For even the rangiest moviegoers, the notion that the newly emerged, ex-Soviet states nestled between China, Russia and the Caspian Sea—the “-stans”—have distinctive, thriving movie cultures of their own can be a shocker. Of course, this unflaunted legacy flows from the Soviet era: During WW II, the national film industry decentralized to outlying “film factories” in the southeast (Mark Donskoi spent the war making films in Turkmenistan, and both Eisenstein and Vertov transferred to Kazakhstan), and during the Khrushchev thaw, the rugged, pre-industrial outlands served as the terrain for an entire genre of adventure sagas. Still, the Central Asian republics weren’t merely picturesque soundstages for Muscovite film production. As with the great Soviet movies born of Georgia, Ukraine, and Belarus, the trans-Caspian regions’ distinctive ethnic identities always provided a rich, if officially devalued, lode of cinematic meat and marrow. After the empire’s crumple, the renascent industries have focused almost exclusively on the quotidian of their nations’ traditional peoples.
There’s a self-regarding ethnographic resolve at work in these films, unpretentiously observing a social weft largely unchanged in hundreds of years, where even today the wealthy do not have indoor plumbing. (Robert Flaherty wouldn’t have had to re-create an ancient lifestyle in Kyrgyzstan.) The Tajik films in the series are perfect examples of this down-to-earthness: Jamshed Usmonov’s The Flight of the Bee (1998) is a dry absurdist satire shot in verité lurch, starting in a Kiarostamian classroom but building to an epic territorial pissing match over sewage ditches that drags the schoolteacher hero, literally, into an obsessional abyss. Just as ironic, Mairam Yusupova’s The Time of the Yellow Grass (1991), one of the retro’s high points, is an aboriginal loiter in which Tajik villagers ponder what to do with an unidentified (and non-Muslim) corpse found in a sheep pasture. Life in these mountains is more ritual than drama, and so Yusupova foregrounds the minutiae of hardscrabble existence, leaving the body to haunt this zone-out-of-time with its portentous stillness.
Similarly, in many of the Kirghiz films the elemental reality is so immediate that it’s easy to forget a camera was involved. On view are two post-Khrushchev films by revered republic icon Tolomush Okeev—1967’s The Sky of Our Childhood and 1973’s The Fierce One—as well as Aktan Abdikalikov’s The Adopted Son (1998), the only film in the series to have received a stateside release. Taking the patterns of handmade Kirghiz rugs as both his narrative rhythm and visual template—the black-and-white movie is seared with startling, full-color punctuations—Abdikalikov examines village life through the eyes of a 13-year-old boy who discovers through a cohort’s taunting that he’s adopted, a blunt-force trauma in a sphere where blood lineage is everything. Like the director’s The Swing (1993), a virtually wordless ballade of peasant desires and dreams, the film is remarkable for its slyly resonant imagery, but just as affecting is the extended, climactic memorial rite for the boy’s grandmother, which not only obliterates the plot’s previous conflicts but serves as an implicit critique of Western emotional distance.
Of the Turkoman movies, Khodjakuli Narliev’s The Daughter-in-Law (1972) is a fascinating artifact of Soviet style and Muslim propriety, as the shy wife of a WW II pilot counts out her days in the desert with her kindly father-in-law, waiting for a return that may never come. Narliev’s movie has the gritty, thickly saturated Soviet texture that ran from Eisenstein to Paradjanov (here’s a lost film stock someone should try to manufacture again), and like most of the films from this part of the world, it regards skilled work with reverence: tending to sheep, drying fruit, managing newborns. Another wartime period tale, Usman Saparov’s Little Angel, Bring Me Joy (1993) is a mercilessly intimate, neo-realist vision of orphanhood, following a towheaded, Germanic “Mujuk” boy through a wasteland of deprivation and chaos, all of it shot with an exacting, kid-level eye for landscape and cold daylight.
The Uzbek film tradition is the oldest, and Takhir and Zukhra (1945)—a Romeo and Juliet variation, based on a regional folktale—is the series’ ancestral touchstone, but Ali Khamraev’s Man Follows Birds (1975) is where the Uzbek art-film heritage truly begins, a Paradjanovian medieval pageant of boyhood under primal pressure. In contemporary terms, Yusup Razikov’s Orator (2000) is a true oddity: a humorless anti-Soviet satire that seemingly longs for the czarist years, when the Muslim protagonist could inherit his dead brother’s two wives (for a total of three) and live happily amid their ministrations without the brutal modernizations brought on by the Bolshevik revolution. In Razikov’s version, even the Party’s dominatrix femmes long to become servile Muslim housekeepers.
The Kazakh films range from Ardak Amirkulov’s spectacular The Fall of Otrar (1990), the costume-battle splurge of ancient historical intrigue and raw pulp that sparked a filmmaking revival in its massive homeland, to Amir Karakulov’s Don’t Cry (2003), a digital, doc-styled improvisation about a Chinese-trained opera singer living on the snowy steppes and struggling to raise money for her dying niece’s medication where currency itself is little used. The contrast in scope and tone is fitting for a multi-ethnic nation nearly the size of continental Europe—in terms of cinema’s encapsulating and expressing this lost world’s momentous human fabric, we may be witnessing the barest beginnings.