A Tour through Kinostan

By Michael Rouland (Miami U, Ohio)

Once the center of Central Asia's film revolution of the 1960s—when Chingiz Aitmatov, Andrei Konchalovkii, Tolomush Okeev, Bolotbek Shamshiev, and Larisa Shepit'ko worked together at the Kyrgyzfilm Studio—Bishkek has not fared well in the post-Soviet era. While the Uzbek government has invested significantly in its domestic film industry and Kazakh films have flourished amidst the acclaim of international critics and the wealth of petrodollars, the cinema of Kyrgyzstan has only recently re-emerged to inspire domestic and international attention. This past August, an enthusiastic cohort of young Kyrgyz cineastes (under the moniker “10+” to represent the ten years of independence) organized the first Kyrgyz international film festival, the Kinostan Art-House Film Festival, to take advantage of this transformation.

The festival was not directed to mass audiences in the fashion of other regional film festivals, such as the Eurasia International Film Festival, held in Kazakhstan, and attendance at the screenings was quite low. In design and ethos, auteur cinema was the foundation of the festival. For a film industry in flux, the members of the “10+” film group emphasized the significance of Okeev's Sky of Our Childhood (Nebo nashego detstva, 1966) and Tarkovskii's Mirror (Zerkalo, 1975) as models of emulation. Thus, art house cinema rather than popular cinema supplied the material for screenings. This term was not well defined in the context of the festival since auteur cinema is not a useful default definition; in fact, it could be rather dubious where attendance is low (that is, irrelevant) and the artistic vision competes with the politics of the state. Still, the focus on the established oeuvre of Rustem Abdrashev, Ernest Abdyzhaparov, and Darejan Omirbaev provided authority to claims of auteur excellence, while new directors—Marat Alykulov, Nurlan Abdykadyrov, and Shukhrat Karimov—aspired to this status.

The longevity of this festival model also remains to be seen. At present, international donors such as UNESCO, the Open Society Institute, and the French Government, in addition to the behind-the-scenes fund-raising of organizers—Altynai Koichumanova, Aktan Arym Kubat, Tolondu Toichubaev, Gulbara Tolomushova, and festival director Tynai Ibragimov—provided the necessary funds for the weeklong festival. The festival was designed to bring attention to the new cinema of the region, particularly the Kyrgyz work of Oy-Art and Aitysh Film production studios. Although this film industry cannot compete with international films from the United States and Russia, they hope that domestic interest will develop alongside the expansion of the film industry apparatus. The dominant presence of these new film studios at the festival reflects the shift to private investment and is evidence of the future sustainability of the Kyrgyz film industry; to this author, this was the most exciting revelation of the festival.

While limited to thirty to forty participants, the festival was quite successful in bringing together various groups and critics of the Central Asian film industry. Producers, directors, actors, critics, and scholars convened in a small group for several days of conversations and screenings. In contrast to the more performative and official displays of larger international film festivals, Kinostan distinguished itself in order to stimulate a conversation about Kyrgyz film. As guests were transported by bus to the picturesque passages in northern Kyrgyzstan and to the enchanting shores of Issyk Kul, the festival comprised an exceptional experience.

In a small resort-style movie theater, the participants watched first screenings of Adep Akhlak (dir. Marat Alykulov, 2007), Reading Petrarch (dir. Nurlan Abdykadyrov, 2007), Shuga (dir. Darejan Omirbaev, 2007), and Kurak Korpe (dir. Rustem Abdrashev, 2007). Although they were digital transfers, and in the last case a rough cut, the films reflected a self-conscious discussion of identity and the awkward social transformation that has been representative of Central Asian cinema for the past twenty years. Rather than highlighting new directions in cinematic language, the festival indicated a notable shift in the sheer volume of films. We are now witnessing the production of dozens of films a year, in contrast to the few films a year during the post-independence decade when Kazakh and Kyrgyz cinema gained its global acclaim. We also had a chance to view student shorts from the new film school at Manas University, with Nargiza Mamatkulov's Toptash (2007) a clear standout.

Within this idyllic Central Asian setting, guests also worked for their stay. The first day of the Central Asian segment involved an impromptu screening on a national morning talk show. Shot before the festival even began for many of us, conversation focused on expectations rather than concrete reactions to the state of Kyrgyz cinema. I have rarely seen such a select group so well photographed and filmed, resulting in Kyrgyztelefilm's 20-minute production on the festival that emerged in the fall. Despite the exclusivity of the screenings and film discussions, there was an unmistakable effort to promote the festival for public consumption in Kyrgyzstan. In the end, the international privileging of auteur cinema and the domestic desire for national cinema converged.

Michael Rouland
Miami University, Ohio

Michael Rouland© 2008

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Updated: 09 Jan 08