Uzbekistan's national film industry has had to battle for survival in the face of Soviet censorship and a more recent influx of Western films.
Now the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) is helping rebuild Uzbek cinema, in an effort to create a new sense of national identity.
“A long queue of people waiting at the doors of a cinema to see an Uzbek-produced documentary on Uzbekistan.”
That is the dream of Shukhrat M Makhmudov, a local film director we met at the offices of the Swiss development agency in Tashkent, the country’s capital city.
Unlike other states in the region, Uzbekistan has always supported its artists, enabling them to exhibit their work free of charge, and funding dance festivals and schools for the applied arts, such as ceramics.
But state largesse does not extend to film production.
“The period from 1986 to 1991, the years of 'Perestroika' - the policy of transparency introduced by Gorbachev - was a time of real fruitfulness,” remembers Makhmudov.
Government funding continued to feed through to the film industry. But, breaking with the past, filmmakers used the money to produce documentaries of protest – something which was previously unimaginable.
“We were at last able to tackle thorny issues such as drug abuse and prostitution. And government officials were afraid to criticise us, lest they be taken to task for opposing reform.”
Then independence turned everything upside down. “We were engulfed in a wave of Western influence,” explains the filmmaker, remembering both quality films and pure Hollywood trash.
Society became infatuated with all things Western, and there was an enormous traffic in pirated videos, which still goes on.
Coup de grâce
“That was what killed off the local industry,” explains Makhmudov. “American films were shown everywhere. Thousands of Uzbek editors, producers, directors and technicians lost their jobs.”
On the positive side, the foreign films spread Western values. Some people think that this, together with the policy of repression adopted by the government, has helped to slow down the process of Islamisation.
In 1990, for example, women wearing mini-skirts would have been harassed by religious fundamentalists, or acid would have been thrown at those whose faces were not sufficiently covered.
But not everyone ascribes these positive changes to the influence of films from the West. Lutfi Madraimova, who directs a traditional dance festival, thinks that the legacy of Uzbek history was a more important factor.
“After achieving their freedom with the arrival of the Soviets, Uzbek women would never have submitted to having to wear the veil again.”
“Now we intend to rediscover our identity”, says the filmmaker. And this is why, after years of overwhelming Western influence, local films and documentaries are coming back into fashion.
“People want to engage with their own problems, see true pictures – and they want this from the cinema, too.”
In the name of pluralism in the arts, the Swiss development agency is supporting the trend, funding seminars and one-off productions. “They are the only ones who are doing something practical”, explains Makhmudov.
Generally, though, funds continue to be in short supply, and the burning issues, which might really interest a mass audience are still “off limits”. Freedom of expression is still far from a given.
The Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, has “invited” filmmakers and producers to be more bold, but his government’s adverse reaction to criticism does not inspire much confidence.
In these complicated circumstances, the cinema industry in Uzbekistan is trying to find the delicate balance that would enable it to express itself with increasing freedom.
“What can I say?,” concludes Makhmudov. “We are doing our best…”
swissinfo, Marzio Pescia, Jean-Didier Revoin, Tashkent
Before independence, the main local film production agency employed 1,500 people; now it employs 200.
In the documentary section, the number of employees is down from 300 to just ten.
Uzbek cinema struggled to find its voice during the Soviet period, and suffered under the wave of Western movies that followed.
Shukhrat M. Makhmudov is a local director who works with the support of foreign media companies. Some of his documentaries, such as “Boomerang” and “Islam in Uzbekistan”, are still banned in his own country.
With help from the SDC, he has made a 46-minute film promoting a traditional dance festival, which was also funded by the Swiss aid agency.
Recently, an international seminar was held to discuss the health of the cinema in Central Asia. Shukhrat M. Makhmudov hopes this will develop into an international film festival.
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