New voices: Central Asian short films at the 2024 goEast Festival of Central and Eastern European Film8 min read

 In Central Asia, Review, Reviews

Central Asia’s young filmmakers and their work are extremely diverse. With the exception of two feature films screened in the main competition, Central Asian cinema was primarily represented at the 2024 GoEast Film Festival by short films, which were shown in four different programs. Annkatrin Müller and Robin Roth shared their highlights for our partner outlet Novastan:

Black Wagon (Kyrgyzstan 2022)

Mining is one of the most important economic sectors in Kyrgyzstan. In his documentary film Black Wagon, however, Adilet Karzhoev impressively depicts the catastrophic conditions under which coal and other raw materials are mined. Taking viewers inside a private mine in southwestern Kyrgyzstan, he illustrates depressingly well the cramped conditions at work underground.

Darkness and dust dominate the aesthetics as the workers, their bare torsos shining with sweat, make their way through the labyrinthine corridors, the background noise often loud and threatening. Within this unreal setting, Karzhoev still manages to capture the normality and everyday life that the workers create for themselves at a depth of 500 metres: they have tea brought to them by coal wagon, and they take fresh air down with them in bags. During breaks, they eat and joke about the insoluble conflicts surrounding the Kumtor mine, the largest gold mine in the country, and about the never-ending border conflicts. The group sits around a smartphone and watches a video.

But danger literally looms over the everyday scene. Collapses and accidents can happen at any time, with parts of the shafts only supported by wooden beams instead of more secure metal struts. When parts of a wall actually come loose, even the cameraman has just enough time to get himself and his camera to safety. At the end of the film, Karzhoev reveals that one or two workers lose their lives every month in one of the more than 300 private mines around the city of Sülüktü in southwest Kyrgyzstan.

Only at the end of the film the viewers are led out of the mine and into the daylight together with the workers. The miners are paid in cash and say goodbye to each other — until their next work assignment. Many of the miners work in the mines for years, sometimes their entire lives — including those who have their say in Karzhoev’s film. When the camera once again shows the vast mountain landscape around the mine at the end, it becomes clear why: mining remains the region’s great economic hope. With his short film, however, Karzhoev sheds an important spotlight on the inhumane working conditions — and it is to be hoped that these conditions will receive even more attention in the future. 

The Late Wind (Kazakhstan 2023)

Saya is pregnant. But shortly after she tells her boyfriend Qaırat, he disappears without a trace. The film follows Saya on her search to find him, a quest that is repeatedly interrupted by street protests. Is Qaırat shirking his responsibility? Or is his disappearance connected to the protests?

Although the film has little plot and minimal dialogue, director Shugyla Serzhan creates an atmospheric, oppressive film that is emblematic of modern-day Kazakhstan. This is thanks in part to lead actress Tolğanaı Talğat, whose sensitive acting lets us share in Saya’s innermost thoughts and contributes much to the unsettling atmosphere that hovers over the entire film. While Saya constantly longs for warmth and security, sketching childlike drawings of the sun on a fogged-up window, she is denied this throughout the film. Shot in the gloomy winter weather in Almaty, and in the dark, the film’s colouring is characterised by an omnipresent grey that highlights its oppressive mood.

Even if the street protests seem rather pathetic, given the film’s low budget, they inevitably bring back memories of the ‘Qandy Qantar,’ one of the most traumatic events in Kazakhstan’s recent history. Saya’s search remains unsuccessful, her questions unanswered. Together with her, the whole country looks towards an unclear, but certainly disturbing, future.

Old Things (Uzbekistan 2023)

Three men bathe in the canal; a girl speaks lovingly to stuffed animals at a flea market; a worker proudly shows off his library card. Old Things by Roman Zakharov is a portrait of the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, showing the contradictions of the post-Soviet city without resorting to blatant depictions.

Zakharov explores the multifaceted spectrum that the city offers, and in particular, the people who live and work in it. There is the bread seller who sells his wares on the side of the road; the dog owner who complains about the amount of rubbish in the city; the passerby who talks about the political changes in the country. Zakharov subtly juxtaposes different realities: new buildings and foliage, dirt on the side of the road and cleanly polished memorials; critical voices and oversized national flags. Different linguistic worlds also collide: sometimes Russian is spoken, sometimes Uzbek, and sometimes the director, who comes from Kazakhstan, reaches his limits with his language skills in the conversations.

Zakharov’s short film seems to loosely follow the course of a day: from sunrise and a bazaar that seems to be just waking up, to the blazing midday sun on Tashkent’s Independence Square, to the Independence Monument in the Yangi Oʻzbekiston Park, which glows in bright colours in the form of a giant Humo bird in the evening. The juxtapositions Zakharov portrays create the impression of a well-rounded portrait that impressively expresses the diversity of the Central Asian metropolis, allowing nuances to shimmer through that are otherwise often sought for in vain and for a break with the usual national narratives.

ASK (Kyrgyzstan 2022)

Kyrgyz director Naizabek Sydykov’s concept of a dystopia is illustrated via a ruined city ruled by a bizarre dictatorship. According to the “great leader,” a “city of the future” is to be built here — but first, the residents are forced to demolish all the remaining houses. The compulsion to uniformity — “Be like the others” — and the constant surveillance are reminiscent of the works of George Orwell.

Teenager Umut is one of the few who questions the circumstances. By chance he discovers a capsule with old plans of the city busily being destroyed. Umut realises that “There will be no city of the future, because we have already destroyed it.” When he dares to confront the “great leader” with questions at the next meeting, his own parents declare him unwell, as they fear he will become a pariah excluded from the glorious future. Umut also has to apologise publicly. Only his girlfriend (never named in the film), whom he has let in on his discovery, stands by him. Following her, more and more people begin to question the system.

Even if the real reasons are probably to be found in the budget, Sydykov creates an incredibly cheap aesthetic in ASK that seems to have been specially designed for the dictatorship depicted, perfectly highlighting its absurdity. And although the film’s political message seems rather simple, ASK is a successful parable of contemporary regimes such those in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, or Sadyr Japarov’s Kyrgyzstan, in which the political leadership always promises fundamental reforms without actually delivering them. Now is the time to question things.

Mirtemir Is Alright (Uzbekistan 2024)

Karakalpakstan in the summer of 2022: Protests break out in the autonomous republic, which are violently suppressed by the Uzbek government. In the midst of this situation, filmmakers Sasha Kulak and Michael Borodin travel to Nukus to get an on-site picture. They meet Mirtemir at a mobile karaoke station in the city’s main square.

Mirtemir, who appears “like a teenager from Kreuzberg or Williamsburg,” captivates the two filmmakers and the result is a wonderful portrait of a Karakalpak youth who radiates incredible optimism. His life is not easy: He cares for his blind grandmother, with whom he lives because his mother has gone abroad to work (a future plan that Mirtemir also has). During the day, he works in a fast food restaurant, and at the same karaoke station at night. But despite all this, Mirtemir deals with his hardships with a lightness that comes from deep within.

In Mirtemir Is Alright, Kulak and Borodin provide insight into a region that, apart from the Aral Sea and the Savitsky Museum, receives little attention in the West. Through their camera work, which is sometimes frontal and mostly up-close to the protagonist, they create a film that — although a documentary — appears at times almost fictional. Mirtemir’s boundless confidence also raises the question of whether this lightheartedness in front of the camera is an act. A film too good to be true?

No. Because the film does not close its lens to the problems at hand, but contrasts them against Mirtemir’s optimism with laughter. The film has a serious background: Mirtemir shares the fate of many other children of migrant workers from Central Asia who were left behind. However, the audience only finds out these facts when the film fades to black. But despite all of this, Mirtemir is able to infect us with his positivity and together with him we look towards a bright future.

This review was originally published  in German on 24 May 2024 by our partner publication

Images courtesy of Novostan
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