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Letter from Videostan

Meet the man behind Turkmenistan’s thriving underground pop video culture. by Chris Schuepp 26 November 2008 ASHGABAT | Youth culture, pop videos, and cutting-edge technology in Turkmenistan? What sounds like a joke or a science-fiction trip into the year 2100 is actually a reality.

You wouldn’t know from watching Turkmen TV or visiting any official, state-run music stores. In a country where not long ago even theater and ballet were declared “un-Turkmen,” the authorities do not look kindly upon rapping and dancing teenagers. But if you go “underground” into a market in Ashgabat, the capital of this Central Asian country, you will soon come across thousands of compact discs and DVDs with the latest songs and videos from young Turkmen artists.

Berdi, 26, is the Turkmen equivalent of Robbie Williams. S.T. is a Turkmen rap band and could be called the Beastie Boys of Ashgabat if their lyrics were not only about love. And Mahri, 20, is Ashgabat’s answer to Britney Spears, only without the scandals. They all are celebrities in Turkmenistan thanks to their music and their high-quality music videos.


Berdi, one of Turkmenistan's biggest pop stars.

The man behind many of the videos is 22-year-old Begench Hangeldiogly. “I’ve always wanted to become a video editor,” said Hangeldiogly, who is studying to become a film director at the Institute of Culture. “When I was a child, I took four old VHS recorders and connected them so I could edit a film. But I really only started more professional editing with my first computer about six years ago.”

Since then, Hangeldiogly has made a great leap forward. He now owns his own small production company, Elwan, and has a staff of five, including his younger brother. They work out of a rented basement in an old Soviet apartment block building on the eastern outskirts of Ashgabat.

SELF-TAUGHT

“I work hard. I don’t have any days off in the week, and I hardly ever sleep more than six hours,” said Hangeldiogly, who constantly answered calls on his mobile phone while showing a recent visitor around his studio. Each room of the basement has a different theme of decoration. One corner is decorated in green with white roses and a swing, simulating a walk in the park; another, the “traditional” corner, is full of old Turkmen garments and carpets; still another features a relief-wall that resembles the mountains on the Caspian coast.

“Soon I’m going to install a blue box here so I can experiment more with artificial backgrounds. Then I can be more creative in the videos,” Hangeldiogly said, showing the latest videos he edited for Berdi and other stars of the Turkmen pop scene.

Everything Hangeldiogly knows, he taught himself. “You know, you don’t just fall from the sky as a video editor, but you constantly have to keep learning. You have to sit down at the computer hour after hour after hour and just dig deep into the programs and test things out,” he said. “You have to know all the different effects and what they do. You have to read manuals, you have to stay on top of new developments. And you don’t learn this in the Institute. … I recently got connected to the Internet and so now I have even more resources at hand. But also more things to check out and learn.”

When asked to name the best video editor in Turkmenistan, he said, “There are a handful of good people, but it’s hard to say who is the best. I have a good rating, so I can’t complain.” Only when pressed did he add that he has done the last 10 videos for Berdi, the most popular artist these days.

The “rating” that Hangeldiogly referred to is unofficial and applies to video editors as well as artists. “There are no official music charts in Turkmenistan and the latest pop videos are everywhere but not on TV,” Hangeldiogly said. “The rating for artists is basically determined by the number of bookings they get for a gig or to sing at a wedding. That’s also how the artists make their money. There’s no copyright law here so everybody can copy CDs and videos and sell them. The artists can’t make any money with their music other than with live gigs or weddings.”

WEDDINGS INSTEAD OF ROYALTIES

For Hangeldiogly, it works the same way. He produces the videos for the hippest artist and gives five free copies to big distributors. They copy the CDs or DVDs and flood the markets, where they sell for 25,000 to 60,000 manats ($1.50 to $4). The better known the artists become, the better for Hangeldiogly, because word of mouth means that he gets more calls to do more videos.

Hangeldiogly is also busy with weddings, a big business in Turkmenistan. “I get anywhere from $200 to $1,000 for filming a wedding and putting the footage on a DVD. We take a minimum of two cameras to a wedding, but sometimes we have to go with five people and four cameras and mix the images live and project them straight onto a big screen at the wedding party. That can take up to six hours, and then we still have to do the DVDs.”

Hangeldiogly films at least five weddings per month on average, but some months he does up to 30 weddings, sometimes even two in one day.

But the weddings are just a job. The music videos are a passion. They are where Hangeldiogly can get creative and direct the scenes, shoot the footage, and then turn the films into real masterpieces in the editing process. And as the Elwan logo and his name always appear at the beginning or the end of the videos, Hangeldiogly’s rating continues to go up. He estimates that several hundred thousand or “maybe even a million” CDs and DVDs of his videos have already been sold in Turkmenistan.

Looking ahead, Hangeldiogly has a vision. He wants to study cinematography in the United States, or “even better” in Europe, he said. But he still needs to finish two years of university and earn enough money to pay foreign tuition.

In the meantime, it looks as if it is going to be difficult for Hangeldiogly, the “Videobashi” (“father of video,”) of Ashgabat, to catch up on the sleep he has missed over the last couple of years.

“First I have to finish university, then I have to go to the army for a year, and then we’ll see.” Right now, he has other things on his mind: “I’d like to buy a new car, but I think it’s better to invest some of the money I’ve saved on new computers and film equipment. In the long run, I’m sure it will pay off.”
Chris Schuepp works as youth media consultant for the UNICEF office for Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States. A version of this article originally appeared on neweurasia.net, a Central Asian blogging network of which TOL is a partner.
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