Film production in Uzbekistan began in the early twentieth century. Documents and film chronicles survived to evidence that already in the late 19th c. Turkestan was visited by specialists from Pate and Gomon cinema companies, as well as experts from Moscow and St. Petersburg. Chronicle filming was made to record people’s life in the region, their ethnic and religious rituals, their cities and markets.
In the early 20th century the first film distribution offices opened in Tashkent, showing movies on a regular basis. According to some researchers, the first picture show took place in Turkestan as early as 1897 – only two years after the Lumiere brothers had presented their films in Paris. In the same year, cameraman Felix Mesgish from the Lumi?re company arrived in Turkistan. He visited Tashkent, Merv, Bukhara and Samarqand and was well received by both the Russian governor of Turkistan, and the Emir of Bukhara. Mesgish filmed some isolated episodes of their life, entertainment time, hunting and receptions, as well as overall urban scenery. In search for the best shots he had a chance to climb the minarets of Bukhara and Samarqand. The objects of shooting were local people, architectural monuments, cottage industry, caravanserais and market-places. The same objects were also filmed by Russian cameramen, since Central Asian subjects had big success with the audience.
In 1910, a Russian cinema company “The Northern Bear” made “the filming of some localities in Tashkent and of the natives’ customs” (1, p. 24). A year later, the film was demonstrated in the “Khiva” cinema theatre in Tashkent, attracting a large number of spectators who wanted to see their native scenery and familiar faces on the screen. In 1912, in the same theatre, the first scientific film screening took place; the films were about Switzerland. On another occasion, the audience was shown a film about the life of microbes, and a doctor from Tashkent A. Schwartz provided commentary during the show.
In 1907-1908, A. Matyukhin, a manufacturer who produced margarine, decided to engage in film-making. He purchased a cinematographic laboratory in Paris, recruited some cameramen and began shooting a railway journey from Paris to Beijing. The railroad was 1500 verst long (1 versta = 3500 ft.) and its largest section passed through the European and Asian parts of Russia. However, this enterprise ended in failure, as most of the negatives turned out unusable. Still, the entrepreneur did manage to bring some of the footage from Paris to Moscow. A. Khanzhonkov purchased from Matyukhin the footage called “Bairam Celebrations in Central Asia” and, in turn, sold the film on, thus giving it a start in life.
According to the verbal evidence of Professor V. F. Bulaevskiy, a great expert on the Hungry Steppe, documentary filming in Central Asia was made on the 5th of October 1913 at the inauguration of the Romanov’s irrigation canal in the Hungry Steppe (the Navoi Public Library of Uzbekistan has an album of perfectly preserved photographs by an unknown author, picturing the same event; perhaps the cameraman and the photographer were the same person). A. Khanzhonkov reported that the Ministry of Agriculture of Tsarist Russia commissioned his cinema company to do some filming in Turkestan, namely in Syr-Darya, Ferghana, Samarqand and Trans-Caspian regions.
In mid 1915, the stock of geographical programs of the research department in Khanzhonkov’s cinema company contained negatives of the footage filmed by different cameramen in different places in Central Asia. In 1917 in Yalta, the villa of the Emir of Bukhara was filmed (1, pp. 76, 88, 112). It should be noted that the “Apollo” company, or perhaps the court photographer of the Russian Emperor Nicholas II Von Gan-Yagelskiy himself, who was employed by the company, produced the footage titled “Laying the foundation of a mosque in St. Petersburg”. The negative of the footage was also acquired by A. Khanzhonkov.
The first film screenings organized for the Muslim community were mainly short scenery documentaries and chronicles, such as natural landscapes and the world’s cityscapes, folk festivals, hunting scenes, farming work, and a chronicle showing the life of royalties. In the European part of Tashkent the first film shows took place in the Summer Garden. Very popular among the audience of the Russian part of the city were melodramas, historical dramas and thrillers. Genre can be guessed from the film titles: “The Smart and The Miserable”, “Woman in Her 40s”, “The Altar of Love”, “Marriage by Error”, “Mountain Jackals”, “Yemelyan Pugachov”, “The Myasoedov Style”, “The Bloody Nightmare”, and the like (2).
“Khiva”, the largest cinema hall in Tashkent, was built in 1910 and underwent three subsequent reconstructions. The first building burned down; the second one built on the same site in 1916 was destroyed by the 1966 earthquake. The third building of the cinema theatre situated on Proletarskaya Street has not survived to this day either. “Khiva” cinema left a strong mark in the history of Tashkent and in the memory of cinema-goers; it was centrally located at the corner of Kaufman and Romanov streets. Not less significant was its role as a specimen of architecture of that time: a pair of its eye-catching domes was part of the city landscape.
“Illusion-halls multiply like mushrooms in the woods after the rain” – this journalistic clich? was very true to reality at the beginning of the century. The new entertainment met the requirements of a mass urban audience in the first place, that is why already in 1908 an astute young critic Kornei Chukovsky in his acclaimed work “Nat Pinkerton and Contemporary Literature” referred to cinematography as “urban folklore”, “the city epic”. Within a short period of time, the entire Turkestan region, at all levels and latitudes, was covered by cinema. How many “illusion-halls” there were is hard to estimate, and accurate numbers can no longer be retrieved. These “illusion-halls” truly grew and disappeared like mushrooms, burning down and going bankrupt. By 1915 Tashkent had approximately 15 cinema theatres with rather exotic names: “Moulin Rouge”, “Coliseum”, “Modern”, “Apollo”, “Filma”, “Odeon” and the like.
Cinemas competed mercilessly for the audience. What were the means of competition? First of all, extraordinary advertising notices in the periodical press. For instance, “Premiere show of gorgeous films! The show starts at 8.30. Prices for some seats are substantially decreased”. (3) “Daytime cinema shows. All seats are 20 kopecks. Gallery for 15. Two music orchestras”. (4) “Film shows for students. Today at one o’clock p.m. at the cinema-hall of Mr. Elg? there is a special program for students of our secondary and vocational schools.
For this purpose Mr. Elge has provided 400 free tickets to school authorities” (5). However, the press also published notes by some disgruntled authors who resented this rapid growth of cinema-halls: “Another cinema-theatre! We heard that in the near future they will build another theatre in Tashkent, in front of the Mr. Max’s “Moulin Rouge”. It would already be number six. Is it not enough?” (6). Yet the process of cinematography propagation in the region was already unstoppable.
Turkestan interested foreign cameramen as well, especially those from France. Turkestanskie Vedomosti of June 29, 1911 published a notice titled “Paris film shows” about the forthcoming visit of a famous French cameraman Rene Moreau to the region: “It is reported that a French citizen, Ren? Moreau, seconded by the “Ecl ir” French cinematographic society has been authorized to travel around Russian territories in Central Asia to produce cinematographic images. In the near future the photographer is certain to arrive to Tashkent, and thus our lives will be captured on a cinematographic tape, and the foreign public will be introduced to the capital of Turkestan Region through their own eyes.
The extent of the propagation of European forms of visual art not only in the cities, but also in remote villages can be assessed if one read a small news article with a self-explanatory title Cinemas and Circuses in Indigenous Villages: “This year, all big villages in the Tashkent area are swamped by circuses and cinemas … Presently, there are cinema-halls in Pskent, Chinaz, and Troitsk area. The first two have already been visited by a number of cinemas and circuses. All cinemas are working well, especially on market days, when proceeds reach 150-200 roubles per show” (7).
Further development of film industry pushed the boundaries of repertoire, changed the cinema’s former functions in public life and created new ones. Thus, after 1917 in Turkestan (as well as in Russia) cinema business became an effective propaganda instrument promoting Soviet way of life. By 1920s, cinema-halls and distribution offices get nationalized. Interestingly, from 1920s up to 1924 in the “old cities” and villages film shows were almost always free, whereas in 1925-1926 only women could still enter the cinema free of charge.
On April 12, 1924 the Government of Bukhara People’s Republic entered into an agreement with a Leningrad-based film organization “SevZapKino” ["North-Western Cinema"], under which a Russian-Bukhara partnership “BukhKino” was established. The signing of this agreement marked the official beginning of the Uzbek national cinema. Documentary filming did take place in the past, but it was random and unsystematic. In September 1924 the political wing of the Red Army set up a film production bureau called “Red Star”. Its primary function was making films about life of the Red Army soldiers as well as giving them military education (8). The bureau produced a popular science film in six parts titled “Sericulture in Turkestan”, which was released in January 1925. Frames dedicated to Uzbekistan were used in a documentary film by D. Vertov “The Sixth Part of the World”.
In March 1925, Public Education Board of Uzbekistan approved the Statute on the State Uzbek photo and cinema enterprise “UzbekGosKino”. On June 4, 1925 “UzbekGosKino” Trust was organized, and a “Sharq Yulduzi” ["Orient Star"] film studio opened in Shayhantaur District of Tashkent, in a former madrasah building. It is important to note that the first Uzbek films were created mostly by Russian film directors. Silent Uzbek films of 1920s were largely produced in propaganda style.
In 1925, “BukhKino” and “SevZapKino” produced two feature films: “The Minaret of Death” (director V. Viskovsky) and “Muslim Woman” (director Bassalygo). The “Muslim Woman” was a success abroad – in Germany, China, Latvia, France, Italy… “The Minaret of Death” was demonstrated in 14 countries under the title “Harem from Bukhara”. In July 1926, on the invitation of “UzbekGosKino”, director Mikhail Doronin, cameraman V. Dobrzhansky and a film crew arrived from Moscow to produce “The Second Wife”. The script was written by Tashkent writers L. Saifullina and Sobberey. Set designer was Celli. Today “The Second Wife” is interesting because of its footage showing Tashkent in 1920, with everyday life and ethnographic details.
It can be argued therefore that cinematography in Turkestan, specifically in Tashkent, originated as a business project, as a cultural entertainment phenomenon with educational functions. Competing with circus and market-place performance, in the early stages of its propagation in Turkestan, it was perceived as a fancy technological “trick”. But already in 1920s-1930s, cinema in Uzbekistan became an instrument of ideology that advocated the advantages of a new historical social paradigm.
1. Ханжонков А. Первые годы русской кинематографии. Воспоминания. М., 1937.
2. ЦГА РУз, ф. Р-34, оп. 1, д. 64, л. 143.
3. Туркестанские ведомости, 14 марта 1911 г.
4. Туркестанские ведомости, 10 апреля 1911 г.
5. Туркестанские ведомости, 1 мая 1911 г.
6. Туркестанские ведомости, 7 мая 1911 г.
7. Туркестанские ведомости, 22 июля 1911 г.
8. Киноконтора! Ура! // Советский Экран, 1925, № 33.