TASHKENT | If you wanted to go to a movie in a regular cinema in Tashkent, your choices today would be the big-budget Hollywood flicks Escape Plan and Gravity, a Russian epic about the siege of Stalingrad, a predictable Uzbek comedy, and an animated children’s film from Russia.
They are among dozens of films permitted to be screened this year by a government committee. Although it offers some variety, official taste leans heavily toward mainstream productions.
That leaves some of Tashkent’s cinephiles starved for more adventurous fare or just hungry for classics or retrospectives of great directors. To meet the demand, a network of cinema clubs has blossomed throughout the city in the past couple of years.
Screenings of pirated movies, most downloaded from the Internet, have started taking place in apartments, restaurants, in a theater lobby, and in some secret locations, with the audience alerted via social media. Some organizers, in light of the authorities’ typical vigilance against perceived threats to the morality of the Uzbek people, are more cautious than others. But so far, the government has not taken any action against the clubs.
The scene at these gatherings − where viewers argue passionately about the movie after the credits roll or discuss the works of directors − is reminiscent of the perestroika era, when citizens of the Soviet Union got wider access to foreign films.
“Today in Tashkent, if you want to go to the movies, you won’t have much choice. You can go into a private cinema and watch licensed movies from Hollywood and Russia. You can choose among action films, comedies, and melodramas in Russian. Or visit the cinemas that exist on government subsidies. Their range of offerings is usually domestic or Bollywood movies dubbed into Uzbek,” says Aleksey Staroslavov, who frequents the independent cinema clubs.
It’s a sad step down from Uzbek cinema’s high point during the Soviet era, when the government-run Uzbekfilm studio was one of the confederation’s best. It turned out patriotic films, melodramas, so-called easterns (spaghetti-western style movies about the Russian civil war), and even avant-garde animation such as There Will Come Soft Rains based on the Ray Bradbury short story.
With the breakup of the Soviet Union, Uzbekfilm suffered from brain drain, and now small production companies dominate the Uzbek market with low-budget Bollywood-style movies.
To appear in a cinema in Uzbekistan, a foreign film must get a green light from Uzbekkino (Uzbekcinema), a government agency that checks films for the presence of prohibited content, including erotica and extremism. Uzbekkino posts a list of approved movies on its website. Until recently it also published a list of prohibited movies, which became a target of ridicule among bloggers and journalists and has since been taken down. In 2010, the respected Fergana.news website counted nearly 750 films that had been banned since 2005. The censors were especially tough on horror movies and seemed to strike off titles with trigger words such as “death” and “zombies.” How else to explain the banning of the British zombie parody Shaun of the Dead, Fergana wondered.
The list also included such films as The Silence of the Lambs, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Terminator 2, The X-Files, and some pornographic titles.
Still, there are enough residents of Tashkent, a city of 3 million, with a free-ranging love of film to support the independent clubs.
One of the first clubs to start, and the most secret, is called Andrey’s Place. It is run by Oleg Karpov, founder of the late, lamented Museum of Cinema, an independent movie house that ran from 2004 until 2009, when its landlords terminated the lease.
Karpov blames that closure on pressure from the government because the club operated “outside censorship.”
Filmgoers who want to go to Andrey’s Place, which shows classics and features by little-known directors, must have a recommendation from an insider. Karpov works on the project with his wife, acclaimed filmmaker and photographer Umida Akhmedova, who was convicted in 2010 of defaming the Uzbek nation in an album of photos of everyday life. Akhmedova was never imprisoned but the two do not advertise their activities.
Even with the invitation-only rule, he said the club attracts all sorts, united perhaps only by the idea that movies are more than a pleasant pastime.
Karpov attributes the boom in Tashkent cinema clubs − maybe a half-dozen attracting hundreds of filmgoers – to a growing lack of interest in the movies shown on television or in popular culture in general, as well as to increased availability of the means to show a film, including computers, unlimited Internet, and projectors.
“It's really easy to share stunning stuff with each other,” said Stanislav Magay, a founder of the IlkhomCinemaClub.
Magay’s club is named for the theater in whose lobby it meets three times a week. Movies are shown on a small screen, and the audience is free to sit wherever − on bean bags, bar stools, or even chairs brought from home. The club’s directors choose movies based solely on personal preference and don't aim to make money on the venture. Its typical repertoire includes works by David Lynch, Bernardo Bertolucci, Akira Kurosawa, and Woody Allen.
Magay said he wanted to recreate the success of the Museum of Cinema, which came to be known as place where young people could discover movies that were not being shown elsewhere.
“Our audience is young intellectuals and the middle class, but I want to see a lot of students with fire in their eyes,” he said. “We need to earn a reputation as a cool underground place for that.”
PARADISE AND VAMPIRES
One cinema club manager with ambitious plans is Aziz Khakimov. He started his Paradiso club in 2011 after living in Prague, a city of cinephiles and cinema clubs.
“As it turned out, there are quite a lot of true cinema fans in Tashkent,” he said. “And demand creates supply. No special purposes, we and our viewers just like to watch movies.”
Khakimov, whose customers are partial to the works of Federico Fellini, said his screenings attract 50 to 60 people and attendance has been growing. Showings have been free but he recently instituted a “pay as you please” policy to cover costs and occasionally even generate a small profit.
Although he said he does not expect Paradiso to be a source of income, he dreams of turning it into a full-fledged independent cinema. He said has had no interference from landlords or the authorities.
On a much smaller scale are clubs like Movies on the Wall, which offers free screenings in an apartment in one of the city’s residential neighborhoods. Filmgoers find out about screenings via Facebook.
Natalia Rachenkova said she started Movies on the Wall because, while she longed for the discussions that she could not get watching TV movies at home, she did not want her viewing choices limited by the preferences of other club impresarios.
“So I had to organize my own club,” she said.
Rachenkova said she likes the idea of pushing people to watch movies who might not do so otherwise. And she likens herself to a kind of cinephile vampire − infecting others with her love of the art form. Gaining new converts, she said, is her “only profit.”
As energized as they are by their clubs, though, organizers are markedly pessimistic about the trend’s staying power in a country with few normal and unfettered means of distribution. There are no shops selling licensed DVDs, for instance, and cinema clubs cannot solve that problem.
“Ideally, such a movement would turn into an alternative system of film distribution, but in Uzbekistan that won’t happen,” Karpov said glumly.