The founders of Central Asian countries’ national cinema include Kazakhstan’s Shaken Aimanov, with his masterpiece “The Land of Fathers”, Kyrgyzstan’s Melis Ubukeyev, with his work “White Mountains”, Uzbekistan’s Shukhrat Abbasov, and his work “You Are Not an Orphan”, Tajikistan’s Boris Kimyagarov, and his work “Hasan-arbakesh,” and Turkmenistan’s Khodjakuli Narlieva, and his piece “Daughter-in-law”.
These names are honored in the book “Two Epochs of National Self-Determination in the Cinema of Central Asia: 60s and 90s“ by Gulnara Abikeyeva, edited by Alim Sabitov, published by the Center for Central Asian Cinematography with the support of the Open Society Foundations in 2006.
In the same publication, Abikeyeva discusses the most notable film directors in Central Asia of the early independence in the 90s, and she draws the list based on the conceptual significance of various works and awards at international film festivals. The list includes Serik Aprymov’s film “Aksuat”, Kyrgyzstan’s Aktan Abdykalymov and his film “Beshkempir”, Uzbekistan’s Yusup Razykov and his film “Orator”, Tajikistan’s Bakhtiyar Khudoinazarov and his film “Kosh ba kosh” and Turkmenistan’s Usman Saparov and his work “Angel, Make Joy”.
Yet, among the filmmakers marked for significant achievements, there is not a single woman on the list. Cinema in Central Asia is developing and evolving, which will inevitably inspire women directors to challenge this imbalance. But surely, we can make a preliminary overview of contemporary female filmmakers and their contribution to Central Asian cinema.
In this interview, we discuss these contributions with Gulnara Abikeeva, a film expert from Kazakhstan, as well as with Sharofat Arabova, a film expert from Tajikistan, and Saodat Ismailova, a film director from Uzbekistan.
Gulnara Abikeyeva (Kazakhstan)
Dr. Gulnara Abikeyeva (born in 1962) is an award-winning Kazakh author, film critic, and film researcher. Currently, a professor of film history and theory at Turan University in Almaty, Gulnara was formerly the artistic director of the International Film Festival Eurasia in Almaty and has launched five cinema magazines. She is an author of ten books about cinema, mostly pertaining to the cinema of Kazakhstan and of other Central Asian countries. As a member of FIPRESCI and NETPAC, she has been a jury member at several international film festivals.
Regarding women in cinema, could you please name the most famous female names in the cinema of Central Asia? How many women directors and screenwriters are there in the Central Asian space? Do you consider art to have “gender” or gender differences, and is there a “female” cinema?
Of course, we have many names already. In Kazakhstan these are Asya Suleeva, Guka Omarova, Asya Baigozhina, Zhanna Isabayeva, Sharipa Urazbayeva, Elena Lisasina, Ekaterina Suvorova, and Leila Akhinzhanova (screenwriter) among others. In Kyrgyzstan – Dinara Asanova, Dalmira Tilepbergenova. In Uzbekistan – Kamara Kamalova, Saodat Ismailova, in Tajikistan – Mairam Yusupova, Sharofat Arabova, and many more.
Certainly, there are fewer women directors and screenwriters in Central Asian cinema than men. However, to say that there are no women in the film industry of the Central Asian countries is an exaggeration. For example, in Kazakhstan, some women producers have significant accomplishments. These are Gulnara Sarsenova who produced such notable movies as “Tulip” and “Mongol,” and she currently heads the State Center for Support of National Cinema. Aliya Uvalzhanova is a producer of another award-winning film “The Gift to Stalin”, “Zhauzhurek myn bala”, Bayan Alaguzova – “Cocktail for a Star”, “Love of a Tractor Driver”, or Asel Sadvakasova with her hits “Kelinka is also a man”, “Aitbai’s fight”.
In fact, a producer of films with her husband-director was Gulmira Aprymova – who helped to produce the films of Serik Aprymov, Limara Zheksembayev – the films of Darezhan Omirbayev, Alena Gordeeva – the films by Amir Karakulov, Bayan Yerimbet – and the films by Askar Bisembin. Many young women work as executive producers and administrators in film. During my years of teaching at the Turan University, I observed a tendency that more girls are studying to be directors, even as camerawomen, and yet it would seem that this was a purely male profession.
Subjectively, I get the impression that women in the film industry in Kazakhstan, who make decisions, are driven by film production – more than in other Central Asian countries. On the other hand, Gulmira Kerimova is the director of the ‘Kyrgyzfilm’ film studio. There are also many women producers who are successfully working in Kyrgyzstan including Altynai Koichumanova and Erke Dzhumakmatova.
Yes, I believe that women’s cinema has its own face, in the best sense. In general, I believe that men and women perceive the world in different ways: more emotionally, more romantically, and, in a sense, more sophisticatedly. Therefore, it is natural that only a woman can convey a woman’s perception of the world. A vivid example of this, say, is Saodat Ismailova’s film “40 days of silence”.
What is the future of cinema in Central Asia?
Central Asian cinema is facing important challenges: first, is to create a common rental market. By having a common history, similar culture, similar languages, it would be possible to increase the potential audience for the most successful films to 66 million people. Currently, the share of films from our neighbors in the national distribution is practically zero, while it should be at least 20 percent. Secondly, the region needs a common, large international film festival for the Central Asian countries with a film market, where all kinds of films would equally be promoted including: feature-length, short-length, documentary, and animation films. Thirdly, it is necessary to create co-productions between the countries of Central Asia, which will allow for real interaction between filmmakers of the region. All these measures will allow, in my opinion, to strengthen the region’s cinematography and make them more visible and influential in the world cinema space.
Sharofat Arabova (Tajikistan)
Sharofat Arabova (born in 1985), is a woman filmmaker and a film scholar. She holds a PhD in history (cinema) from the Department of Art History and Theory, A. Donish Institute of History, Archeology and Ethnography of National Academy of Sciences. She is currently a Lead Researcher in the Art Studies Department, National Academy of Sciences. She is also a member of NETPAC (Network for Promotion of Asia Pacific Cinema) and Filmmakers’ Union of Tajikistan.
Could you describe cinema in modern Tajikistan? What are its main challenges?
Tajik cinema is being reborn from what it achieved a few decades ago. It happened because our cinema was thrown off track in the 1990s due to the Civil War in Tajikistan. I would call some films that preceded the war as ‘Tajik avant-garde cinema,’ and Bakhriyar Khuzoynazarov is only one of its representatives who is remembered even now. But there were many others too, like Tolib Khamidov and Baqo Sadykov… But their films are watched by a narrow circle of cinephiles. There is a need to establish a Film Archive in Tajikistan where Tajik classic film can be preserved, screened, and discussed. Without knowing one’s past, there is no future. A new generation of Tajik filmmakers has to know the traditions they come from and, first of all, learn the grammar of film like it’s their mother tongue.
The second challenge is the need for relevant film professionals. There are many internet sources of self-learning, but as in any art, one needs a mentor or a guide navigating this stream of information. The third big challenge of the Tajik cinema is film distribution. Distribution without promotion is unsuccessful. The production, distribution, promotion, consumption of films are parts of the same ecosystem and are very much interrelated.
Can you tell us about women in Tajik cinematography? What are the big names in the field, especially among directors and screenwriters?
Women in Tajik cinema are minorities as elsewhere in the world. It was a century-old tendency. The profession was considered suitable for men, but twice as difficult for Central Asian women, who are expected to follow traditional behaviors. But luckily this perception has gradually changed. Presently, there are some Tajik women-filmmakers, including me, both established and aspiring. Mukhabbat Sattori directs commercial films; Alla Sobko works primarily in animation; Takhmina Hakimova works in the reportage genre; Anisa Sabiri, the poet turned director, currently studies screenwriting. Takhmina Emin, Takhmina Muminova, and Mavzuna Mavlonzoda have already collaborated on several Tajik fiction and documentary films as screenwriters. Still, there are few women-filmmakers in comparison to men in the Tajik cinema. It is a very competitive field even for the latter because of the fewer amount of films produced annually in Tajikistan. Indeed, there is a need to organize film training more often, and training directed for aspiring women-filmmakers who enjoy writing stories, acting, designing costumes and film sets, or even composing music.
What brought you into the film industry? What do you pursue in your work?
Cinema was naturally present in my childhood. My father was a WWII combat cameraman and a documentary filmmaker, and his cousin was a sound-designer and director.y grand-uncle was one of the founders of the first Central Asian film production house in Bukhara. I grew up surrounded by its atmosphere. Initially, I studied fine art and cultural studies, but later on, film direction. Cultural studies haму always influenced my approach towards cinema. I never thought about the necessity to express myself precisely through cinema. In a way, cinema has become one of the channels I use to communicate with the audience. Filmmaking becomes a tool to imply my hypothesis about life in practice, reflecting on certain social realities around me. It is impossible to separate myself as a woman-director and my films from the cultural context because every film is a statement.
What are the main film festivals in Tajikistan? What are their impacts and outcomes?
There are 2-3 annual film festivals organized steadily in Tajikistan – the earliest is Didor International Film Festival, which has a branch – Didor Documentary Film Festival, and Navsoz Short Film Festival. There was an attempt to launch the first country-wide Golden Tulip Film Awards in 2019. Every film festival has its profile and it supports greatly the Tajik cinema. It is a networking event that is very important for the local cinema industry. It supports the visibility of talents, facilitates film locations, and film projects. Secondly, film festivals benefit the city economy. Thirdly, they provide an audience with a recreation activity. Finally, they participate in shaping the country’s image, as well as its cinema. This has become evident in the past few years when the annual film festivals, organized in Dushanbe, have generated the production of new films and inspired both audiences and aspiring filmmakers.
Saodat Ismailova (Uzbekistan)
Saodat Ismailova (born in 1981) lives between Europe and Uzbekistan. She started filmmaking while studying at the State Culture Institute of Tashkent. Her first film “Believe or Not -Believe” was awarded the Grand Prize at the Tashkent Student Film Festival in 1999. Her debut feature film “40 days of Silence” was nominated for the best debut film at the 2014 Berlin International film festival and thereafter was screened in more than two dozen prestigious festivals around the world. Her video installation Zukhra” was featured in the Central Asian Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale and her documentary film “Aral: Fishing in the Invisible Sea” won Best Documentary at the 2004 Turin Film Festival.
What does it mean to be a Central Asian artist and what makes you a ‘Central Asian’ artist? Does the place of birth matter for an artist’s identity?
I was born and raised in Tashkent, in an Uzbek family which kept the language and traditions. Over time, I began to go beyond the boundaries within which I thought my culture was defined, and in my mind, the Central Asian region has gradually merged into a whole. I have to thank my profession as an artist for this. Another reason I consider myself a Central Asian artist and filmmaker, is because I have filmed my videos in all the countries of the region, except Turkmenistan. I absolutely feel embedded within the culture and tradition whether my subject is related to Tajikistan or Kazakhstan. I have been attracted by the peaks of the Pamirs as well as by the endless Kyzylorda steppe. By filming and living through this diversity, I have realized the immense richness and uniqueness of the region. I have never received any financial support from these countries and retained my artistic independence.
There are artists who are inspired and attracted by other cultures; I must confess this is alien to me. At the same time, it is also very interesting and one should have a different way of thinking and connecting to their subject of research. Yet, I am firmly attached to Central Asia, there are a lot of stories that deserve to be researched and articulated. I feel my power comes from these roots.
What archetypes have contributed to your creative development?
I have had no intentions to focus on archetypes in order to decipher or define the typical archetypes of Central Asia, but I have seen them by meeting with people while filming, through their stories, memories, and dreams. Realizing them has been more of a conclusion of my previous works, in which I developed attentiveness to the environment, people, and actions that we have seen and met. For example, the concept behind the number forty, which is recurrent in my works, is like it’s walking around and trying to unveil the secret hidden behind this number. The number forty is imprinted onto our life from our birth, and then marriage, and into death. It has also a material representation in the form of sacred places that include this number in their name. Also, the forty hottest or coldest days in the harsh continental climate of Central Asia can be compared to a period of trial, which today we are reminded of by the long quarantine associated with the global pandemic. Probably there are good reasons why the tradition of chilla – forty – quarantine has been preserved in our region for many centuries.
Another important archetype that I have encountered in the subconscious of the inhabitants living near the Amu Darya and the former shore of the Aral Sea is the figure of the Turanian (or Caspian) tiger (lat. Panthera tigris virgata), an extinct subspecies of tigers that lived in Central Asia. People talk about this animal as a sacred creature, associating it with a forefather, a healer, a guardian, but it has become extinct as the result of an intense human intervention in nature and other events in our region, and thus has disappeared in the past century. This archetype reveals a lot about the close past and about the wounds that would not heal.
Do you think that creativity has a gender? Is there such a thing as ‘woman’s cinema’? Do you consider yourself an artist of women’s stories? What are your intentions in your works Chilla (40 days of Silence) and “Qyrq Qyz” (Forty girls)?
I do not take any special position that in my practice I should focus only on women’s stories, but since I am a woman, it has always been closer and easier for me to express my feelings and thoughts through women in my works. Doing this seems to me a more transparent and harmonious artistic solution. Interestingly, works with women have enjoyed a longer and wider exposure at festivals and exhibitions. Perhaps this also creates an impression that I work only with women. I do not divide my work by gender. How can there be a woman without a man, or vice versa? Nevertheless, the stories I am telling are told through the eyes of a woman, because I am one of them.
The connection between the feature film 40 Days of Silence and the multimedia theatrical production Qyrq Qyz (Forty Girls) is obvious. In both cases, the narrative is built around the number forty. My interest in this number began from the sensation I received from my cousin when she kept silent while her family was falling apart, her children were ill, and everything went wrong. Yet she was silent and shone with calmness and nobility. There was so much mystery in her; I wonder how much inner strength and will you have to have to keep all the pain and fears within yourself. Then I learned about the ritual of silence and the number forty and began to pay more attention to this number. I think the film 40 Days of Silence turned out to be so personal and hermetic because it is rooted in the memory of the feeling I had from my cousin.
Later, in a second-hand book shop in Bishkek, I bought a book called Forty Girls – a Karakalpak folk epic translated into Russian by Arseny Tarkovsky. Thanks to Andrei Tarkovsky’s father, I read a heroic epic from Central Asia for the first time. I thought: what a pity that we do not pay more attention to this heritage. In fact, it carries all the genetic memory of the region, and Central Asia. According to books by researcher Julian Baldik, our epics have some of the richest legacies in the world of oral folk art. Of course, we all know that epics were used after the collapse of the USSR to give new national definitions to the newly independent Central Asian states, but it seems to me that this was only superficially done. There has never been any revision of the epic as part of our spiritual heritage.
Now, going back to Forty Girls, this is a female heroic epic that carries in certain parts the memory of the matriarchy that had been part of the Massagetae’s culture. It had elements of animism that can be perceived through the representation of certain animals, as well as the understanding of the geographical space, such as that of the interfluve which belongs to neither nomadic nor sedentary cultures, which continues to define today’s Uzbekistan.
I approached the epic in stages. First I created a 25-minute experimental film based on the monologue of the main character. I then got a commission from the Music Programme of the Aga Khan Foundation to create a theatrical performance with elements of traditional music.
The commonality between the two works is the number forty, but they are two completely different works, and they have roots in different situations: the film has grown from personal memories with my family, while the theatrical performance is based more on the heroic epic.
It seems a bit strange to me to distinguish films or other art works by gender. Art is sexless, it would be a pity if there were ‘female’ or ‘male’ artworks. The artists and directors who once inspired me and still inspire are mostly the people who created their own worlds which make us dream and believe.
Tell us about your current curatorial activity with the Centre for Contemporary Art in Tashkent? What are your views on the development of contemporary art in Uzbekistan? What are the problems or obstacles for the full-scale development of contemporary art in the region?
In 2019, I was invited to present a personal exhibition in the space of a new institution in Tashkent – the Centre for Contemporary Art, which was created with the support of the Art and Culture Development Foundation of the Republic of Uzbekistan. Later in 2019, I was approached to put together a Laboratory at the Centre for Contemporary Art. This laboratory is a test in order to understand the potential and possibility of collective collaboration among creative youth within the city of Tashkent and to understand their needs in education to move further on in the film industry. The project runs until fall 2020, the lab consists of 15 young artists from different disciplines: artists, photographers, architects, dancers, as well as writers. At the moment we are working on a project called Tashkent Futures, which is an online project about the city in which we live, about the city where we will all go out again after a long period of self-isolation, and the artists are rethinking the space we are living in. With the participants of the lab, we have organized a Tashkent Film Encounters (TFE), featuring modern classics of Central Asian cinema, the participants of the lab made special interviews with film directors and wrote newsletters dedicated to the Film Encounters. TFE presented nine films, and was also invited by the Kino Klassika Foundation in London. Now we are working on Tashkent Music Encounters, which consists of two musical collaborations.
On the whole, it seems that in cinematography as well as in contemporary art in the region, it is necessary to try to unite forces, at least partly. We need more joint regional projects, it seems to me that we supplement each other. I would like to see more collective exhibitions, meetings, discussions, and I believe it is essential to communicate and share ideas with colleagues from neighbouring countries, in order to see this impulse coming from inside the region rather than looking outside in search for inspiration.