RSFSR Vostok-kino. Russian Archives of Arts and Literature (RGALI)

 
In Central Asia, Vostokkino created a production structure in Alma-Ata. A young Kazakh, Iskander Tynyshnaev, who was the first to study at the State Film Institute (VGIK) in Moscow to become a cameraman, was dispatched to Alma-Ata in 1929 with the mission of creating a Vostokkino department for Kazakhstan. The organization built a laboratory there, an editing room, a rig for animation, and a room for subtitling. Even at a modest level, thanks to this department natives from former Turkestan were trained in different fields of the film industry. Promising local photographers were invited to learn how to use a film camera to make newsreels. Several native writers took screenwriting lessons and at the same time helped film-makers as “ethnographic consultants” on native customs. The well-known Kazakh writers Sabit Mukanov and Ilyas Dzhansugurov, for example, participated as scriptwriters and consultants for several Vostokkino projects. Thus, knowledge was not only moving up and down, but circulated between all the social actors. Vostokkino also organized some training for actors or employed stage actors, opening up new opportunities to work in the film industry. This was the case, for example, for the Kazakh actor Khakim Davletbekov who launched his career in the film Dzhut (1931) and continued in subsequent Vostokkino films. Born in Tashkent, Yuldash Agzamov, who was already student at the State Film Institute in Moscow, was chosen to interpret one of the main characters in Iulii Raizman’s film The Earth Thirsts (Zemlia zhazhdet, 1930). Vostokkino also employed many native actors already playing in theater, such as those of the Ashkhabad theatre company, who played in the film Kara-Bugaz in 1934.

Dzhut - kinoteatr

Film expedition from Moscow in 1929 for Dzhut. In the center, film-maker M. Karostin and Kazakh actor Hakim Davletbekov. Source: kinoteatr.ru

At the same time, another opportunity opened up for those who wanted to train in cinema: that is to study in institutions of Higher Education. Indeed, access to education was at the heart of the political and social project of the Bolsheviks. The Soviet authorities created quotas in higher education for the nationalities they considered lacking the required educational qualifications. In this framework, Vostokkino sent 28 people for a short training course to the State Film Institute in Moscow in 1932. Tajikistan sent two people for training to the Moscow film studio Mosfilm. Here is the testimony of the Tajik film-maker Kamil’ Iarmatov, who—along with eleven Uzbeks—was sent by Uzbekkino to Moscow in 1928 to be trained at the State Film Institute. He arrived a few days before the exam and was accommodated in a student room, where he studied to pass the exam:

We had some practical experience, but our theoretical knowledge, even in the most elementary sense, was not so good. True, we received the examination syllabus from the Film Institute in advance, and I, for example, prepared as much as I could, and read something. I say “something”, because there was almost no literature on film in Tashkent. […] After the exams, I went to check if I succeeded or not. What a surprise it was to discover in front of my name the mention “Accepted for the first year without competition” (Iarmatov 1980, 189–193).

It was on this occasion that he discovered that the candidates from the Central Asian republics were considered as insufficiently qualified to pass the exam. He rejected this policy, arguing how humiliating it was to be considered as “backward” just because of his nationality. Anyway, he joined the first year of acting studies and, after a year, moved to the department of film-making. According to its memoirs, Iarmatov studied with Sergei Eisenstein and discovered the Japanese Kabuki theater, the history of French cinema and Soviet literature. For his part, Iarmatov let Eisenstein and other teachers and students know about the culture of Ferghana Valley.

World War II and film-workers in Central Asia
In Central Asia, as everywhere in the Soviet Union, the end of the 1930s were the time of the Great Terror. In the field of cinema, many scriptwriters, film technicians or actors disappeared. Vostokkino was closed, its members were accused of spreading nationalism in films, and most of them were arrested. Actors, technicians, or scriptwriters, such as the Kazakh writers Sabit Mukanov and Ilyas Dzhansugurov, disappeared in 1937 at the peak of the Purges. A wall of silence fell on society.

Then the Great Patriotic War (WWII) followed. To maintain film production and support the war effort, the major Soviet film studios from Leningrad, Moscow and Kiev were evacuated to Central Asia in 1942. Mosfilm and Lenfilm moved to Alma-Ata to the Central United Film Studios (TsOKS), the Kiev Studio moved to Ashkhabad, while the Soviet Children’s Film Studio moved to Stalinabad (today Dushanbe). This event would breathe new life into local cinema. Most of the pre-eminent Soviet film-makers moved temporarily to Central Asia and produced some of the most important Soviet films of the 1940s there, such as the first part of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (Ivan Groznyi, 1944).

On the one hand, some reckon that this evacuation had bad consequences on the cinematic development in Central Asia: all film equipment was requisitioned for Russian films and Central Asian films took second place. On the other hand, some consider that “the war was an opportunity for Central Asian film-makers and technical assistants to work with talented Soviet directors” (Nogerbek 2013, 67). The film historian Bauyrzhan Nogerbek wrote that Alma-Ata became the center of Soviet cinema during World War II, producing 80 per cent of Soviet films during the war. He mentioned that not only were the studios evacuated to Central Asia, but also the Film School VGIK relocated to Alma-Ata with books and films. It occupied two large buildings and included a scriptwriting workshop run by some top writers of Soviet cinema. He noticed how such cinematic activity helped some local artists embark on a film career, such as the Kazakh writer Mukhtar Auezov and the stage actor Shaken Aimanov, preparing the ground for their later contribution as founders of Kazakh national cinema. The film-maker Tolomush Okeev suggests the evacuation to Alma-Ata provided a powerful impetus for the development of creative film culture in Kazakhstan and became a school of opportunity for many (Stishova 2013, 140). In Ashkhabad, some lessons in directing, editing, and acting let some artists receive film training. The historian Swetlana Slapke (2013) considers that the overall professional—and in particular technical—competence of Turkmen film-makers noticeably improved during this period.

roshal

Film-maker Grigorii Roshal and Kazakh artist Elubai Umirzakov during the shooting of Abay in 1944 in Alma-Ata. Source: voxpopuli.kz

Graduates from VGIK after World War II
In Soviet film history, the years following WWII were called the “film-anemia” (malokartin’e). Because of the destruction of much equipment, the death of many film workers and a strong control on cultural creation, the Soviet film industry did not produce annually more than 20 films until 1953, the year of Stalin’s death. Furthermore, when writing the history of Central Asia cinema, we have to keep in mind that cinema suffered from the death of many artists during the Great Terror and WWII.

Fortunately, some people who survived the war carried on running the film industry in all republics of Central Asia after 1945. The artistic emulation created by many film-makers and film workers from other areas of the USSR played an important role for the forthcoming native film-workers. Some of these film-makers started to study at VGIK and graduated after the War. This was the case with Mamatkul Arabov from Tajikistan, who became an important documentary film-maker; or Fajzolla Absaliamov from Kirghizia, who graduated as a cameraman and worked for Kazakhfilm. Boris Kimyagarov, a Tajik actor, learned directing with Sergei Eisenstein during the war and graduated from VGIK in 1944. He directed more than 20 documentary and feature films. Majit Begalin studied in Alma-Ata in 1943 in the class of Sergei Gerasimov and Tatiana Makarova, and graduated from the directing department in 1948. He first worked for Mosfilm, as assistant to Gerasimov for his film The Young Guard (Molodaia gvardiia, 1948), and then returned to work for Kazakhfilm. Sultan-Ahmet Khodjikov graduated from the directing department in 1952. He studied with Lev Kuleshov and Aleksandr Dovzhenko, and then worked for Alma-Ata studio and later for Kazakhfilm. He directed one of the most popular Kazakh films of the 1970s, Kyz-Zhibek. Abdulla Karsakbaev, from Kazakhstan, graduated from VGIK in 1956 where he studied with the official film-makers of the Stalin-era, Mikhail Chiaureli and Ivan Pyriev.

After this first wave of film-workers of the post-war period, there followed a second one: those who grew up during the war, who were between 18–20 years old at the time of Destalinization and the Thaw, and who had another vision of the world than the older generation. The opportunities to study arts and film increased in different republics of the Soviet Union. Many young people studied at the Institute for Acting at the Tashkent film studio or in other local institutions. But VGIK, with its reputation, remained the dream for young people. The competitive selection process did not scare young people. The desire to study in a workshop (masterskaya), that is a group of students led by a famous Soviet film-maker, and with the certainty of getting a job in the film industry after graduating, motivated many to apply to VGIK.

Then, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a wave of Uzbek and Turkmen students came to study film-making. Among the Uzbeks, there were Iskander Khamraev and Eduard Khatshaturov, who studied with Gerasimov and Makarova in 1959; Ali Khamraev, who studied with Grigorii Roshal and Iurii Genik; Nariman Azimov, who graduated as cameraman in 1963. From Turkmenistan, Khodzhakuli Narliev studied with Boris Volchek as cameraman and graduated in 1960. He started working as cameraman at Turkmenfilm, then turned actor, scriptwriter and director; Yazgeldy Seidov studied at VGIK from 1956 to 1970 with Lev Kuleshov and Aleksandra Khokhlova.

At VGIK, students had to follow both theoretical and practical courses: they studied literature, film history, musical history as well as editing, directing, production design, etc. The high level of teaching had a strong impact on technical skills. On an emotional level, the migratory experience, the exchanges with students from everywhere in the Soviet Union and foreign students had a strong impact on the world view of these young people. With these new film-workers, a new dynamic emerged in cinema. As Swetlana Slapke wrote regarding Turkmen cinema: “A new generation in Turkmen cinema emerged in the 1960s with the first Turkmen graduates of VGIK. The arrival of these young, talented and professionally highly trained specialists provided a powerful impetus for the further development of Turkmen cinema. These were the effects of the Thaw even in Turkmenistan, allowing many directors to express their individual inner world” (Slapke 2013, 94). This was the case also in the other republics of Central Asia.

A third wave of young people from Central Asia graduated from VGIK in the late 1960s and 1970s. They did not study only in the directing department or as cameramen, but also in film studies. This generation includes the Uzbek film-maker Elior Ishmukhamedov, who graduated in 1965 from the department of directing, having studied with Iurii Genik; the Tajik film-maker Sukhvat Hamidov, who studied with Marlen Khutsiev and graduated in 1967; Rustam Khamdamov, who studied with Grigorii Chukhrai and graduated in 1969; Alisher Khamdamov from Uzbekistan, who studied with Lev Kuleshov and graduated in 1973; Munavara Mansurkhodzhaeva from Tajikistan who graduated in 1971; and Bauyrzhan Nogerbek who did film studies and completed the course in 1971; and the actor Matliuba Alimova who studied with Aleksei Batalov and graduated in 1978.

batalov

Aleksei Batalov with students from Kirghizia at VGIK in 1979. Source: Novosti

At VGIK, the pedagogical methods evolved from the 1950s to the 1970s for many reasons. First, because of political transformations—from Stalinism over the Thaw to the Stagnation. Second, the working and intellectual atmosphere of the Institute changed significantly from the 1960s, when the Institute welcomed many students from all around the world. Students from the Soviet Union studied alongside young people from Africa, Asia, Latin America and also Europe. Despite the political control and self-censorship, students from all over the world debated how to make a film and about their vision of the world. Students from the Third World shared their ideas with Central Asian students about anticolonial fight, neocolonialism and development policy. In addition, the film culture spread at VGIK changed between the 1950s and 1970s. As some film-makers who graduated in the 1970s testified, VGIK was a unique place to watch films that were prohibited or rarely screened in the country. They discovered Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave, such as the films of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut and also American films. This was possible thanks to festivals or the visit of foreign artists in Moscow, which meant that film-makers who were teaching at VGIK could obtain the reels to show to their students. Sometimes the same film was screened several times during one night so that all students could see it, before the reels left the Soviet Union (see Chomentowski 2019).

This overview of the life experience at VGIK for Central Asian students from the 1940s to the end of the 1970s allows us to show how various generations of film-makers studied in this famous institution. It also highlights how the years at VGIK must be considered as a cosmopolitan experience from a social, intellectual and aesthetics standpoint.

The Asian, African, and Latin American Film Festival in Tashkent: an opportunity to create film vocations
I would like to emphasize this last point—the cosmopolitan experience—while focusing on the Tashkent Festival of Asian and African films, which was extended for its fourth edition in 1976 to include Latin America. This festival was created in 1968 by the Soviet authorities as a showcase of its policy towards Third-World countries. In early October 1968, over 240 film-makers, actors, critics, government and business figures involved in the film industry from 49 African and Asian countries, as well as a smaller number of East and West European observers, descended upon Tashkent, the capital of the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan. Screenings took place not only in Tashkent, but also in other cities of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kirghizia. Every two years, hundreds of film-makers and film-workers were invited to Tashkent. Foreign delegations visited the different Central Asian republics, and film-makers and actors met with the local population.

As Masha Salazkina and Rossen Djagalov state (2016), the Tashkent Film Festival was a “cinematic contact zone,” which involved guests but also the local population. Students from local universities participated as interpreters or guides for foreign film-workers. Those already involved in cinema could meet Soviet film-makers from Moscow who participated at the event. Local audiences could see rare films from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The quality of films was debatable: the organizing committee did not select films for their aesthetic quality, but they aimed to produce a diverse repertoire, privileging politically left-leaning film-makers without excluding either popular commercial cinema or what started to be identified as “art cinema” in general. Nevertheless, the festival opened a window on the world. Students from VGIK used to go to Tashkent to present their graduation films. The organizing committee invited guests and the local population to debate on different themes related to cinema in the different countries of the three continents (Zhdanov 2015). The Tashkent Film Festival is not well-known in comparison to other international film festivals. However, it would be a mistake to forget this regular event held biannually in Tashkent because it played an important role for the constitution of film culture for many native audiences and forthcoming film-makers alike (Anon 2018).  

To conclude, the question of film training is often overlooked by historians. Here I have proposed a rough overview of this issue, which has to be deeply examined not only on a pedagogical plan but also regarding formal and informal social relations. On a pedagogical level, we have to reconsider all teaching institutions (studios and Higher Education) where people from Central Asia have been trained in film-making. Secondly, we have to take in consideration the social relationships with film-makers (during World War II), with professors and with other students from Soviet Union or from abroad in order to revisit the transmission of film studies. Film-training does not only mean the acquisition of technical skills but also film culture: studying at VGIK meant the possibility to have access to a diversity of films that was usually not available in Soviet cinemas. The same is true with such an event as the Tashkent Film Festival, the second main film festival in Soviet Union, which had certainly an important impact on the local population. Its social reception has yet to be studied in depth all the more that the Uzbek government decided to revive this festival (Anon. 2021).  


Notes

1] In comparison, French colonial power did not develop cinema for African people of the colonies before World War II, and British colonial power started to train film-workers in 1948.

2] I do not explore in this article the Kazakh New Wave, i.e. Kazakh students who trained at VGIK in the 1980s, since Eugénie Zvonkine has covered the topic during the goEast festival.

Gabrielle Chomentowski
Centre d’histoire sociale des mondes contemporains, CNRS – Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne


Works Cited

Anon. 2018. “South by Soviet East; Uzbekistan’s rule-breaking feast of film”, Eurasianet 5 October.

Anon. 2021. “International experts make their suggestions on holding the Tashkent Film Festival.” UzDaily 30 March.

Chomentowski, Gabrielle. 2016. Filmer l’Orient. Politique des nationalités et cinéma en URSS (1917-1938). Paris: Petra.

Chomentowski, Gabrielle. 2019. “Filmmakers from Africa and Middle East trained at VGIK during the Cold War.” Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema 13 (3):189–198.

Djagalov, Rossen and Masha Salazkina. 2016. “Tashkent ’68: A Cinematic Contact Zone.” Slavic Review 75 (2): 279–298.

Iarmatov, Kamil’. 1980. Vozvrashchenie. Kniga vospominanii. Moscow: Iskusstvo.

Martin, Terry. 2001. Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1929-1939. Cornell University Press.

Miller, Jamie. 2007. “Educating the Filmmakers: The State Institute of Cinematography in the 1930s”, The Slavonic and East European Review 85 (3): 462–490.

Nogerbek, Bauyrzhan. 2013. “The various births of Kazakh Cinema,” in Michael Rouland, Gulnara Abikeyeva and Birgit Beumers (eds), Cinema in Central Asia, Rewriting Cultural Histories, 57–69 London: I.B. Tauris.

Salazkina, Masha. 2016. “(V)GIK and the History of Film Education in the Soviet Union, 1920s-1930s”, in B. Beumers (ed.), A Companion to Russian Cinema, 45–65. New York, Oxford: Wiley & Blackwell.

Skatchko, Anatolii. 1925. “Kino dlia vostoka”, Kino-zhurnal ARKa 10: 3.

Slapke, Swetlana. 2013. “Fragments from the history of Turkmen cinema”, in Michael Rouland, Gulnara Abikeyeva and Birgit Beumers (eds), Cinema in Central Asia, Rewriting Cultural Histories, 89–104. London: I.B. Tauris.

Stishova, Elena. 2013. “Re-visions of the Sky of our Childhood”, in Michael Rouland, Gulnara Abikeyeva and Birgit Beumers (eds), Cinema in Central Asia, Rewriting Cultural Histories, 137–146, London: I.B. Tauris.

Zhdanov, Aleksei. 2015. “V Mezhdunarodnyi kinofestival’ stran Azii, Afriki i Latinskoi Ameriki.” Pis’ma o Tashkente, 9 July.

Gabrielle Chomentowski © 2021

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Updated: 2021