The screenings at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater this month show a world so alien from our own it might as well be Mars. “Films From Along the Silk Road: Central Asian Cinema” highlights cinematic work from the 1940s to the present. The films in the series run the gamut from pre-glasnost Soviet-approved productions to modern existential shorts with shoestring budgets and first-time actors. Set in the bleak landscapes of five countries in Central Asia—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tadjikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan—they display a mind-boggling range of styles and languages (not to mention inadequate subtitling). But nearly all the films, even the most recent ones, share a common thread: a striking mistrust of capitalism.
Take, for example, Jamshed Usmonov’s first feature, The Flight of the Bee (1998), about a poor village schoolteacher struggling to make ends meet in the new Tajikistan. Usmonov’s trenchant critique of the country’s fitful transition to capitalism is most apparent in a scene at a livestock market in which the teacher goes to sell two recalcitrant sheep, his last valuable possessions. The poor man is surrounded by a crowd of shouting merchants, one of whom grabs the teacher’s hand and wrenches his arm in frenzied bargaining until the hapless scholar is bullied into accepting an unfair bargain. The happy resolution to Usmonov’s modern fable is not the triumph of the schoolteacher’s hard work or business acumen but a stroke of luck, and Usmonov leaves us with the feeling that in the tumultuous new Tajikistan, luck is all you can count on.
The directors’ suspicion of capitalism may seem strange, especially in the work of the youngest among them. Wouldn’t you expect these artists to be embracing their newfound creative freedom? Perhaps, but it’s important to understand just what Central Asia is going through as it blunders toward democracy. After 70 years of Soviet rule and 10 years on their own, the countries in the region continue to struggle with moribund industries, corrupt officials (often the same ones who used to run the local Soviet Party branches), and tensions stemming from the Russian imperial policy of splitting ethnic groups among artificially drawn Soviet states. (In many cases, the leaders of newly independent countries were unable to speak their own ethnic languages.) When the empire collapsed in 1991, generations of Central Asians used to taking orders from Moscow were ill-prepared to turn rusting factories into competitive businesses. Chaos ensued as millions of people experienced the freedoms and pitfalls of capitalism for the first time. It turns out that for many of the directors, a lack of money seems a bigger problem than a lack of artistic freedom ever was. Censorship was something they could work around, but poverty is stifling.
At a symposium during the first weekend of the festival, several of the directors spoke about their experiences with the business side of directing under post-Soviet regimes. Each speaker, after making a point of thanking the program’s sponsors, unveiled their deep unhappiness with the new difficulties of financing their films. As Uzbek director Ali Khamraev lamented, “The investors want to give you the money in the morning, sleep with the actresses in the afternoon, and get a 100 percent profit by the evening.” One after another, the directors noted that in the Soviet era, they could produce a film every year or two, whereas now five or 10 years might pass between projects. And in many of these countries, there is no market for art house productions, which means that the filmmakers are recognized in Paris and New York before they are (if they ever are) recognized at home.
This is not to say that Central Asian cinematographers are pining for communism or for a return to the censorship of that era. (The directors are, after all, in New York promoting their work.) In spite of the painful transition to democracy—and in some cases, perhaps even because of it—they have produced some breathtaking works of cinema. Ardak Amirkulov’s Fall of Otrar (1990), probably the most acclaimed film on the bill, is a gory historical epic about Genghis Khan’s conquest of an opulent trading city. The story of Otrar, teetering on the fringe of the Khan empire, reminds us of the balancing act Central Asia’s emerging democracies perform among China, Russia, and the United States. And more than any of the festival’s films, Fall of Otrar explains that first metaphor of Central Asia, the Silk Road. These ancient overland trade routes, collectively known as the Silk Road, linked Europe and Asia and provided a conduit for goods, ideas, languages, and armies. The metaphor is apt: The age-old capitalism of the Silk Road, like the capitalism of these economically fragile post-Soviet countries, was one of long hauls and intense personal energy.
All the films in the “Silk Road” series wrestle with the pressures of an uncertain future. We get the impression that the people of Central Asia live with a sense of displacement, as if their lives on the fringe of the Soviet empire have ended but life on the fringe continues. These are films about cultural nomads who have seen ideologies come and go along the Silk Road while their everyday existence remains almost unchanged. But there is hope, too, and some of these films document efforts to pull together new societies from the ruins of Soviet ideology and the first elements of democracy. At its finest, “Silk Road” captures the beauty of starting from scratch, of battling the poverty of the steppe with a kind of fierce, personal richness. Even while Central Asia weathers the winter of its free-market discontent, these filmmakers capture the simpler economies of fear and hope, set out against a landscape that has always demanded mighty deeds of self-expression.