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Tajik Cinema: A View From Outside

The magic of Tajik filmmaking comes not just from the films themselves, but in the obstacles they have to overcome.

Also: Gulnara Abikeyeva interviews Tajik directors Mairam Yusupova and Bakhtiyar Khudoinazarov.
by Gulnara Abikeyeva 26 November 2003 Tajik cinema since the civil war is a unique phenomenon. During the four years of war, the film industry ceased to exist in Tajikistan. Today, more than six years after the peace settlement, practically all of Tajik cinema is made outside the country.

May 2001, Moscow, the House of Filmmakers. I remember this day when Tajik filmmakers living outside their homeland, about 15 people, gathered in a corridor. These people, the creators of contemporary Tajik cinema, sharply illustrated Benedict Anderson’s famous definition of nation as an imaginary community.

Every director of documentary or feature films creates this thin ephemeral substance called “nation.” Every film, like a piece in a mosaic, contributes to forming one complete view of a country and its people.

Very few films were shot in Tajikistan during the 1990s, but every one of them has its special place.

Kosh Ba Kosh, directed by Bakhtiyar Khudoinazarov, received the Silver Lion Award at the 1993 Venice Film Festival and put Dushanbe on the map. A Dushanbe of romantic lovers and random gunshots during the hours of curfew, of funiculars--lovers’ hiding places--and corpses floating in a city canal. Most important, there are real passions and deep feelings. It turns out that war and love can coexist.

Tolib Khamidov's film The Presence (1995) was shown in the Forum section of the Berlin Film Festival. It communicates the same complex atmosphere of desperation and hope in the lives of people living under the conditions of civil war. The protagonist, an intellectual young man, frequently looks through an album of famous French photographs. The images convey lightness and harmony, and represent for him a desired paradise.

Both these films could be said to express a pro-Western mentality. This is not necessarily true of all Tajik cinema; Jamshed Usmonov's Flight of the Bumblebee (1998), for example, is geared towards the ethnic and traditional planes.

Documentaries, too, may reveal their author’s mindset. The Business Trip (1998), by Mairam Yusupova, was shot in the manner of Russian documentaries--minimal production values and precisely detailed observations--and as a result, a post-Soviet city rises before our eyes. The Return (Farkhad Abdullayev, 1999) looks more like a television report: Asian male faces in Afghan scarves, life in refugee camps, traditional long robes for men, colorful kerchiefs for women, and their return--not to their city apartments, but to huts in remote mountain villages. Orzy Sharipov's Sweet Motherland (2000) idealizes the traditional Tajik lifestyle and creates nostalgia for the lost harmony in life.

Tajik cinema of the first decade of the country's independence is a direct reflection of the situation in a country torn by war and its consequences. Besides reflecting various levels of reality, this cinema surveys moral coordinates and ethical values by asking the eternal question: “What is Motherland?”

Then, at the end of the '90s, Khudoinazarov's Luna Papa came to the screen and displayed its eclectic image--like life itself. This motion picture admirably conveys the various vectors of mentality and the absurdity of life in Tajikistan and Central Asia in general.

The protagonist is a girl named Mamlakat (“Motherland” in Tajik) who gets pregnant but doesn’t know by whom. The premise of the film is that her family--her choleric father and her mad brother--are trying to find the father of the future baby. A local Tajik con artist decides to marry Mamlakat and adopt the child, but dies violently. The biological father, a Russian pilot, identifies himself but falls into a coma. Poor Mamlakat has no one to support her and her only hope is to fly away on a magic carpet.

Everything is mixed up in Luna Papa. The West and the East, Soviet and post-Soviet realities, good and evil, truth and fantasy, countries and continents--everything is spinning in a circle of madness and disarray. Only water (representing death) and earth (representing life), the original elements of nature, remain fixed; while all else is lawless and disordered. Everything is leveled to ground zero, to the point where the very model of culture must be reconstructed, from the base up.

Is this good or bad? This is not the question. It is enough to say that the potential for future reconstruction is there. New films will be made and new ideas expressed, but this is going to happen not “because of” but “in spite of.” In spite of the present situation where Tajikfilm, the only feature film studio in the country, can't make films for lack of financing and in spite of the general belief that Tajik cinema will soon become extinct.

In this, there is another phenomenon of Central Asian cinema: Passionate situations occur not because of money or government directives, but because of the major responsibilities placed before an artist by time and society.

This is a slightly condensed and adapted excerpt from the author's The Heart of the World: Films From Central Asia, translated into English by Dana Zhamanbalina-Mazur (Almaty, 2003).
Gulnara Abikeyeva is a film critic from Kazakhstan. She earned a doctorate from the VGIK film school in Moscow, and has worked in Kazakh film and television. The Heart of the World: Films From Central Asia is her third book.
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