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Evading the Look

Sevara Pan, © Chiara Ferrau, Berlinale 2016
Sevara Pan, © Chiara Ferrau, Berlinale 2016

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, rethinking the socialist past seemed like an important chore the newly found states were compelled to perform as part of their nation-building process. They searched for what it meant to be free in times when nothing was certain. Uzbek filmmakers were prone to returning to the past through historical films where the political dictum was often camouflaged by the re-telling of history and take-away lessons that this history generously offered. Such an approach to revisiting the past meant denying the subjectivity of one’s point of view in film while reproducing knowledge that anticipated no bold questions, let alone answers.

Apart from the cinematic retreat to the past, Uzbekistani sovereignty of the 90s set in motion another trend – the increasingly high production of new domestic films that relentlessly painted a picture of the “true” Uzbek character. This representation flaunted the preposterousness of trying to fit the old sweater one had long overgrown. Yet these films have had an immensely devoted viewership among the youth who have been regularly visiting local theaters to this day. In this sense, Uzbek national cinema may boast an incredible degree of self-sufficiency, the phenomenon envied by the rest of post-Soviet Asia, which nevertheless has rarely translated into success in foreign film festivals. The potential of cinema to stir and provoke has often been divested by what critics have generally referred to as “the expressive lack of the conflict of ideas” and provincialism of Uzbek films. Creation of difficult films has often been undermined by the echoes of socialist realism that propagated the class approach to art, binary differentiation of characters as entirely positive or negative, and an eschewal of thorny matters that mark the nation in transition. As the state continues to tighten control over the production, exhibition and criticism of art, local filmmakers and critics have been increasingly resorting to allegory and parable in their portrayal of and commentary on the daily life of the new generation of Uzbeks in the post-Soviet space. What the Aesopian language means to art demands no further explanation – it occurs in times of creative anemia when the direct and open criticism becomes a perilous business that is far from being commended by the ones who refuse to let go of the reins.

However, mistaking this aspect entirely as a sign of defeat for Uzbek cinema or entertaining such misunderstanding in debates about it would leave us at a loss for an opportunity to traverse the cinematic space beyond its visibility and acceptance. Above and beyond what is readily seen in cinema, there are always silences and resonances, full and empty spaces that may leave its beholder bruised and confused but ever more aware. Approaching cinema otherwise would render it irrelevant… much like writing about it. As French filmmaker Nicolas Philibert has rightfully put it, “Cinema is not sociology […]: [it is] a relationship with time, stories […], a permanent game between what is shown and what is not […].” What drives me as a film journalist is these areas of darkness in cinema born out of the dictatorial regime – the darkness that pushes us to the sidewalk of our comfort and forces us to acknowledge the bastard child we have been compelled to disown – our freedom to wonder.