Uzbekistan: Independent Uzbek Cinema and Postcolonialism

Alexey Ulko, a graduate of the Samarkand University and of the University College of St Mark and ST John in Plymouth. A member of the European Association for Central Asian Studies and the Association of Art Historians, a writer on contemporary Central Asian art and a film-maker.

Uzbekistan, like other ex-Soviet countries, obtained its independence in 1991 which formally ended the 120-year long history of the Russian/Soviet colonial rule. However, unlike typical postcolonial states, there was no struggle for independence or any intention to secede. The country has kept its last Soviet leader as the new President thereby ensuring that a great part of the Soviet ideology was inherited and re-planted in the new nationalist soil. This has resulted in the formation of a specific national doctrine, which can only partly be referred to as ‘postcolonial’ or ‘liberating’. The state’s current cultural policies can be exemplified by an extract from a document outlining its strategies for cinema development:   ‘Since the first days of independence, the Uzbek cinema has endeavored to reflect the current changes and achievements in the formation of a democratic society, to talk from the screen about honor and dignity, kindness and charity, loyalty and morality… The National Uzbek Cinema Association has identified the priorities in cinema and video production: focusing on the local audience; creating the conditions for the production of films reflecting Uzbek people’s national individuality and traditions; providing support to artistic films contributing to the spiritual enrichment of the society…’[i]

In this context, most independent filmmakers in Uzbekistan prefer to stay away from this top-down Kulturträger program, while trying to avoid sending out explicit political or socially sensitive messages. Boris Chukhovich, an influential critic of the contemporary Central Asian art, defined this environment as ‘a truly repressive totalitarianism which does not permit taking a declarative political position’.[ii]  In spite of this, today a growing number of filmmakers recognize the need for a more articulated civic standpoint and try to reflect these new perspectives in their films.

Among the first to address the socially significant issues and to challenge the dominant nation-building discourse were minimalist films by Umida Akhmedova and Oleg Karpov. The Hostages of Eternity (2007) explores the mechanical irrationality of the top-down ‘postcolonial’ administrative system in the country. It shows a woman incessantly sweeping a 100m-long fragment of a road in the rain. She is involved in the manual labor traditionally associated with Uzbek household practices, but her effort is focused on the road where the president travels to and from work twice a day. The film serves as a powerful illustration of the unholy amalgamation of an authoritarian political system and Central Asian parochialism with its power and gender inequalities.

To understand the specific relationships between Uzbek art and the postcolonial discourse, one has to acknowledge the limitations of and to go beyond the binary oppositions of the conventional Orientalism with its clearly defined ‘the Self’ and ‘the Other’.[iii]Alexander Barkovsky’s short video performance, Repatriation Program (2008) is a good illustration of the ambiguity of the postcolonial discourse in the country. It deconstructs Russia’s ambitious and much-criticized program for the repatriation of ethnic Russians from ex-Soviet countries. The artist, looking straight at the camera, puts a wad of dollars in his mouth, wraps his head with a cello tape and crowns it with a grotesque Russian fur hat and a plastic bag commonly used by migrant workers travelling to Russia. The artist (ethnic Russian) transforms himself into a speechless, deaf and blind piece of luggage carrying money and adjusted to any troubles awaiting him in ‘the alien motherland’. The Russian migrant, as represented in the video, does not at all look a triumphant colonizer returning to his homeland, and the fur hat identifying him as a Russian signifies an act of ridiculous mimicry.

Examples of other films challenging the Uzbek authorities’ current postcolonial practices from the viewpoint of an average urban citizen, unconcerned about ‘national traditions’, include The Wood (2010) by Ruslan Kurtveliev and Hirman (2012) by Askar Urmanov. The Wood laments the destruction of a green park in the center of Tashkent that was planted by the imperial government in the late 19th century. Urmanov’s film presents a grotesque depiction of the actors from the Russian Drama Theatre picking cotton in the fields as part of yearly cotton crop gathering campaign.

These films produced from an urban perspective demonstrate skepticism towards official nation-building programs that emphasize the ‘progress and achievement’. Often independent films focusing on traditional or rural life are also seen by the authorities as too ‘critical’ and ‘negative’. In 2009, a well-known photographer Umida Akhmedova was charged with libel and defamation of the Uzbek people for her film The Burden of Virginity (2008) which discusses the negative treatment and harassment by the traditionalist society of the newlywed girls who failed to provide sufficient material evidence of their virginity.[iv]  In her films, Akhmedova takes full advantage of her rural Uzbek background which allows her to take a well-informed and critical view of the customs and traditions of Uzbek everyday life in contrast to the official viewpoint of these aspects as sacred and untouchable.

Umida Akhmedova and Oleg Karpov explore another aspect of a postcolonial society in their trilogy (To Live and to Die in Samarkand, 2007; To Live and Live in Ferghana, 2008 and Continuous Comeback, 2010) dedicated to the life of the Russian-speaking intelligentsia in independent Uzbekistan. Linguists, historians, writers and artists of Russian (and other European) origin are shown abandoned both by the ex-metropolitan country and the ex-colony and are presented as a cultural rear-guard which is meant to be neither evacuated nor assimilated. Their perception of the present seems to be purely metaphysical and ahistorical. Unconcerned with modern avenues and heavily restored architectural monuments of today’s Uzbekistan, they are more at home in old private libraries and at their friends’ graves. The trilogy is one of the few artworks showing ‘Russians’ of Uzbekistan as a minority different not only from the ‘native’ majority but from the mainland Russians and happy about their distinctiveness.

Another film about the experience of living in postcolonial Central Asia is my own Seven Insights in Central Asian Postmodernism (2010) which explores the complex relationships between nationalism and multiculturalism through different documentary narratives. A linguist from Samarkand predicting the transformation of Moscow into an Uzbek city, Bishkek artists discussing the dangers of totalitarianism, an Uzbek photographer from Tashkent praising the first Russian colonists, an American teacher telling the story of his love to young Kazakhs who do not speak English are participants and voices in the vast postcolonial drama unfolding across Central Asia. The drama involves overlapping identities, paradoxical contexts, various power relationships and strong opinions, in other words what a well-known curator Okwui Enwezor rather optimistically calls ‘a postcolonial constellation’.[v]

Now all the above discourses (traditionalist, post-Soviet, authoritarian, nationalist, unilinear modernist and so on) coexist in parallel and inform the producers of the independent cinema in Uzbekistan to a different extent. If this diversity continues to develop and does not collapse into a singular social and aesthetic model, the independent Uzbek cinema will continue gaining its own voice and will not be reduced to a peripheral accommodation of a second-hand cultural product. The postcolonial framework may serve as a useful tool for the analysis and interpretation of the current and future artworks.

 

[i]Strategiia – duhovnost`. – Informatsionnoe agentstvo pri MID RU «Zhahon». – 2012. (in Russian) http://www.jahonnews.uz/rus/rubriki/obshestvo/strategiya_duxov4nost.mgr (25.09.2012)

[ii]Chuhovich B., Shatalova O. i Mamedov G. O pozitcii hudozhnika – diskussiia. – ArtInitiatives. (in Russian) http://www.art-initiatives.org/?p=2028(25.09.2012)

[iii]Said , Edward.Orientalism: Western Representations of the Orient. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978

[iv]Chuhovich B. Zakliuchenie po povodu ‘kompleksnoiekspertizy’ tvorchestva UmidyAkhmedovoi. – VSESMI.RU. – 2009. (in Russian) http://www.vsesmi.ru/news/3723233/6147524/(25.09.2012)

[v]Enwezor, Okwui . ‘The postcolonial constellation: contemporary art in a state of permanent transition’, Research in African Literatures, 2003 34(4), 57-82 http://www.jstor.org/stable/4618328  (08.08. 2012)

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