World Cinema: Around the world in 80 films – Central Asia
Nick once again embarks on his occasional cinematic world trip, with a look at the unique movies of Central Asia...
Returning to my semi-regular feature, we arrive in Central Asia. We’re also approaching the halfway point of the journey, and I feel I have barely begun to scratch the surface on any of these countries.
It has been an eye-opening experience for me, as when I first conceived the idea it sounded quite simple and straightforward, with the name obviously suggesting itself. But it has become one of the more consistently challenging things to write about!
There are just too many damn films. Which is definitely a good problem. It would be terrible if there was a dearth of quality cinema out there.
Anyway, without further ado, here are ten more to hopefully whet your appetite for exploring the fringes of cinema….
Admired by legendary director Federico Fellini among others, Georgian cinema has long established itself as an artistic haven concerned with the imagery and technique of the moving picture.
Several noted Georgian film directors have mixed several careers, including former ambassador to France, Lana Gogoberidze, whose film, Dges Game Utenebia (Day Is Longer Than Night) was entered into the 1984 Cannes Film Festival (albeit under the banner of the Soviet Union).
A family drama, it tells the tale of Eve, whose intended husband is killed, plunging her into despair. While the truth of his death is shockingly revealed, a political backdrop of revolution and its consequences unfolds, contextualising the drama with a deeper meaning.
Cinema has played an important part in Armenian culture since close to the invention of the technology. In fact, Armenia established a state committee on cinema way back in 1924. The UK still does not have one in 2011.
Early Armenian cinema was considered some of the finest examples of Soviet cinema to be found, and it is the earliest silent film, Pepo, from 1935, which is often lauded as a particular masterpiece.
Befitting the political ideology of the time, it is the story of a poor fisherman standing up to a dishonest trader, and choosing his morals over corruption. However, it is notable for concluding with Pepo falling in love, rather than a bombastic triumph of the common man, proving that the Armenians were pretty romantic, even back in their Communist days.
Even older than the Armenian cinema is Azerbaijan’s. Cinema here dates back to 1898, which are only a few short years after its ‘official’ launch. Spread here by the French, it immediately took off in much the same way it had lit up Europe and America.
It too has had its productive Soviet period, but has come through strongly after independence, so much so that there is now an official holiday for filmmakers of Azerbaijan. (August 2nd, in case you were wondering.)
The Engagement Ring is an effective comedy from the early nineties, which acts as a damning indictment of Soviet rule, charting the social collapse which was its legacy.
Russian cinema rightly has a long and celebrated history of innovation, quality and lasting legacy. Beginning in Tsarist times, Russian cinema was yet another country which benefitted artistically from Soviet Cinema, with many classics being made which are still studied and widely admired today.
Sergei Eisenstein was a particular titan of the age, with his Battleship Potemkin surely known by any cinema aficionado. He also published academically, and his Film Form is required reading on many film theory courses.
However, Russian cinema has made the transition into the post-Soviet 21st Century with ease, and is now incredibly successful overseas, with films such as Night Watch and Brother making waves. The latter is particularly compelling, tracing the story of an ex-soldier making his living as a hit man in a newly democratic Russia.
Filmmaking in Afghanistan has had a chequered and difficult history, which, given the country’s political difficulties over the last 100-plus years (cinema’s timeframe), isn’t that surprising.
There has never really been a structured film academy to train promising filmmakers, and so many had to learn on the job, which proved difficult while cinema was effectively banned under the Taliban.
However, the human desire to express themselves artistically and through stories once again overcame all obstacles, and since 2000 there has been a resurgence in Afghanistan film, both in Pashto and Persian spheres.
Of particular note is 2003’s Osama, the first film to be shot entirely in Afghanistan since the aforementioned banning of film in 1996. Naturally, it deals with life under the repressive Taliban government, and how a girl is forced to disguise herself as the titular male Osama in order to support her family.
Osama was a great critical success, winning awards at several film festivals and award ceremonies, including Cannes, the London Film Festival and the Golden Globes.
No, I’m not going to recommend Borat! Although an insightful and truthful depiction of life in Kazakhstan, Sacha Baron-Cohen’s seminal work fails to take into account that the country has been one of the most successful world cinemas of recent years, at least in the context of Academy Award critical praise.
They have submitted a film for Best Foreign Language film award for the last four years running, and, in fact, produced the (to-date) only Central Asian nominee in Mongol. This, of course, will be my choice here!
Mongol is the first entry in a trilogy and begins the epic tale of Genghis Khan. It tells the early life of the then Temüjin, and how he gains the mantle of the legendary warlord. It is truly epic on every scale, and, in fact, is one of the finest historical epics of recent years and definitely teaches Hollywood a few things.
There are few things finer in life than putting Mongol on a massive flat screen TV with surround sound and being literally shaken by the massive battle scenes.
Ok, so information about the cinema of Turkmenistan is pretty scarce to come by. However, like many ex-Soviet countries, film here was established relatively early, with the first studio opening its doors back in 1922. This consistent pushing of the technological frontier was in keeping with Soviet ideals, and they viewed cinema as the best way to spread their political ideology to the masses. But you cannot fault the film infrastructure and legacy they gave to these countries.
This has continued up until today, past the Soviet collapse. One of the first films to be released after this was 1994’s Ochlamon, another tragicomedy with political overtones, this time dealing with the war in Afghanistan, and following the titular hero, whose only true friend is a dog.
The Uzbek film industry faced a total collapse after the end of the Soviet empire, as lavish subsidies disappeared and film production ground to a halt. Between 1991 and 2000, only 12 films were produced. But in recent years the film industry has once again begun to flourish, with 2008 seeing 48 films made alone.
However, quantity does not always mean quality, and the standard is generally poor with soap opera-style melodrama being the preferred genre in which filmmakers express themselves.
Ultra-low budgets are also a fact of life there, but this has not stopped the increasing popularity of films, with the recent inauguration of an awards ceremony testament to this.
An example of a recent Uzbek film is Super Kelinchak (Super Daughter-In-Law), which is the progressive and heart-warming tale of a successful city girl who marries into a conservative rural family, and despite initial clashes with the mother-in-law, finds fulfilment and happiness by learning how to milk a cow and respect traditional family values. Hmm…
Tajik cinema is respected in neighbouring countries for its vitality and artistic merit, with Tajik-specific film festivals often being shown. It has also been represented several times at international Western film festivals, with Bihisht Faqat Baroi Murdagon (To Get To Heaven, First You Have To Die) being selected for Cannes in 2006.
Directed by Tajik breakout star, Jamshed Usmonov, it is almost the total opposite of the terrible film above, as its protagonist, Kamal, is trapped in a loveless marriage out in the sticks, but breaks free by moving to the city and falling in love with a married woman. Oh, and getting himself involved in crime, of course.
A lot of Mongol cinema has dealt with Genghis Khan, which makes it sad that the most celebrated effort came from Kazakhstan.
Mongolia is also noted cinematically for its wealth of Soviet propaganda films, and fixation on various heroic characters who lead and inspire the nation. Deep-rooted though this idea of a saviour-hero may be in Mongolian culture, recent efforts have given hope that a new golden age is about to emerge from this country, with The Cave Of The Yellow Dog being one such example.
A genuinely life-affirming fable about nomads, it follows little Nansal as she finds and befriends a stray dog, Zocher, against her family’s wishes. An exploration of the challenges facing the modern nomadic lifestyle versus the growing urbanisation of the Mongolian people, its use of non-professional actors only reinforces the sense of verisimilitude inherent in the piece, and makes you believe you are genuinely witnessing the truth of a people.
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