Bakhtiyar Khudoinazarov's Luna Papa

Rachid Nugmanov's The Needle

Aktan Abdykalykov's The Adopted Son

Amir Karakulov's Don't Cry

From respectable mothers to rebellious wives to heroic daughters to romantic lovers and back to respectable mothers, Gulnara Abikeyeva looks at the role of women in Central Asian cinema.

The end of the Soviet period and the beginning of independence brought a sense of confusion and disorder in the images of cinema heroines of Central Asia.

The essential system of values, of "good" and "bad," had been toppled. Shameful and unacceptable acts of stealing and lying became the norm. Behaviour that was once criticised - violence, charlatanism, prostitution, etc. - became a model of conduct greatly admired by the young. Of course, the images of women significantly changed in this disintegrating universe. [In 1967, Gennadi Bazarov's The Field Of Mother reinforced the national metaphor of motherland; the theme of women's liberation - not to mention heroic daughters - and protest against the traditional lifestyle was present in Central Asian cinema from the '30s until the mid-'70s; and loyal wives and beautiful lovers had their sway in the '60s. But independence brought new changes.]

The heroine of The Needle (Rachid Nugmanov, 1988) is a drug addict; the main female character in The Final Stop (Serik Aprymov, 1989) is a prostitute; in The Touch (Amanzhol Aituarov, 1989), the female lead is a blind orphan; in Aiganim (Ulzhan Kaldaulovoi, 1989), she is mute and vulnerable. Two brothers cannot decide who is going to stay with a girl named Elya and they kill her in Homewrecker (Amir Karakulov, 1991).

A lonely countrywoman feels that she is not worthy of love in Ultugan (Edige Bolisbayev, 1989). And, finally, the heroines of Woman-Life (Zhanna Serikbayeva, 1991) are violent lesbian convicts. These are the types of female characters found in Kazakh cinema of that period.

Independence brought into the open a taboo subject in Uzbek films - the cruel tradition of women's self-immolation as their mark of protest against severe abuse at homes. Until Daybreak (Yusuf Azimov, 1993) tells the story of a 14-year-old girl, who is raped by the son of the director of a collective farm. She tries to set herself on fire, unable to live with her shame. The Younger (Rano Kubayeva, 1994) is the blood-chilling tale of a woman immolating herself as the only solution to end her unbearable abuse by her husband. This film became an eye-opener because the subject of domestic violence and abuse of women has long been taboo in Uzbekistan.

In Tajik films of the independence decade too, women are constantly abused and humiliated. Mira, the female lead of Kosh Ba Kosh (1993) by Bakhtiyar Khudoinazarov, is lost by her gambling father in a dice game. A wife of a teacher is sexually harassed by a powerful and wealthy neighbour in Flight Of The Bee (Jamshed Usmonov, 1998). And, finally, Luna Papa (1998), by Bakhtiyar Khudoinazarov, shows the unbearable situation of Mamlakar ("Motherland" in Tajik), who is humiliated and disgraced by her neighbours for being pregnant out of wedlock.

Female characters did not have much luck in Central Asian cinema of the transitional period. The old moral values were lost and new ones had not yet taken shape. The image of women was devalued to point zero. This most likely reflected the real-life situation of a society in transition. Images of women in cinema are indicators of a society's well being. Stable periods create images of women as happy mothers and romantic lovers. Totalitarian systems cultivate images of heroines overcoming adversity - strong in character but lonely. Transitional periods result in female victims: abused, humiliated and unneeded. However, times are changing and the image of the Central Asian woman is gradually being restored in cinema.

I believe that 1997-1999 were a turning point for Central Asian cinema. Six to seven years after their declaration of independence, national cultures had truly begun to return to their traditional ethnic origins. They did this consciously, with detailed analyses of their national worldviews.

The years yielded the best films of independence: The Adopted Son (Kyrgyzstan, 1998) by Aktan Abdikalikov; The Orator (Uzbekistan, 1998) by Yusuf Razykov; Flight Of The Bee (1998) and Luna Papa (1999), both from Tajikstan; and Aksuat (1997) by Serik Aprymov, and Killer (1998) by Darezhan Omirbaev, both from Kazakhstan.

Bakhtiyar Khudoinazarov's Luna Papa

It was around the same time that positive images of women began to be formed. First came images of respected mothers as keepers of the family's moral values, mothers as heads of tribes, mothers as motherland: Zamanai (Bolat Sharip, 1997); The Adopted Son (1998); The Dance Of Men (Yusuf Razykov, 2001); Don't Cry (Amir Karakulov, 2001) and Angel On The Right (Jamshed Usmonov, 2002).

In the Kazakh film Zamanai, an old Kazakh woman illegally returns to her homeland with her little grandson. She walks through the mountains from China to Kazakhstan. Their long journey is filled with memories of the '30s, the disastrous period of collectivisation and mass starvation, when she and her relatives survived by escaping abroad. After many years, Kazakhstan declares its independence and the old lady takes her little grandson back to the land he belongs to. In the film, patriotic feeling is the subject of respect and admiration. The old woman's children are a lost generation, so she kidnaps her grandson from her own children.

In general, the presence of three generations - grandparents, children and grandchildren - in one family is a very important and valued element in Central Asian cultures. This continuum is a token of the survival of that particular culture.

This three-generation family idea was expressed in the film Don't Cry; however, it was only a simulation of a family. Three women - a grandmother, a young woman and a little girl - live in one house but they are not blood relations. The grandmother serves as the little girl's foster parent and who the real parents are is never discussed. The young woman, who could have been her mother, is the granny's distant relative and has come to visit her. The little girl is terminally ill, the young woman used to be an opera singer but has lost her voice, and the granny doesn't know how to help either of them.

The film dwells on the disconnectedness of generations. The past (granny) is disintegrating, the present (the young woman) is voiceless, and the future (the little girl) is destined to die. However, the realisation of the situation is a step forward - a correct diagnosis is the beginning of a treatment.

In The Adopted Son there are five women. Beshkempir is the name of an adopted boy (the continuing image of a person without blood relatives) and, in Kyrgyz it means "five women." These women perform the initiation ritual, the ceremony in which the little boy is adopted not only by a family but also by a whole community. They are tribal heads, and the very existence of the Kyrgyz lies with them.

Interestingly, the grandmothers represent a mother figure. And the little boy is practically adopted by the granny. When the granny dies, the little boy performs the ritual of settling all her worldly affairs. The ceremony is usually performed by an adult, and the fact that it is performed here by the little boy symbolises his entry into adulthood. With the death of the granny, his mother figure, it is time for the boy to grow up.

In The Dance Of Men, a grandmother functions like a female divinity. She foretells the true love of her granddaughter Sanam. The boy's name is Tashtemir. Despite the hardships of life - the death of Tashtemir's grandfather, his getting drafted into the army, his desertion and subsequent arrest - the grandmother insists: "You have to get married tomorrow no matter what. Even if I die…" The grandmother serves as a guardian angel for the young lovers and makes the wedding happen.

The role of the grandmother in Angel On The Right is very special. The responsibility for home and family lies with her. She raises her grandson, while her son - the boy's father - is off chasing his dreams somewhere. She feigns illness to oblige her son to come back to their village. He returns, his moral values are gradually restored and he assumes the role of a true father. Only then does the grandmother die. One can be sure that her son is going to do good deeds, listening to the angel on his right shoulder.

I think that the process of self-identification of a nationality and the restoration of its cultural world begin with the reconstruction of established positive images. For Central Asia, it is primarily the image of the mother. And these images have begun now to appear in our cinema. Hopefully, this means that the destructive transitional period has come to an end and that our future will be stable and productive, a future in which women can be happy, active and loved.

Note: The above article first appeared in Cinemaya (Autumn 2003). It is also included in Gulnara Abikeyeva's new book, The Heart Of The World: Films From Central Asia (Almaty, 2003).

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