Central Asia



What is the phenomenon of the Central Asian cinema?

The responsibility of each nation is to bring

its national nature to the world. If a nation failed

to give anything to the world this must be regarded as a national crime.

A noble spirit is the wealth of the nation and its achievement

lies in the ability to send an invitation to the whole of the world to get involved

in its spiritual culture overcoming its own and individual interests.

Rabindranat Tagor


In presentation of the national self-identity

Since the Soviet myths were discarded the cinematographers of Central Asia turned their heads to the archetypes of their cultures. The nomadic culture was re-approached by the Kazakhs, Kyrgyzs and Turkmens, while the Uzbeks reconsidered the settled culture and the Tadjiks - the mountainous culture. The archetypes grew into myths, the myths evolved into a new epic. The modern cinematography of Central Asia relying on the past perception of the world was poised to replace pseudo-Soviet myths with a new if old epic of their cultures. Over ten years of independence unlike, say, in the Russian cinematography, a certain new cultural venue was created with its own myths and characters and with a particular time and space.

As a starting point of our considerations we will take a postulate that all the nations and cultures are of equal value. In the settled cultures where fields were developed and towns were built architecture, sculpture and other fine arts were prevailing. The nomadic culture means first of all notions of space and world and the oral poetic art. This culture does not display subjects and works of art as such which means that it cannot be valued in terms of a material culture.

For instance, the film Mandala by Kyrgyz producer Marat Sarulu shows that an old woman sells a kurak (quilt) she made herself in the market and buys a white shirt that she puts on her grandson wishing him a bon voyage. The old woman does not care what her grandson takes home be it a rug or any other thing. What is more important to her is that he takes over her world perception and morals.

It is also the case with the film Beshkemir by director Aktan Abdykalykov. The main event in the life of his character is that he takes to the way of thinking and perception of the world typical of the Kyrgyzs. In the end, it does not matter whether he is an adopted child or not. He performs directly the functions of a son. In essence, this is the story of an alien, an adopted son who becomes the leader of the family and is referred to as a mythological element of the upbringing of a foster-child (the most famous are Moses and Oedipus). For Kyrgyz film-makers of the epoch of independence the main task is to reconstruct a national perception of the world.

Speaking about Kazakh films of a ‘New Wave’ we say about the appearance of oppositely differing myths. What myth lies behind, for example, the film The Needle by Rashid Nugmanov?

The main character played by Soviet rock star Viktor Tsoi like a Trickster appears in a certain Asian town. His task is to save a woman (read: a nation) by combating the vices: drugs, corruption and criminal world. In this case everything is built up on binary positions: a town – a desert, a civilisation– a savage chaos, love - hatred, life - death. The construction of Rashid Nugmanov is a mere projection of the Western mythology that was shown most precisely by the American cinematography - a superhero pops out to protect a town from the Mafia and to save a woman. In addition, in his film there is absolutely no Soviet myth – the character is solitary, asocial and not affiliated with ‘the class roots’. Apparently, this had no actual reference to the mentality of Central Asia but was directly linked to a society being transformed from social into capitalistic, therefore this film was eulogised by the democracy-inspired youth.

Quite a different case is the film Homewrecker by Amir Karakulov. Despite an absolute Western entourage and an urbanised environment the author reconstructs an ancient Turkic myth about blood fraternity where for sake of preservation of blood relationships the characters are ready to sacrifice a woman they love.

The Kazakh myths are realised in all historic films such as The Fall of Otrar by Ardak Amirkulov, Surzhekey the Angel of Death by Damir Manabayev, Batyr Bayan by Slambek Taukelov, Zamanai by Bolat Sharip as well as in the films about the present Ultugan by Edyge Bolysbayev, Ainalyne by Bolat Kalymbetov, Aksuat by Serik Aprymov, Zhylama by Amir Karakulov and others.

Most indicative of an Uzbek myth is the film Until Daybreak by Yusuf Azimov. The story narrated about the growing of silkworms sounds as the story of the being. In order to hatch silk cocoons silkworms’ eggs are warmed, then covered with paper to maintain a heat balance and humidity and then when worms hatch out mulberry leaves are fed to them and so on. The action is presented as the history of the first birth filled with the pieces of sense. Whatever goes on around conflicts between the characters of the film or drama collisions are conceived as the fundamental principle of the mankind’s being based on an agricultural epic. This is a traditional notion of the Uzbek world.

At last, an example of Turkmen films. For filming, Hodzhakuli Narliyev chose the most famous but the last of the recently told Turkic myth – a myth about a mankurt described by Chingiz Aitmatov in his novel A Day Lasts More than A Century. This is a tragic philosophical parable about what can happen to people if they forget their motherland, language, history.

As a rule working with original signs and symbols if they are applied aptly leads to the building of archetypes, specifically an archetype of a road, a dwelling; an archetype of a cultural hero etc. An archetype is an indivisible unit of a myth. When myths are united an epic appears. The creation of new myths and new epics through identification of national images of the world has been one of the features of the cinema in Central Asia in the past decade.

In the utmost of generalisation

An attempt to tell the story at the primary mythological level has been made by many film directors from Pierre Paolo Pazzolini to Sergei Paradjanov. In the 90-es the Central Asian cinema made the films in the same style. Their core was to uncover the original concept of the being by descending to the zero ground. The talking at the level of parables and allegories is being done in several directions:

The first is the depiction of a nomadic tribe searching for the promised land. The Turkmen film Rovayat by Kerim Annanov shows that a nomadic tribe looks for The Mountain of the World. At the same time, in the Kazakh film The Touch by Amanzhol Aituarov a young man and a young girl keep on walking in the hope of discovering the land of peace and well-being while in the Tadjikfilm Josus by Bako Sadykov a wandering tribe strives for absolute freedom.

The second is the availability of a proto-family. In the Uzbek film Bo Ba Bu by Ali Khamraev it is a family that consists of three principal members of a unit: Bo is He, Ba is She and Bu is a Child. In Rovayat it is a forefather with seven sons and the only daughter, who assigns an occupation to each of them – be a cattle-breeder, a grain-grower, a craftsman, a hunter etc. and woman has to be a hearth-keeper. The film Josus shows an allegedly first human tribe climbing up higher and higher into the mountains to escape from civilisation and to preserve their uniqueness.

The third is the use of the language of symbols. All the directors of the above films employ signs and symbols. It seems to me that they make use of the achievement of Pazzolini to bring down the language of cinema to the simplest definitions that then overlapping myth-originated plots shape up a new artistic integrity. This cinema language new to the region is quite traditional in its essence for the oriental culture as it is the language of fairy tales and parables. In the Soviet time its elements were partially used in the Central Asian film making industry. Though at that time it was not built into an integral artistic system.

The fourth is a mythological structure of the world. In Rovayat a sea, an original sea, a substance whence all the live creatures came, hence the earth is too a proto-earth. Salt, metal, fire – each of these subjects - are conveyed in its primary semantic meaning. In Bo Ba Bu a division is done by different sign: a man – a woman, one’s own – somebody else’s etc. In Josus there comes the third idea – anything individual must be subject to the common, blood relations are forbidden, an idea of a single tribe is subject to a common idea. Once again, in The Touch there are most common categories of the morality: life – death, love – betrayal, darkness – light, blindness – discernment.

The fifth is that artistic generalisation is brought up to the level of a poetic metaphor. Due to the limit of generalisation all the films above, though each one in one’s own way mirror the in-depth processes going on in the Central Asian countries. The film Bo Ba Bu speaks about the bringing back of the life in the Central Asian region to an archaic state far away from civilisation processes. Josus is a kind of a prophetic film that foretold the state of a civil war. It suggests sharp criticism against the madness of authoritarianism. Rovayat is a film that narrates about the destruction of the things created under the totalitarian conditions.

Out of the Kyrgyz films I would choose to add to this list a short film Beket (Bus Stop) by Aktan Abdykalykov and Ernest Abdyzhaparov that tells about the general processes in the country employing the system of signs. In this story, the role of a proto-family is taken on by all the characters – an old man, two men, a woman and a child who stand on the bus stop. A movement in the search for the promised land is replaced with a manna from heaven – a usual shuttle bus. An artistic generalisation is a family, a tribe, a country in the waiting while a highway (a high road of the history) runs by.

The depiction of such pure and simple by form but profound by content insights stems from the clear understanding of the authors of the task set. The precision of the thoughts and the limit of generalisation takes on the shape of a finished work of cinematography and this is one of the phenomena of the Central Asian film-making industry in the 90-es.

In formation of new creative aesthetics

An integral creative system of the kind the Soviet cinema used to be boasted its own film-making aesthetics. Destroying this system resulted in that either the existing canons of film-making contradicted the content or film makers declined to do a special creative work with images. As a result, the classical Soviet language of cinema practically ceased to exist.

The first attempts to find new image capacities were made by the directors of a Kazakh ‘New Wave’ Rashid Nugmanov The Needle (1988), Abay Karpykov The Little Fish in Love (1989), Alexander Baranov The Woman of the Day (1989), Bakhyt Kilibayev Gongofer (1992). The directors of those films were particularly focussed on working with colour aware of the abundance of opportunities it may offer. The second aspect of their close attention was the way space was organised.

In The Little Fish in Love a city is seen as open, accessible, multiethnic and free to travel around. This depiction of space alters a stereotypic image of a Socialist city that prevailed in the Soviet film making industry – a city centripetal and unexposed to outer impacts. In the film by Karpykov the city becomes exposed to the world turning into the main character itself and stopping to be recognised as a cinematographic stereotype of the image of the Soviet Alma-Ata. In The Woman of the Day the director elaborates on the theme of a non-Soviet city turning Almaty into a capitalistic city with trade outlets, fashionable design interiors and criminals. In Gongofer the theme of the city evolves into that of concrete jungles. By the plot the characters of the film perceive a city as a natural landscape, undoubtedly hostile to them. Therefore, the task of creating a special state in the images boiled down to the hypertrophying of space and materials – concrete walls were made visually cold and rough, space– small and inconvenient, the colour design was dominated by grey hints. As a result, the city environment depicted reminded of an enchanted forest inhabited by mysterious and weird creatures. This is the first experience of creating the image of a city as a gloomy sinister monster.

The striving for going beyond the boundaries of creative canons of the Soviet cinematography was typical of the film The Orator by Uzbek director Yusup Razykov. It employs a la ‘cheap picture prints’ style of film-making. The style is intentionally confronted by way of inserting black-and-white photos and dynamic montage with the classical Soviet language of cinema (Sergei Eisenstein) seeking to depict the establishment of the Soviet rule in Central Asia.

In the film-making endeavours Kyrgyz cinematographers, first of all, Aktan Abdykalykov in Selkinchek and Beshkempir moved towards visualisation of an ethnographic environment of the Kyrgyz way of living reducing the film-making aesthetics to documentary accuracy.

However, the most complete excellent example of creating a new type of film-making images has a place in Moon Papa by Tadjik director Bakhtiyar Khudoinazarov. There occurred a long-awaited introduction of painting achievements of Russians who worked in Central Asia in the 20-40-es in the film images structure. They were Mrs. Goncharova, Mr. Drevin, Mrs. Udaltsova, Mr. Volkov, Mr. Kalmykov, young Mr. Tansykbyev and others. An essential feature of these paintings is usage of big areas of beautiful compound colouring. This can be the iridescent Central Asian sky at the sunset or the nacreous water surface of turbid Amu Daria early in the morning or hot colours of the shade in the midday blaze of the sun etc. All these colouring and composition discoveries can be seen in the film by Bakhtiar Khudonaizarov and they play a seemingly essential role in this, in many respects, eclectic work.

Thus, during the reported decade the Central Asian film-making industry saw new creative aesthetics be formed consecutively to correspond the images of the national culture and to mirror symbolically the global changes that had taken place since the collapse of the USSR.

In articulation of the milestones of the whole of a nation’s history

The Soviet ideology did not allow the Soviet Asian countries to interpret and present their history in their own way. Practically, all so called ‘historic’ films were limited to the period of the Soviet power in making. Within the boundaries of the allowed were fairy tale films and few and far between screenings of an epic.

Since independence and abolition of Soviet censorship many cinematographers began enthusiastically to fill in ‘blank spots’ in the history and zealously shoot the historic pictures that can be conventionally divided in three categories:

The great past. It was more important to show the big and strong empires, heroic battles, prominent historic figures and military leaders etc. In Kazakhstan these are such films as The Fall of Otrar and Abai by Ardak Amirkulov, Sultan Beibars by Bolat Mansurov, Abulhair Khan by Victor Pusurmanov, The Youth of Jambul by Kano Kasymbekov. Now a big Kazakh-U.S. project from the same series entitled Nomads is underway. Uzbekistan has pinned great hope on an ambitious project The Great Amir Temur by Isamat Ergashev and Bako Sadykov. There were also such films as Sogdiana by Giyas Shermukhamedov about the peak and death of the Turkic kaganate, Margiana by Habibula Faisiyev about a city of the ancient period, Imam Al Buhari by Bako Sadykov and others. The expensive historic films turned out to be within the capacity of the two countries only. Tadjikistan started a civil war and did not have a chance to embark on production of historic films, Kyrgyzstan had provided practically not a penny for financing the film making industry for the past ten years and Turkmenistan folded up a film making studio in 1995.

The history of establishment of the Soviet rule. It is this historic epoch that require a radical revision. Hence, no surprise that one-type flicks dedicated to historic and revolutionary themes were replaced with the films whose plots were conveyed by word of mouth by the witnesses of the relevant epoch for many years. These were such films as Surzhekei- the Angel of Death by Damir Manabayev, The Life History of a Young Accordionist by Satybaldy Narymbetov, Zamanai by Bolot Sharip that were made in Kazakhstan; The Orator by Yusuf Razykov, A Single Memory by Sabir Nazarmukhamedov, The Land of Fathers by Shukhrat Abbasov from Uzbekistan, A Stormy Station by Bakyt Karagulov, The Mourner by Artyk Suyundukov from Kyrgyzstan. These movies employed artistic means to restore the historic truth about the tragedy that the peoples of Central Asia underwent at the early period of the Bolshevistic colonisation of the region.

At last, the newest history. The films in this category were designed to highlight the developments in the Soviet times, to tell about the sufferings and hardships that the peoples of the region had to live through during the years of Stalin’s repression, Brezhnev’s stagnation and the making of independence. Principally, the focus was placed on the previously concealed truth of historic events that took place during the post-war years. Nuclear tests on Kazakh nuclear test sites were touched upon in Ainalyne by Bolat Kalymbetov and in Three Brothers by Serik Aprymov, The Balcony by Kalybek Salykov tells about the disappearance of people in the years of Stalin’s reign, Ultugan by Edyge Bolysbayev – about an ecological disaster of Aral, The Last Vacations by Amir Karakulov – about Soviet schooling, The Lovers of December by Kalykbek Sakykov – about a 1986 December riot of students that was severely suppressed and others.

In this demand for the truthful reconstruction of the history lies to my mind one more crucial feature of the process of Central Asian identification.

In an open dialogue with the present

Another feature of the Central Asian film making industry in the past 10-15 years was an open dialogue with the present. It means that directors were not only pondering the national issues and the historic past but also aggressively tackling the possibility of comprehending the modern realties. It is cinematographers who outlined the principal social problems giving the exact names of things and phenomena that are facing our countries within the transit period. They were the first to offer aesthetic judgements and artistic assessment of the environment and circumstances.

Moreover, one may say that it is Central Asian film-makers in the late 80-es who spearheaded the change of consciousness of people in the tough period when the historic paradigm switched from the Soviet society to its post-Soviet self. The fact is that cinematography was joined by a generation of young people who sensed well the coming of the new epoch and ridiculed the Soviet ideologies humorously and sometimes satirically in the films they made. In Kazakhstan those films were first of all The Needle by Rashid Nugmanov and A Final Stop by Serik Aprymov while in Uzbekistan it was Siz Kim Siz by Jahangir Faisiev and in Tadjikistan it was Bro by Bakhtiyar Khudoynazarov.

Alongside the film making industry brought up painful social issues. Such as a rich/poor gap, a colossal depreciation of the cost of a human life, "legalisation" of racketeering and prostitution. These all were reflected in the works of a Kazakhstan new wave: for instance in The Killer by Darezhan Omirbayev, Voyage to Nowhere by Amanzhol Aituarov , Aksuat by Serik Aprymov etc.

It is the films of the epoch of independence that brought up gender issues in Central Asia. Uzbek films The Youngest by Rano Kubayeva and Until Daybreak by Yusuf Azimov delineated a horrifying tragedy – a self-immolation of a woman in a gesture of protest against a life deprived of civil rights in the family and society.

A complicated nature of interethnic relations that took place in the first five years of independence of the republics of the former Central Asia and Kazakhstan was revealed tactfully in Shanghai by Alexander Baranov.

The state of a civil war in Tadjikistan was shown in the films Kosh Ba Kosh by Bakhtiyar Khudoinazarov and The Presence by Tolib Khamidov that presented the modern reality as a fragile frequently broken balance. In the films of the two Tadjik directors the theme of life during both political and household instability was considered as an attempt of an individual to resist an inexorable military machine.

The poverty issues, specifically in auls and kishlaks (villages) were highlighted by the Kazakh film Zhylama by Amir Karakulov, the Uzbek film Until Daybreak by Yusuf Azimov and the Kyrgyz film My Brother Silk Road.

At last, in the recent years of the analysed period there appeared the films that not only reflected the stabilised processes in some of the Central Asian countries but also modelled a favourable picture of the life. The first token of this kind of the films were Kyrgyz social commercials by Aktan Abdykalykov (1996) that pointed out to the strong points of a young independent state. In Kazakhstan such a film was Fara (1999) by Abai Karpykov that showed Alma-Ata as a totally modern European city living by the capitalistic laws. So was the film Zhol by Darezhan Omirbayev. A special attention should be paid to the Uzbek film Heavenly Boys (2002) by Zulfikar Musakov who told about modern Uzbek youth that muster computer skills, are well versed in elite Western and Eastern producers and most importantly are not keen on leaving their home country.

Thus, the main feature of the Central Asian film-making industry in the past 10-15 years was directors’ openness for a dialogue with the present and comprehension of the present which speaks for the maturity of the Central Asian cinema and ensures its unfailing entry into film-making processes world-wide.

Gulnara Abikeeva, 2003

Back to Central Asian Special/ Index