Silent Cinema of Uzbekistan: Imprinted Time

Issue #4 • 654

Nigora Karimiova,
Cinema Expert

Cinema in Uzbekistan was loved since the moment, when for the first time the evening screen gleamed and a magical vision appeared on the stretched canvas. It happened in Tashkent, in October of 1897, two years after the famous cinema show of the Lumiere brothers in Paris. Uzbekistan is a country – follower of the silent cinema in the Central Asia. It is here, in the cities of Bukhara and Tashkent, in the middle of the 1920s, the motion pictures have been produced, which laid the foundations not only of the national cinema of Uzbekistan, but which became an example that contributed to the formation of the national cinematography of the entire region…
In March of 1925, the state cinema enterprise “Uzbekkino” has been founded in Tashkent, which on the basis of the national material had to make the production of the motion pictures, to regulate their distribution and to develop the chain of cinemas. Soon in the premises of Sheihantaur Madrasa, the first film studio in the Central Asia has opened – the film-factory “Sharq Yulduzi” (the Eastern Star). (Starting from 1936 it was renamed as the film studio “Uzbekfilm”, in 1941 the Tashkent Cinema Studio of the Motion Pictures, in 1958 it was renamed again as the Cinema Studio “Uzbekfilm”).
At the first stage of its formation the cinema of Uzbekistan was isolated from the national dramaturgy and professional theatre. If there were already theatre personnel in place, for film production the required staff still had to be trained. The production process went on simultaneously with the wide popularization of cinema.
The Studio was given the task to organize the production of the so-called “Eastern” movies focused on the cashbox, and the movies that promote the ideology of the new Soviet system as well. Production of several films on industrial subjects had been planned. At the same time the submitted scenarios of the feature films were in the process of re-elaboration, while the announcement for new scripts was made. The cinema laboratories have been expanded, “the actors originating from the Muslim and European circles” used to be recruited (1). According to the laws of the existing economic model, the Studio was subsidized out of the profits from the sales of the copies of movies and cinema entrance tickets. The copies of the films used to be shown not only in Uzbekistan, but also in other Soviet Republics. The “blockbusters” were typically melodramas, which used to be viciously attacked by the press, but had the unfailing success with the audience. Just so, the motion picture “The Minaret of Death” (1925, “Bukhara Kino”) was criticized and banned, which was on the list of the movies sold for distribution abroad. This has resulted in a peculiar focus on the films, having the features of the “Oriental cinema”, however clearly showing an ideological matrix: promotion of new lifestyle, call for reforms, anti-religious propaganda and class bias, and the fight for liberation of women. Within the period of 1925-1934, 20 silent motion pictures have been filmed in the film studio “Sharq Yulduzi”, including the propaganda movies like “Pakhta Aral” (1925), “The Sun of Happiness” (1926), “Arabi” (1930).
The first films produced at “Sharq Yulduzi” – “Pakhta Aral” (1925, director A. Shcherbakov) and “The Sun of Happiness” (“Bakht Quyoshi”) (1926, director V. Krivtsov) “were fulfilling” the social assignment. By its genre, it was a propaganda film with the elements of staging. Directors of the motion pictures worked mostly with nonprofessional actors. There was only one professional actress – Malikahanum Djafarova (the actress of the Tatar Theatre), who had played in this movie. Other actors were the members of the film crew and the immediate participants of the land and water reform, which this film was dedicated to. The shooting took place in the outdoor space. Certain scenes and episodes were edited without any transition or logical binding. Composition of shots in its simplicity reminded the Lumiere tapes with moving pictures, where typically, the foreground is empty, and all the action is concentrated away from the general layout.
In addition to propaganda films, the Uzbek original silent movie reflected itself in another genre, which in the movie posters and announcements of those years was called simply “cinema drama”. Today, this genre has evolved into the “social melodrama”. Tracing the history of the Uzbek motion picture, we can say that due to this genre a specific aesthetics of the national cinema was formed.
During various periods of time the prominent filmmakers, who happened to stay in Uzbekistan for different reasons, have worked in the “Sharq Yulduzi” Studio, among them are M. Doronin, D. Bassalygo, V. Shcherbakov, K. Gertel, A. Usoltsev, A. Kordyum, cameramen – V. Dobrjanskiy, F. Verigo-Darovskiy, A. Dorn, A. Ginsburg, G. Zelmanovich, B. Francisson, A. Bulinskiy, art directors – B. Chelli, P. Betaki and others.
In July of 1926, on the invitation of “Uzbekkino” the director M. Doronin and the cameraman B. Dobrjanskiy with their film crew have arrived from Moscow for production of the motion picture “The Second Wife”. The screenplay was written by the writers – Lolakhon Sayfullina and Valentina Sobberey from Tashkent. In the role of Tadjibay starred the Georgian actor – G. Chechelashvili, the role of the second wife was performed by Rachel Messerer. In this film for the first time the Uzbek women have participated as actresses – Uktamkhon Mirzabaeva in the role of mother-in-law and Zuhra Yuldashbaeva, who played a neighbor. According to the memoirs of the participants of the film, Uktamkhon was a popular singer of “yallachi” at that period. In one of the episodes, the aspiring actress of the Uzbek theatre – Shahida Magzumova has performed the folk dance. In the shooting of mass scenes more than 300 people have been involved. “Through ads, through friends, the actors and models used to be casted. Many came, thinking that they will be given some job; after much persuasion women used to remove their burqas, opening their faces, but as soon as they had to know that they were supposed to act in the film with unveiled faces in front of unfamiliar men, they simply fled!” (1).
One of the most popular first Uzbek films, which enjoyed a great success, was the film directed by Kazimir Gertel – “The Jackals of Ravat”, released in 1927. Another name of this film is “From the Crescent to the Stars”. Almost all the roles were performed by Uzbek actors – Suleyman Hodjaev, Rustam Ahmedov, Arif Hodjaev, Rahim Pirmuhamedov. The film was shot near Tashkent, in the village of Birchmulla. The press of that time has often published the articles on how the shooting were going on. The stories of the participants of the filmmaking team reveal the little-known, but very interesting episodes and events of this process: “The population of Birchmulla treated the film crew somewhat incredulously, and when the filmmakers installed mines to blow the bridge out, the locals shouted “Waydod!” (“Help!”). It turned out that the local inhabitants have mistaken the filmmakers from Tashkent for diversionists… The actor – Suleyman Hodjaev – had to convince people of the good intentions of the filmmakers… However, afterwards the residents of Birchmulla eagerly began to take a very active part in shooting of this film. Sometimes all the village residents were involved in the crowd scenes. More than a hundred women were standing in front of a movie camera taking off their burqas. Once, a woman rushed into the editing room of the Studio with a request to give her back a “card” (film tape), because her husband did not want her to be filmed. In order not to give her away, we had to cut out the frames with her image from the movie… The cadets had participated in the scenes of the breathtaking race along the steep mountain slopes” (2).
The filmmaker K. Gertel told about the process of filming in Uzbekistan: “The Jackals of Ravat” was my first film made in Uzbekistan. Most importantly, I set a goal – to create a picture of the real life of Uzbek people. For this purpose I have chosen a remote, poor village far away from the center of civilization, and the entire action was filmed there. Not being able to select the character actors, the script had to be based on action and the build-up of the intrigue – liberation of a young Uzbek woman from oppression of her husband – a big landlord (Bay), who got her in repayment of her father’s debts. The woman’s husband was supporting the Basmachi movement in that area. Despite all the difficulties of communication, modest people, who had never seen the cinematographic camera, have showed a lot of ingenuity and sometimes excitement and passion for the acting, especially in the battle scenes” (3). As evidenced by periodicals and movie posters of that period, the film “The Jackals of Ravat” used to be shown long enough on the screens of Uzbekistan, having a great commercial success.
For formation and development of the truly national Uzbek cinema there was a need for the infusion of new filmmakers, who grew up in Uzbekistan and related to the national traditions. A pool of young and gifted people, fond of the cinema, started to join the “Sharq Yulduzi” Studio. Among them, the graduate of VKHUTEMAS (The Higher Art and Technical Studios, Moscow) – Nabi Ganiev (1904-1952), as well as a police officer, former member of the “Turon” theatre troupe – Suleyman Hodjaev (1878-1934), and the former career officer – K. Yarmatov (1903-1978). Before making their own movies, they worked as consultants on the way of life, as assistants to directors, conducted auditions, and played the cameo roles. In 1926, the cinema school was opened at the “Sharq Yulduzi” Studio. It brought up the issue about the need to prepare a local workforce for film production. Nabi Ganiev was getting involved into this important process. He wrote training manuals in Uzbek language like “Cinema Screenplay” and “Cinema Actor”. Uzbek theatrical actors as well began to act in the motion pictures and, among them were Rahim Pirmuhamedov, Abid Djalilov, Mirshahid Mirakilov, Nazira Alieva and others.
The binary opposition of the “new-good-Soviet” and the “old-bad-traditional” is reflected in almost all the films of that period. Almost without modifications, from one film to another, shifts the story of “the hell and the paradise” of two women of different ethnic origins and different periods: the story of the unfortunate Uzbek woman oppressed by her husband and traditions, and a happy emancipated Soviet woman. A “happy” Soviet woman working for the State can get education and become financially independent; she visits museums and clubs in her free time. The elements of clothes, headdresses and hairstyles reflect their newly formed Soviet identity. There was a certain stereotype of a Soviet woman, who had a short hair, dressed in the blouse and wearing a tie. At the same time, their “suppressed” girlfriends after getting married suffer humiliation and insults from other wives of their husbands, mothers-in-law, and husbands, as, for example, Adolat of “The Second Wife”. Even if they work at home hard, as Kumri of “The Jackals of Ravat”, Tillaoy from “The Leprous”, these women depend entirely on their husbands-oppressors. When they need a medical care, the “charlatan” mullahs harass them, as it happens with the main female characters of the films “The Sun of Happiness” and “The Daughter of a Saint”. Unlike their “liberated” girlfriends, they constantly suffer and cry. The end of these films always depends on whether the main character made “ideologically correct choice”. So, the movies like “Muslim Woman”, “Veil”, and “The Jackals of Ravat” have a happy ending. They show the oppressed women seeking help of the “Soviet comrades” and thanks to them they get saved from the oppression of their husbands. While the main female character of the film “The Second Wife” – Adolat – remains “passive”, and eventually perishes… The Soviet propagandistic message of these films is clear: if you do not make the right choice, you will be killed by your own husband or his other wives (4).
In the movies shot in the first half of the 1930s – “Ramadan” (1932), “Before the Dawn” (1934), “Yeghit” (1935), the search for the national distinctiveness is clearly visible. If in the motion picture “Ramadan” by Nabi Ganiev, the search for national identity was manifested in the nature of the authentic character and in representation of the real life material, “Before the Dawn” by Suleyman Hodjaev expressed it in the concept of the film. “Before the Dawn” had become the first author film in the history of Uzbek cinema, where the events of the popular uprising of 1916 have been shown with expression characteristic to the black-and-white silent cinema. The author of the film, Suleyman Hodjaev (1892-1937), was one of the founders of the Uzbek conceptual cinema, who shortly after the completion of this film was arrested and executed, while his movie “Before the Dawn” was never released. During this difficult period, the traditions of cinema for children have been formed. The movie “Klych”, released in 1934, narrated about a boy named Klych who wanted to become a locomotive driver. It was the first director work by Yuldash Agzamov– one of the prominent masters of the Uzbek cinema.
Uzbek silent movies with all their propaganda focus even nowadays leave a strong emotional impression. At the time, they used to be ardently criticized; their directors were accused in primitivism and eclectics. Certainly, at present, watching these films, one can see their weaknesses and shortcomings. Nonetheless they bear historical and cultural value, since they captured the images of people, architecture, details of everyday life of that epoch. Cinema of Uzbekistan of the 1920-1930s is an extremely rich cinema archive. Not only in the newsreel footage, but in the motion pictures, the panorama of the everyday life of our country had been imprinted for future generations. In recent years, the worldwide phenomenon of the silent cinema has become the object of vivid interest. The movies of the luminaries of the silent cinema – David Griffith, Sergey Eisenstein, Fritz Lang, Charlie Chaplin are being produced in digital formats, taking its own niche in the retro programs of the international film festivals. “The Great Silent” that for many years existed in the minds of ordinary viewers as something primitive and archaic, in recent years is in demand once again. Unfortunately, the range of available and well-known silent films invariably consists of the European and North American motion pictures. Although, to their credit, these films contain the unique images of the events of the early twentieth century and, in turn, contribute to the preservation of the national memory.

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