Researcher Cloe Drieu studied the earliest films in Central Asia that go back as far as 1924, a year that marked a political birth, with the ethnic and territorial delimitation of Soviet Uzbekistan, as well as marked the beginning of a new phase in cinematography.
Yet, even in the Soviet times, as Drieu argues, the discourses over nation and modernization were coming from the bottom up, which challenges the Moscow-centered point of view on Soviet history.
Your book on the origins of Uzbek cinema is a story of cinema, nationalism, empire and, to a lesser extent, decolonization. Why did you pick Uzbek cinema from all Central Asian cinema histories to illustrate this context? How does it differ from the general spirit of the Russian, Kyrgyz, Tajik or Kazakh Soviet films of the same period?
This work originated from an earlier research project which led me to study Kazakh “New Wave” cinema. The New Wave phenomenon, which ran from the late 1980s through to the 2000s, coincided with the transformations brought about by perestroika, for which it was a form of catharsis. It flouted all taboos, thereby marking the final twist within the Soviet ideological adventure. For the first time in the history of Soviet cinema, Kazakhstan found itself center stage with its filmmakers, gaining genuine renown in the USSR and being feted abroad: Rashid Nugmanov’s The Needle, combining cinema and protest from milieu of rock music, attracted 13 million viewers in 1989, whilst Darejan Omirbaev’s films, deeply inspired by François Truffaut, Robert Bresson, and Andrei Tarkovsky, were screened in the “Un Certain Regard” category at the Cannes Film Festival.
Cloé Drieu is historian, research fellow at National Center of Research (CNRS) / CETOBAC. At the crossroad of political history and cultural history, her first book Fiction nationales, cinéma, empire et nation en Ouzbékistan was published in 2013 (Paris, Karthala) and dealt with the imperial dynamics of the soviet state- and nation-building through the lens of Uzbek fiction films produced between 1924 and 1937. It was translated into English and published by Indiana University Press (2019). She edited a second book in 2015 Écrans d’Orient: propagande, innovation et résistance dans les cinémas de Turquie, d’Iran et d’Asie centrale (Paris, Karthala) that deals with the importance of cinema in the formation of a national identity in the Ottoman Empire, Turkey, Iran and Central Asia. She now works on the First World War in Central Asia, especially on the 1916 uprisings, and more broadly speaking on the globalization of the conflict and its development and nature in non-European areas. She has edited or co-edited books on that topic: with Alexander Morrison and Aminat Chokobaeva (eds), The 1916 Central Asian Revolt. Rethinking the History of a Collapsing Empire in the age of War and Revolution, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2019; with Xavier Bougarel and Raphaëlle Branche (eds), Far From Jihad: Combatants of Muslim Origin in the European Armies in the XXth century, London, Bloomsbury, 2017. She has also started a new project of oral history on former Soviet Soldiers sent to Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989.
This “New Wave” benefited from a set of circumstances that were favorable to cinematographic experimentation. The filmmakers could express themselves freely, whilst benefiting from what was still a comparatively well-endowed production system in which banks and companies invested, thinking there was easy money to be made since they were convinced the film business would continue to be as lucrative as it had been during the Soviet period.
Indeed, Kazakh cinema had provided me with an insight into the tail end of the Soviet cinematographic adventure. It led me to wonder how it had first originated, and how the saga of the film industry in Central Asia had started. The choice of place was soon made, for the first local experiments in cinematography were conducted on the territory of Soviet Uzbekistan, created in 1924. The first studio was set up for the Khan of Khiva by Khudaibergen Devanov (1878-1940), before larger ones founded in the early 1920s as proper business ventures began to produce and distribute films, first in Tashkent (in the Turkistan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic), and then in Bukhara (in the Bukharan People’s Soviet Republic). From 1924 onwards, Uzbekistan and, to a lesser extent, Tajikistan were the only two republics in Central Asia to generate an early national cinematographic elite: Suleyman Khojaev (1892-1937) and Nabi Ganiev (1904-1954) in Uzbekistan, and Kamil Yarmatov (1903-1978) in Tajikistan. They all made their first, silent films between 1931 and 1936. Even though, as of 1928, other cities in Central Asia (such as Alma-Ata and Ashkhabad) had subsidiaries of Vostokkino, a supra-State film production structure, the first national Kirghiz, Turkmen, and Kazakh filmmakers only started working after the Second World War.
So, contrary to the other Central Asian republics, present-day Uzbekistan is the only country to have given rise to an early, national cinematographic elite producing full-length fiction films during this crucial and troubled interwar period.
That is why I choose to write my PhD on Uzbek cinema during the early period, and I do not regret it at all. When you look more precisely, you could define chronological limits, that were particularly relevant in the world of film as well as in the political sphere. The earliest films studied were produced in 1924, a year that marked a political birth, with the ethnic and territorial delimitation of Soviet Uzbekistan, as well as marking the beginning of a new phase in cinematography, since it coincided with the beginning of filming for the first full-length fiction film ever made in Central Asia: The Minaret of Death by Vyatcheslav Viskovsky. The date, 1937, that closed the study was just as significant, firstly because it marked a major technical shift with the first talking film (The Oath by Alexandr Usol’stev-Garf) and secondly because it marked Stalinist terror with a massive wave of arrests, deportations, and executions. In Uzbekistan, as elsewhere in Soviet Union, the main national architects of Soviet power and most of the intellectual elites disappeared.
Generally, why did Soviet filmmakers encourage national cinema?
Well, when you mention “Soviet filmmakers,” do you mean Russian or Slavic filmmakers? I am not sure, but I will answer according to this hypothesis, according to a center-based conception of the relationship between Moscow and the periphery, i.e. the Soviet republics. Actually, it is important to raise that question because I felt at many occasions too strong a trend to have a Moscow-centered point of view on Soviet history. I would like to insist very much on the opposite view that one should have, when asking how national cinema–but also national culture, national political, etc.–was encouraged, developed and financially supported.
I really would like to insist on the short-time experience of Bukhkino, founded in Bukhara in 1924 and located in Fayzullah Khojaev’s house, who was at that time the head of the Ministry (Nazirat) of Education in the short-lasted Republic of Bukhara’s government. It is important to remember that he was at the origin of the creation of the film-studio, that is to say that the initiative goes back to a local initiative, not a Moscow-based decision. However, the government of the Republic of Bukhara called on Russian film organizations (Sevzapkino in particular) to set up its own film production unit in February 1924, because there were no native film industry specialists at that time, or very few. Bukhkino, as a Russo-Bukharan Cinematographic Company, was founded in April 1924 in Moscow when a contract was signed by the head of Sevzapkino and the plenipotentiary of the Republic of Bukhara (shareholders were Sevzapkino for 45%, and 55% were the Bukharan Commissariats for Education and for Trade and Industry).
In their new status, Bukhkino was supposed “to create national Uzbek film activity.” It produced The Minaret of Death by Viskovsky, the first Uzbek long-feature film ever made in Central Asia, that was very orientalist and exotic in its representation. Indeed, the new-born film studio did not have all the means of its policy: it needed financial support, cinema schools and training, and had to collaborate and invite Russian and Ukrainian filmmakers and technical staff, that brought their own perceptions of the Central Asian society and culture.
The first studio was set up for the Khan of Khiva by Khudaibergen Devanov (1878-1940), with the help of some German Mennonite settlers, before larger ones were founded in the early 1920s.
I would like to insist on the fact that the cinema was already perceived by the Central Asian elite as a mean of modernization, before Sovietization. In fact, looking back deeper into the past, the idea of cinema as a tool for modernization–actually the theater first–was raised by one of the founders of Muslim reformism in Central Asia, Mahmudhoja Behbudi as early as 1914. He wrote about theater and how it presented society, as a mirror image reflecting its faults, just as the press did. A few months later Mirmuhsin, a reformist intellectual from Tashkent, described the film theater as a place for “edification” (dar al ibrat). Cinema fascinated people by including spectators within a larger reality, and as a counterpart presenting this reality to them, acting as a window onto the world. These opinions were put forward just before the First World War, quite before the edification of Soviet state and national republics within it.
You are analyzing 14 feature films from Soviet Uzbek cinema. How did you pick those and could you pick several of them that are most illustrative to tell a bit more how they helped you in your research?
I did not really choose them, I took all of the long-feature films produced between 1924 and 1937. The only criterion was that the films selected should represent Uzbekistan and the Uzbek people or their predecessors, called at that time Sarts, i.e. sedentary people with no tribal affiliation. As a consequence, I have rejected only one film–The Dead Well (1933)–that took place in Transcaspian region (nowadays Turkmenistan). Cinema was considered a “visual narrator of the Uzbek nation.” And as for the methodology, I applied what I have labelled “un fait cinématographique total,” by linking filmic representations to their context of production and reception, drawing extensively on analysis of political, economic, and social practices, relying on archival material, press and filmic analysis.
Filmic production in the broad meaning of the term could throw light on the transitions taking place from the disappearance of the Russian Empire up until the Second World War. It shed a new light on the processes of decolonization affecting representations and institutions, and on the discursive and symbolic negotiations that resulted in the formation of a national identity. As representation and as the structure within which that representation is both produced and received, the fait cinématographique was explored chronologically. The colonial type of representations to be found in the first films, made between 1924 and 1928, and revealing the progressive hybridization of colonial discourse and class discourse, gave way to a representation that was national in kind, drawing initially on the discourse of social progress (1928-1932), and then on that of nationalist progress (in the mid-1930s), before finally arriving at the totalitarian representations of 1937, when Uzbekistan was denied any possibility of cinematographic self-representation. As Marc Ferro has observed, “even when under surveillance, film bears witness.” Perhaps we should say “especially when under surveillance.”
Was this in line with Stalin’s approach towards the national republics? And in what context do you view colonization/empire?
Well, as mentioned before, we should apprehend the situation in a different manner, from “below” (bottom-to-up): discourses over nation and modernization were already part of the main political trends and ideas of Muslim reformists for instance. Stalin’s approach toward national republics, (development of national culture, national schools, development of national languages but without political sovereignty), encountered a favorable “native” ground at first to settle and to grow. Of course, local elites did not wait for Stalinism, bolshevism, cultural revolutions or whatever, to think about their own way of modernizing societies. However, the pace was very slow, to say the least…
As Adeeb Khalid or Yuri Sleznik and others some years before, I do not consider that Stalinist domination on the peripheries was of colonial nature, for at least three reasons. First, even if many similarities exist (economics and demographics especially), the nature of the Soviet State, and the extent of its interventionism and socio-economic modernization uniformly implemented throughout Soviet territory, were more suggestive of a comparison with the policies of a State such as Kemalist Turkey than with those pursued by the French or British governments regarding their colonies, or even Russian empire that adopted a policy of “non-interference.” Second, all “Soviet subjects” enjoyed equal rights and were equal citizens of the same State, albeit of distinct nationality. The system was therefore not founded on radical racial alterity. And lastly, colonialism is underpinned by the supremacy of a people regarded as imperial and entrusted with a mission, and this is only partially analogous to the Soviet system, for proportionately the Russians were the main victims of their “own” system of domination. However, the dominance of Moscow over the periphery was quasi total at the end of the 1930s, but it was of different nature.
To categorize this new form of dominance, I have tried, as many authors, to rehabilitate the notion of empire, which was all devilized during the Soviet period, but that proved particularly useful to qualify the new form of domination that was taking place in the Mid-1930s, and the dynamics driving the conquest of power over a newly Soviet space–we could say “subjugation” of Central Asia–over a relatively short time span. The notion helped reveal the internal, contradictory logics of hegemony at work, brought out the process by which a Soviet unit was created through ethnic and national differentiation.
In the Soviet case, Empire can be defined as a vast multinational space with centrally organized territory, administration, and communications, where power was personalized and sacralized, forming a system that is universal in vocation and that destroys pre-existing authorities. Hence, the analysis of cinema production and distribution, that concentrated economic and institutional factors and material questions (the structure of power) shed particular light on the shift towards empire.
The process by which the film industry became centralized and politically unified was launched by the first Five-Year Plan (1928-1932) and the founding of Soyuzkino, a unified central committee operating across the RSFSR, which emerged over time as the sole regulatory body for cinema in the Soviet sphere for economic ideological issues. The process of subordination was both imposed and accepted, because of an ‘operative misunderstanding,’ when looking at the creation of Soyuzkino: the Uzbek authorities were not opposed to the principle of centralization and accepted certain forms of delegating authority, but their attitude was nevertheless part of a federal conception of the Soviet State. However, they believed they could retain some degree of representativity and room for maneuver. A central unified body was a “rational and necessary step,” though a complex one; it was important for the Uzbek authorities to be able to defend their interests so as to conserve its national prerogatives. Of course, the conception of power by the central state (Stalin in short) was very different, the peripheries had to subordinate totally to the central authority. This operative misunderstanding about the conception of the State– interventionist and regulatory for some, economically centralized and subordinated for others–generated a pronounced tension and an increasing number of contradictions. But the centralization process was already over in 1934, a date that could be considered as the rebirth of empire.
You have done a great research and archival work on the history of films made in Uzbekistan from 1919 until 1937. Do you cover any films after that period? What would a periodization of the film development in Soviet Uzbekistan look like? In particular, how did it evolve in the later Soviet period? Did it turn to more social issues or art-house styles?
I have started doing research for a master degree on Kazakh New Wave. Film production turned at that period art et essai (Art-house). I was also able to witness this at first hand when I spent several months on set for the entire shoot of Omirbaev’s fourth film, The Road (2001), in a co-production with France. This experience, as a production assistant, translator, and set photographer, allowed me to see how the various spheres involved in cinema production interacted and fitted together; it also enabled me to understand how Kazakh studios were organized, with the recurrent sources of discontent, decay of the distribution network, degradation of movie theaters, incoherence of cinema producing or certain filmmakers’ dismay and forced professional conversion. I really enjoyed studying this period and the films produced at that time, because it was, in a sense, revolutionary again and favorable to cinematographic experimentation.
I was also very interested during the Second World War period. Central Asia–especially Almaty, but, to a lesser extent, Dushanbe and Bishkek–was the place where the Russian and Ukrainian film studios were relocated while Germans troop were getting closer and closer to Moscow. The propaganda effort was needed by the Soviet state and Soviet authority put great efforts to build effective cinema studios. The films produced during this period were of different genre, long feature-film, newsreels but also film-concerts. The Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) and the communal effort it required crystallized a feeling of belonging to the Soviet homeland and exacerbated patriotic sentiment. The internal regime of terror was temporarily attenuated, with artistic and scientific centers (cinema studios) becoming less structured and then scattering; many went on to regroup in Central Asia, where they integrated the local populations. The state of war resulted in artistic production being organized in a different way, based on working across the divide between local and Russian elites, and above all on the renewed involvement of local elites but the persisting lack of reciprocity in power relations. The period is often depicted as a moment of collusion and cooperation between newcomers (Russians, Ukrainians) and local Central Asians, but further research needed to be made. To my mind, it probably increased the dichotomy between Slavic people (so-called “Great Russians” in the political discourses) and Central Asians.
The period after the Second World War, in the 1950s, is commonly referred to as “film anemia” (malokartin’e), which also attracted my attention. Although few films were made, this period is still worthy of research and interest, for nearly all the films produced in Uzbekistan portrayed the great historical figures of pre-modern history: Avicenna, Al-Biruni, Mir Ali Shir Nawa’i, Ulugh Beg… In these hagiographic films the communist word was now embodied in “national” herald. I have only studied one of the famous films of that artistic trend: Alisher Navoi by Kamil Yarmatov (1947). Those films are very interesting for the one who wants to deal with the filmic propaganda effort. But for the one more interested in artistic and narrative feats, and as far as Uzbekistan is concerned, I would highly recommend to watch Ali Khamraev’s films such as White, White Storks (1966), Without Fear (1973), The Man Who Goes After the Birds (1976) or Triptych (1980). Those films are really wonderful.
From a viewer’s standpoint, it is sad that many works of Soviet filmmakers–particularly in Central Asia (but not in Russia)–seem to have lost any relevance to a modern audience. In Kazakhstan, even celebrated Shaken Aimanov’s films are often viewed as ideological and only a few comedies may still be in rotation today. Is it the same situation in Uzbekistan? If so, why? And do you follow modern Central Asian cinema? How does this new national cinema differ from the one you studied? Are there any other interesting trends in the modern Central Asian film development?
I think the situation in Uzbekistan is a bit different, but I am not sure, it is a long time I haven’t been there and I do not follow up very much the current situation. So, it seems that there is an interest for movies of the past, as a culture heritage. But I am not sure this is a large-scale phenomenon. As far as the very recent cinema development are concerned, I must confess that I am not very interested in that matter. Cinema revealed itself as a perfect scientific object for research on interwar period, the one I choose for my PhD and my book, but I did not have interest to continue working on cinema.
I have tried to find the right object or lenses to understand a tumultuous period, the one of the 1920s and 1930s. Now I work on the period of First World War, I concentrated my research on 1916 uprising in Central Asia, as well as I worked on a project of oral history on the Soviet-Afghan conflict (1979-1989). Actually, I have started working on the uprising of 1916 against military requisition in labor battalions, because of the film Before Dawn (Tong Oldidan, Pered Rasvetom) by Suleyman Khojaev (1934). It was a historical reconstitution of 1916 in Jizzakh (nowadays Uzbekistan) and the film struck me very much. I have extensively discussed it in my book, as well as the biography of its author, who was put in jail because of his film and died in the Stalinist Terror. At first glance, it seems difficult to link First World War and Soviet-Afghan War, but the idea is to understand how Central Asian minorities where drafted for the need of the war, during the late Russian Empire up to Soviet times. So, although I have changed my scientific targets, but cinema was very central.
Selective bibliography on cinema
– Cloé Drieu, Cinema, Empire and Nation in Uzbekistan, Indiana, Indiana Press University, 2019. French version: Fictions nationales : cinéma, empire et nation en Ouzbékistan (1924-1937), Paris, Karthala/coll. « Meydan », 2013.
Articles on cinema
– « Grande Guerre Patriotique et propagande cinématographique en Ouzbékistan : les motifs du renouveau nationaliste (1937-1945) », Cloé Drieu (dir.), Écrans d’Orient : propagande, innovation et résistance dans les cinémas de Turquie, d’Iran et d’Asie centrale (1897-1945), Paris, Karthala, coll. « Terres et gens d’Islam », 2015, p. 239-266.
– « De la pratique en ‘situation coloniale’ aux usages totalitaires : le film et son environnement sonore et visuel. Étude de l’Asie Centrale (1897-1937) », CORIOU Morgan (dir.), « Le Cinéma comme pratique sociale en situation coloniale », Tunis : IRMC/CERES, 5, 2011, p. 231-260.
– « Cinema, Local Power and the Central State: Agencies in Early antireligious propaganda in Uzbekistan », Die Welt des Islams, 50 (2010), pp. 532-558.
– « Nabi Ganiev, cinéaste ouzbek sous Staline : l’idéologie à l’épreuve de la diffraction nationale », Dissidences, 9 (2010)
– « ‘Interdit aux Sartes, aux chiens et aux soldats’ : la Russie coloniale dans le film Tong Oldidan de Suleyman Khodzhaev Uzbekfilm, 1933) », Cahier d’Asie centrale, 17/18, 2010, pp. 509-239.
– « Croisade bolchévique en terre d’islam : la sacralisation d’une idéologie… ou ce que révèle le cinéma produit en Ouzbékistan (1924-1937) », CinemAction, 2010, p. 67-72
– « Alisher Navo’i : prix Staline 1948. Cinéma et politique des nationalités », Théorème, 8, 2005, pp. 119-127.
Most of the articles are available at: https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/search/index