“The Cinema of Central Asia”

At the National Gallery of Art and the Freer Gallery of Art Sept. 6-28

After a recent retrospective at Lincoln Center, the films of the five formerly Soviet Central Asian republics are officially trendy. Yet the cinemas of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are not brand-new or freshly discovered. “The Cinema of Central Asia,” presented this month by the National and Freer Galleries of Art, in fact, is the third survey of ‘Stan filmmaking presented locally since the Soviet Union collapsed. And, like the insurgent filmmakers of Iran and China, Central Asian directors are merely the latest embodiment of a long cinematic tradition. Having subsidized film industries in many of its provincial capitals, the Soviet Union unintentionally gave birth to a generation of post-Soviet directors.

“The Cinema of Central Asia” comprises 10 features, four shorts, and one in-betweener. Seven of the longer films were made available for preview, in video dubs that were mostly low-fidelity. One of the videos was subtitled in French, another in Japanese. (Fortunately, most of the films, including the ones without English subtitles, are not very talky.) Much of the movies’ appeal came through, but these are the sort of poetic, visually oriented works that require crisp projection on a big screen.

Although Soviet cinema was often propagandistic, it was under no obligation to be crowd-pleasing. This legacy is reflected in the ‘Stans’ current output, much of which rejects genre conventions and is more concerned with mood than storytelling. Of the seven previewed films, only two are narrative-driven. More common are movies that establish a theme—adolescence, poverty, loss—and then illustrate it with a series of elusive vignettes. One of the most striking of these, Darezhan Omirbaev’s 1991 Kairat (at 2 p.m. Sept. 14 at the Freer) follows a teenager as he attends school, rides trains and trams, frequents the local cinema, and tries to meet young women. The director leaves most of the scenes unresolved, as if to suggest the open-endedness of adolescent existence. This terse black-and-white film is semiautobiographical, of course, and beautifully composed even when a little too vague.

Similar material is handled more conventionally in Zoulfikar Musakov’s 2002 Boys in the Sky (at 4 p.m. Sept. 20 at the National Gallery), the only film of the series set in an urban, contemporary, and relatively upscale environment. The close friendship of four Tashkent high-school boys, all aspiring filmmakers, is disrupted when beguiling Lola transfers to their school from Paris. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Lola, the daughter of an embassy chef, is not the boys’ only issue: One’s father is an alcoholic, another’s is a philanderer, and the third’s—perhaps worst of all—is a director who doesn’t take the kids’ screenplays seriously. Because its world is not especially exotic, this is perhaps the series’ most accessible film. The attractiveness of its earnest young characters, however, is diminished by the script’s contrivances.

Kairat’s train motif becomes an entire film in Marat Sarulu’s black-and-white 2001 My Brother, Silk Road (at 3 p.m. Sept. 13 at the National Gallery). The director introduces both some Kirghiz children who are on a quest to see a train and an artist passenger, and then introduces them to each other. The train is a microcosm of modern society and its discontents, but in the villages along the tracks life proceeds much as it always has. A similar point is made even more modestly in Aktan Abdikalikov’s 1993 The Swing (at 2:30 p.m. Sept. 27 at the National Gallery), a 48-minute tone poem that’s also in black-and-white. This lyrical series of vignettes takes the viewpoint of a young boy wandering around a Kirghiz village, capturing everything from a girl on a swing to a funeral procession seen through high grass.

Shot beautifully on digital video, Amir Karakulov’s 2003 Jylama (at 4:30 p.m. Sept. 7 at the National Gallery) at first seems to be more story-oriented. Maira, a Chinese-born Kazakh woman who trained as an opera singer, lives with her 7-year-old niece and the girl’s grandmother in a remote village. When the youngster is diagnosed with a serious lung ailment, Maira must scramble to get the money for medicine. Rather than become a medical melodrama, however, this improvised piece ends as a fragile, moving elegy.

Many of these films seem to take place outside of time, but two are firmly set in a specific era: the Soviet one. Khodjakuli Narliev’s 1972 The Daughter-in-Law (at 7 p.m. Sept. 12 at the Freer) is one of five movies in the program that were made when the ‘Stans were still aligned with Moscow. Combining incidents of everyday life in the steppes with a woman’s reveries about the husband who died in the Great Patriotic War (aka World War II), the movie uses the dreams in a surprisingly warm, nonpropagandistic way. Although made without Soviet supervision, Yusup Razikov’s 1998 Orator (at 4 p.m. Sept. 6 at the National Gallery) is more of a muddle. When the Russian Revolution arrives in Uzbekistan, a local man finds he has a gift for

rabble-rousing. He’d be the perfect Communist, in fact, if not for his reluctance to give up his three wives. Though Razikov neatly captures the uncertainties of living under a constantly shifting—and utterly foreign—ideology, the tale’s sexual politics seem, well, reactionary. Like many of the Central Asian filmmakers represented in this series, Razikov has found a distinctive voice, but he’s still wrestling with conflicts between tradition and modernity.

As the second anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, approaches, there’s still a narrow audience for any provocative observations about the events of that day. Horror, grief, and outrage remain the only accepted notes to hit, even as the Bush administration’s reaction—notably the invasion of Iraq—comes increasingly into question. So it’s hardly surprising that September 11, an omnibus film designed by French producer Alain Brigand for a first-anniversary opening, has arrived late in American theaters. Directed by 11 filmmakers, only one of whom was born in the United States, the movie doesn’t tell America what it wants to hear. There is, however, another reason why September 11 wasn’t rushed into your local megaplex: Most of the constituent films aren’t very good.

The project’s organizing principle is based on its French title, 11’09″01. Each of the shorts is 11 minutes, nine seconds, and one frame long. The format (dubbed “French conceptual bullshit” by participant Mira Nair) forced directors known for loosely constructed or slow-building films to foreshorten their scenarios or telegraph their morals. Idrissa Ouedrago’s episode, for example, nicely suggests the gap between Africa and the Unites States by introducing some Burkina Faso boys whose only interest in Osama bin Laden is the $25 million reward. That amount of money would transform their whole village, of course. But when the boys spy a bin Laden look-alike, the message yields to a rushed, halfhearted conclusion.

The Apple director Samira Makhmalbaf’s film makes the same argument more subtly. Just after Sept. 11, a teacher of Afghan refugee children in Iran tries to get her pupils to recount what cataclysm has just occurred. Several of the kids are sure they know the answer: A story is traveling through the camp that two people fell down a well and died. The teacher is the only one who worries that an angry America will drop a nuclear bomb on Afghanistan.

Shohei Imamura (The Eel), who’s made several movies haunted by the nukes that an angry America did drop on Japan, takes a traditional Japanese anti-war stance with a short about a shellshocked World War II veteran who thinks he’s a snake. Apparently realizing that this fable was overly oblique, the director added an overly obvious final title.

A few other directors offer gentle, and deserved, rebukes. Nair (Monsoon Wedding) tells the true story of a Pakistani-American who disappeared on Sept. 11, and was assumed—wrongly—to be in cahoots with terrorists. It’s not a great film, but the tale is worth repeating. Danis Tanovic (No Man’s Land) quietly calls attention to the events of another 11th: July 11, 1995, the date of the massacre at Srebrenica, Bosnia. At a considerably higher pitch, Amos Gitai (Kadosh) sets his single-take film during the aftermath of a Sept. 11 bombing in Tel Aviv. With the news filtering in from the United States, this is the only episode to mention the attack on the Pentagon. All the other shorts accept the New York-narcissist media’s notion that Sept. 11 was all about them.

Two of the three worst entries inject the collapse of the World Trade Center towers into portentous, sentimental tales of bystanders. Both Claude Lelouch and Sean Penn imagine New York couples, but the former’s is a deaf Frenchwoman and a tour guide, whereas the latter’s is an old man (Ernest Borgnine, no less) and the dead wife he still compulsively chatters to. As if to prove that he could make a film almost as embarrassing as Penn’s, but with a more ideological agenda, Youssef Chahine (Cairo Station) smugly portrays himself (played by actor Nour el-Sherif) as a wise man discussing the failures of American foreign policy with the ghost of dead Marine killed in Beirut in 1983. Equally awful, in a different way, is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s (Amores Perros) glib but effective short, which punctuates a black screen with quick cuts of falling bodies—terror, MTV-style.

Never send a former TV-commercial director to do a political filmmaker’s job. Ken Loach’s contribution is as powerful as Iñárritu’s, but also intelligent and humane. Simply a filmed message from Chilean exile Vladimir Vega (who appeared in Loach’s Ladybird Ladybird), the piece recalls Sept. 11, 1973, the day a CIA-sponsored coup brought a murderous regime to power in Chile. Newsreel clips introduce the crime’s American godfather, Henry Kissinger, but don’t conflate him with bin Laden. That would be too provocative—although a lot more justifiable than Penn’s mawkishness or Chahine’s hubris. CP