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Looking Past Bazaars and Bandits on Kyrgyzstan’s TV

A serial breaks new ground in Kyrgyzstan with its topical story lines, use of local talent, and political agenda

by Dina Tokbaeva 23 May 2013

The plot outline hardly sounds like cutting-edge entertainment, but a serial about college life is bidding to change the face of Kyrgyz television.


Obshchaga (Dorm), the most ambitious serial yet aired in Kyrgyzstan, premiered in early March. Kyrgyzstan lacks a nationwide rating system, but the show is popular online: Each show in the 25-episode series is watched by at least 40,000 users on YouTube and its Kyrgyz analogue, Namba.



Abdil_Kenensarov_300Dorm's producer-writer team of Kamila Abdil and Eldiyar Kenensarov.


The show is broadcast three times a week on the bilingual Kyrgyz-Russian NTS channel and will be reprised this summer in Kyrgyz on the main nationwide channel, KTRK – a rare feat for a domestic production. An Uzbek-dubbed version may follow in the fall.




As news of the show spread ahead of the premiere, word was that it would be a Kyrgyz version of the popular Russian sitcom University, but once the opening episode aired viewers realized that Dorm was something different, more comedy-drama than sitcom. The show tries to be a mirror of modern Kyrgyz life, especially interethnic relations, its creators said at the launch presentation at a Bishkek cinema.


“We didn’t want it to be a soap opera with dragged-out scenes. It’s a dynamic show with a dramatic plot where love, treachery, and jealousy intertwine,” creative producer Kamila Abdil said.


Uzbek actress Shahzoda Matchanova plays the main character, Takhmina, a university freshman from Osh, the city in southern Kyrgyzstan that is home to most of the country's Uzbek-speaking population. Violent communal clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh and other southern cities flared up in the summer of 2010, leading to hundreds of deaths and mass emigration by ethnic Uzbeks. Arriving in Bishkek to start college, Takhmina meets an unfriendly welcome from some in the capital, as does another major character, for a different reason. Azamat, played by comic actor Salamat Aliev, is a talented math student from a remote town. He impresses his teachers from the start but must face down the city dwellers' scorn for rural people.


The other characters describe a cross section of Kyrgyz society as it is, although rarely depicted on local television: the spoiled son of rich parents (played by the young businessman and politician Evgeny Tsoi), the strong-willed beauty (famous Uzbek actress and singer Sitora Farmonova) desperate to break into high society, the modest Russian girl (Karina Adigamova) who also confronts social stereotypes.


Besides showcasing love and friendship, Dorm reveals such darker elements of life in Kyrgyzstan as pervasive corruption in the police, health service, and, of course, the universities. Social climbers jostle with carefree party-goers against a backdrop of nepotism and the thirst for money. The show has also addressed one of the most agonizing decisions for young people: whether to join the exodus of migrants or to stay. In one episode, a young woman pleads with her boyfriend, Chingiz, played by singer Nurbek Savitahunov, to come to the United States with her. “There’s nothing left at home but bazaars and bandits,” she tells him. He decides to stay and work to develop his country instead. 


Topical drama of this kind makes a vivid contrast with the usual fare on Kyrgyz television. For years domestic TV producers rarely ventured beyond news, lottery drawings, and festive holiday shows. Independent production houses such as Dorm creator Eldiyar Kenensarov’s KG Club Production have sprung up in the past five or six years, but restricted finances limit their typical offerings to cooking shows, talk shows, and occasional entertainments like a local version of the British and American series The Apprentice. For drama, most viewers tune in to dubbed Korean, Uzbek, Turkish, Indian, or Russian serials and Hollywood movies.




Kenensarov said he and his team spent a year and a half drumming up financing for the project. His production company invested 20 percent. The rest was mostly covered by the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek and a few domestic commercial sponsors. He put the total cost of the show at $200,000.


“We discovered that there are no sound and lighting technicians for TV projects of this kind in Kyrgyzstan. We decided not to invite foreign specialists and work with local ones. It was a learn-as-you-go process,” Kenensarov said.


The producers did accept the U.S. Embassy's offer to bring in a trio of American professionals to coach the show's writers, including Grey's Anatomy producer and writer Zoanne Clack.


Although the buzz about the show on Kyrgyz social media is generally positive, some comments seem to miss the point it wants to make about tolerance. Several people wondered if it was really necessary to invite two actresses from Uzbekistan to fill important roles if Kyrgyzstan-based talent was available.



Savitakhunov_Matchanova_350Kyrgyz singer Nurbek Savitakhunov and Uzbek actress Shahzoda Matchanova play leading characters on the show.

“Although the show doesn't present the unvarnished truth – for example, the dormitory rooms look prettier on the screen than they really are, and the way the young people talk was also adjusted to TV's requirements – in general, it does a good job of showing daily realities like corruption,” said Kanykei Manasova, a cultural columnist with the news agency.


The show has also attracted the interest of movie fans, if only because the domestic film industry  is moribund, said Guljan Toktogulova of the Kyrgyz film website Young people are gossiping about Dorm because it hews closely to the reality of their lives, she said.


Another factor in the show's success is the solid pedigree of its creators, Toktogulova said, starting with Kenensarov, one of the country's best-known entertainers. The comedy skit show Bolshiye lyudi (Great People) from his production company has been a hit in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan since its premiere five years ago, and this year his Asia-Mix team became national celebrities as they just failed to reach the semifinals in the comedy game show KVN, a fixture on Soviet and later television and the Internet for 50 years.




Talent like his is a rare commodity, as Kyrgyzstan lags far behind its neighbors in the quality and quantity of film and television production, Toktogulova said. She pointed out that Uzbekistan produces around a dozen TV serials and feature films annually, while Kazakhstan is experiencing something of a film boom, thanks to state subsidies for around 15 movies each year.


“While Kazakh studios can afford to invite a director from Russia, here it's cheaper for the TV channels to buy Turkish or Korean serials for $500 or $1,000 each and dub them, the head of one channel told me recently. Domestic productions are more than likely to lose money,” she said.


Making money is far from being the only driving force behind Dorm, however. Kenensarov said the main aim of the show is to instill the idea of friendship across social and ethnic divisions, although he knows whatever effect it has will not be apparent immediately.


“It is vital now that we show our younger generations how people of all ethnic origins and social backgrounds can live together in peace and build our country together,” he said. 


“It's been encouraging to see that not only students watch our series, but also wider circles of older people. Wherever I go, security guards, waiters, people in the bank tell me they watch the show and like it. If we manage to reach that many people, I believe change can happen,” he said.


For now, though, Kyrgyz viewers rarely come face to face with high-quality domestic talent or challenging stories, which Manasova blamed on a lack of commitment to supporting culture among potential public and commercial sponsors. A decade ago, there was no government support for filmmakers, and there is none today, she said. “Directors have to search for commercial or nonprofit sponsors just as they used to 10 years ago. It hasn’t become easier to get sponsorship,” she said.


“Only when at least 10 high-profile movies or TV series have been made in Kyrgyzstan, professionally, thoughtfully, and with deep understanding of the process, can we say that we have moved on from this impasse,” she said.

Dina Tokbaeva is a Kyrgyz journalist based in London. Photos courtesy of KG Club Productions.

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