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The Very Latest New Wave at Central Asian Film Fest

Central Asian Film Festival at the Pacific Film Archive

The notion of 'new wave' is probably one of the most meaningless concepts used in film criticism. Since the French nouvelle vague of the sixties, each time a nation produces two or three talented directors, the critics start to talk about a new wave. If this term had existed in the twenties, German expressionism and French impressionism would surely have been described as such.
In the last four decades, however, there are few new waves that either have some kind of stylistic unity or that show some continuity with the French nouvelle vague. Probably the only advantage of this term is that it gives some practical point of orientation for film-snobs, festival-goers and film distributors.
The last significant new wave was the Iranian one. In the late nineties, one could take it for granted that at least one of the major prizes at major film festivals would be awarded to an Iranian film. A couple of years ago, however, the renaissance of Iranian cinema started to fade. The real film-snobs were already looking out for Argentinean or Korean films.
But these waves did not last for long either. The newest fashion among film-snobs is Central Asian cinema.
The new Central Asian cinema is not really a new wave, not even in the derived sense this term was used in the case of Argentinean or Iranian cinema, for at least three reasons. First, Central Asia is not a country, it is a region bigger than Europe and it encompasses almost a dozen of countries with very different cultural traditions. Second, the advent of new Central Asian film happened very gradually. The beginning of its emergence goes back to the end of the eighties. Thus, there was no major breakthrough, such as the year 1959 in the case of the nouvelle vague. Finally, in Central Asia the older generation was capable of keeping up with the freshness of the younger filmmakers, thus, new Central Asian film is not based on a conflict, stylistic or political, between generations.
The Pacific Film Archive is located in Berkeley, California and it is likely to have the most inventive and experimental programming on the West Coast of the United States. In September, it organized a small but representative Central Asian film festival (similar but even smaller events took place last year in New York and in Chicago). About half of the films on display were representing the Central Asian new wave of the last years, while the other half provided historical background, or rather, contrast, with Soviet films from and about the Central Asian region (mainly from the sixties and seventies).
This structure highlighted what is probably the most striking feature of this new wave: the almost complete lack of continuity with earlier Central Asian cinema. Breaking with the older generation is, of course, an important aspect of all new waves, but the new Central Asian cinema does not even defines itself in opposition with the cinematic traditions of the region; it just ignores them.
Perhaps the most significant of the Soviet films from the region that were shown at the festival was Tenderness (Elyer Ishumukhamedov, Uzbekistan,1967), a typical work of the sixties, directly influenced by Pasolini, Antonioni and Fellini. Some sequences were almost frame by frame taken from Accattone, Le Amici and Le Notti di Cabiria, but its youthful momentum and playfulness is unique enough. This film is also very representative of the emotional tone of the Central Asian films of the sixties and seventies. Almost all the characters in these films act under the influence of some overwhelming emotion. This emotion can be the love of Soviet Union, L'amour fou or grief over a lost father, but all the actions of the characters are explained and accounted for by these big emotions.
In sharp contrast with these films, the new Central Asian cinema avoids any kind of obvious expression of emotions; it has a very distant, detached point of view. The only exception to this rule is the surprisingly popular B-movie, The Fall of Otrar (Ardak Amirkulov, Kazakhstan, 1990), which, as far as its stylistic features are concerned (and as it was written and produced by Alexei Gherman, who made his most significant movie in 1971) cannot really be counted as part of the Central Asian new wave. New Central Asian films are about people who cannot relate to their own life and their own emotions. The most telling example is probably Revenge (Ermek Shinarbaev, Kazakhstan, 1987), the film that is usually referred to as the opening opus of the Central Asian new wave, where the main character wants to take revenge on the enemy of his parents, but cannot really transform this desire to acts and perhaps he does not really want to either.
In two of the most interesting pieces (Angel on the Right, Jamashed Usmonov, Tadjikistan, 2002, The Last Stop, Serik Aprimov, Kazakhstan, 1989), the main character is a young man returning to his village and observing the stagnation and self-destruction of his former friends. One of them (in The Last Stop) observes them with growing sadness and inertia, while the other (in Angel on the Right) with aggressive pride, but none of them can engage with his old milieu. This inability to cope with the past is probably the most important feature of new Central Asian film.
The recent emergence of Central Asian cinema raises an obvious question. As some of these republics have been going through years of civil war, others live in poverty unimaginable even in the times of the Soviet Union, one may wonder why it is that Central Asian cinema started to prosper exactly when the country is going through these hard times. Interestingly, the same question can also be asked about the rise of Iranian and Argentinean cinema.
A more important similarity between Central Asian, Iranian and Argentinean films, however, is that as the most interesting and artistically valuable Iranian and Argentinean films, the best examples of the new Central Asian cinema do not address the political and social situation directly. The best films are not political or sociological works. The strained situation of Central Asia appears in the films only indirectly - mostly in the lost illusions of the characters.

Bence Nanay

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