Any musician or singer in Uzbekistan hoping to make a living on their stage has had for years to contend with the all-important parastatal Uzbeknavo performance agency. Dancers, meanwhile, obtained their performing licenses from an analogous body called Uzbekraks.
Media have reported this week that these two entities are by presidential decree now to be dissolved and merged into a single body, Uzbekkoncert, which will operate under the aegis of the Culture Ministry.
The new organization will oversee around 2,500 solo and group acts. Authorities have said this entity will be a more effective mechanism for developing the performance industry.
Historically, Uzbeknavo has been used in large part as a stick to wield over artists to keep them in line. Denial of licenses typically represents the death of any jobbing musician’s career as it deprives them of the right to make a living performing at public venues and most certainly on television or the radio.
In the best-publicized instance of licenses being revoked, perceptions of moral failings or suspect political views have usually been at play. Officials are also wont to voice concern at what they see as alien and culturally inappropriate fads.
Prior to the announcement that Uzbeknavo was to be dissolved, its head, Murod Madjidov, was switched out in favor of Kabul Yuldashev, about whom little public information is available. Yuldashev, 49, who was previously deputy head of Uzbeknavo, will now preside over the Uzbekkoncert merger.
The recently released trailer for a film telling the story of militant Uzbek Islamist leaders Tahir Yuldashev and Juma Namangani has come in from criticism for its depiction of devout Muslims.
The promotional preview for Sacred Desire, a production by state film company Uzbekfilm, promises an action-packed melodrama spilling over with scenes of Islamic plotting, domestic violence, gun-battles and even some sly seduction.
“Most social media website users were extremely irritated by director Hilol Nasimov’s film, where by showing terrorists, they smear the Muslim faith,” BBC’s Uzbek service reported on February 7.
The trailer is also tainted by a decidedly racist depiction of an Arabic character, according to critics of the movie. An older female character in the movie is seen shouting that she refuses to see her daughter married off to “some black Arab.”
“I was quite amazed when I heard the expression ‘black Arab’ in the trailer. Why this is blatant racism!” blogger Arbor Masharipov was quoted as saying by the BBC.
The BBC quoted another blogger, Sardor Salim, as comparing Uzbekfilm’s current output with the kinds of films made in the Soviet era about the basmachis, a Central Asian insurgency that sought and failed to counter Moscow’s rule.
One unnamed woman, a self-described devout Muslim, told the British broadcaster that if she had lived in a rules-based country, she might have considered filing suit against Nasimov for slandering Muslims, and women in particular.
A standoff between a filmmaker and a minister in Kazakhstan has culminated with the former ending up behind bars.
News website KazInfo reported on October 27 that movie director Talgat Zhanybekov had been detained by officers from the state anticorruption agency on charges of embezzling Culture Ministry funds. Zhanybekov’s lawyer told reporters that the investigation is linked to a failed film project, but that is only part of the story.
The trouble all began when filming on Zhanybekov’s government-funded sci-fi movie “Phoenix” was suspended over the summer, supposedly after funds dried up. Zhanybekov claims Culture Minister Arystanbek Mukhamediyuly pulled financing after demanding, but not receiving, a kickback.
Mukhamediyuly responded to the accusations by filing a libel suit in an Astana court. The court ruled that Zhanybekov had failed to provide evidence for his claims and fined him 1 million tenge ($3,200).
Which is when the story took a strange turn.
In the first half of October, a former student of the Kazakhstan National Academy of Arts (KazNAI), posted a YouTube video alleging that Mukhamediyuly, who was previously rector of her academy, had made sexual advances. Mukhamediyuly adamantly rejected the allegations and suggested that Zhanybekov had engineered the story as part of a smear campaign.
All this background makes the sudden discovery that Zhanybekov might have been stealing state money all along most convenient. The executive producer of Phoenix, Nataliya Yudina, has reportedly also been arrested.
The organizers of the second edition of the World Nomad Games, to be held in Kyrgyzstan in September, have released a handsomely promotional video that is likely to whet the appetite of lovers of traditional sports.
The promo makes ample use of Kyrgyzstan’s remarkable natural beauty and draws on some familiar motifs, from the horseback archer to lashings of kumys.
This is Culture Ministry’s second attempt at a promotional campaign. A video released in May came under sustained criticism after internet sleuths discovered some footage had been filched from other filmmakers. This time around, the producers have outdone themselves and created a brief video that could just as well serve as an advertisement for Kyrgyzstan’s tourist board.
The World Nomad Games run from September 3 through to September 8 and will be held on the Issyk-Kul Lake resort town of Cholpon-Ata. The competition includes 23 types of sports and a variety of other cultural events intended to celebrate the heritage of nomadic culture. Organizers say competitors from more than 40 countries will participate.
The inaugural edition of the games, also held at Cholpon-Ata, took place in 2014 and drew contestants from 19 countries, including all the ex-Soviet Central Asian nations, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Turkey, Russia and some other less likely suspects like Brazil, Sweden and South Korea. (Some sources put the number of participating countries quite a bit lower, but who’s counting?)
A draft bill in Uzbekistan is pursuing a markedly puritanical line with its rules to ban eroticism in commercials and online advertising for gambling.
The proposed legislation was posted online this week and the government has said it will invite public consultation until March 24.
While aggressively hounding anybody vaguely suspected of holding radical Islamic views, authorities in Uzbekistan have over many years also sought to stamp out perceived immorality and promote conservative values.
President Islam Karimov gave a stark illustration of that at a public event in February, when he robustly condemned same-sex relationships.
“If a man lives with a man, or a woman with a women, I think that something there isn’t quite right, or some change has happened,” Karimov was quoted as saying by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service, Radio Ozodlik.
Some conservative drives are promoted under the pretext of protecting national cultural values.
In December, BBC News cited local media as reporting that professional musicians were being compelled to provide regular reports on their appearances on pain of being stripped of their licenses.
“The government has ordered the Uzbeknavo performing rights authority to tighten up licensing after accusing it, the national broadcaster, internet regulators, and the culture ministry of allowing performances ‘that can have a negative impact on the moral upbringing of the younger generation,’” the BBC reported.
The oral epic Manas so beloved in Kyrgyzstan has been included on the United Nations cultural heritage list.
The poem, which many Kyrgyz boast is the longest in the world, “expresses the historical memory of the Kyrgyz people and survives thanks to a community of epic tellers, both women and men, of all ages,” UNESCO, the UN’s cultural affairs body, said, announcing the decision to include Manas on the List of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity on December 4. “Narrators accept their calling after experiencing a prophetic dream, understood to be a sign from the heroes of the epic.”
Manas, which describes the unification of disparate tribes into a single nation and can take up to 13 hours to recite, is viewed in Kyrgyzstan as a bedrock of the Kyrgyz nation’s cultural heritage. Its inclusion on the UNESCO list is a diplomatic triumph for the government, which was outraged when China beat Kyrgyzstan to have Manas included on the UNESCO list in 2009 on behalf of its Kyrgyz minority population.
Manas is so central to Kyrgyz culture that streets in many towns in the country are named after it, as are public facilities – including the airport where the US airbase is hosted.
A festival of films from Central Asia, Turkey, and Central Europe was set to conclude in New York on May 24 with the screening of the highly acclaimed Uzbek film “Parizod.”
The New York Eurasian Film Festival,opened May 20, with a slate of more than 20 shorts and feature-length pictures from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Poland, and Bulgaria. Brooklyn’s St. Francis College hosted the second annual event.
Most of the films in the festival had never previously been shown in the United States, and some had garnered high praise elsewhere. Parizod, for example, won the Grand Prix at Latvia’s Kinoshok festival. Loosely translated as “Heaven – My Abode,” the film, named after the title character, follows the story of a woman with mystical powers who appears out of a cloud of mist only to change the lives of her benefactors, who try to find her a suitable husband.
The Eurasian Film Festival is the brainchild of Hakki Subentekin, a New York-based filmmaker originally from Turkey, and Yuliya Tikhonova, a Moscow-born curator and founder of the Brooklyn House of Kulture -- “an experimental curatorial model created to allow artists to work within communities,” according to Tikhonova’s own online description.
The Caucasus Film Festival runs through March 31 in Tbilisi. (Poster courtesy: Caucasus Film Festival.)
A week-long Caucasus Cinema Festival is underway in Tbilisi. In a region marked by discord during the post-Soviet era, the festival strives to promote peace-building by highlighting cultural commonalities.
The driving force behind the festival is Claire Delessard, who serves as a Regional Conflicts Adviser for the Northern and Southern Caucasus attached to the British Embassy in Tbilisi. The EU is helping to fund the film series.
“Caucasian people had always been living together without division lines for centuries,” Delessard said in an email interview. “We thus wanted for people to remember these times through cinema.”
The festival kicked off on March 26 with a screening of one of the most famous films made during the Soviet era, Sergey Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates (Sayat Nova). Made in 1968, the film is a dream-like fantasy that recounts the life and death of an 18th century Armenian bard. (A drastic departure from the state-approved style of Soviet realism, the film helped earn Parajanov four years of prison camps in the1970s.)
Another Parajanov classic, The Shadow of Forgotten Ancestors, a story of family rivalries set in a Ukrainian Hutsul village, will also be screened during the festival.
“This film is not only an historical lesson for us, but also a cinema masterpiece,” Delessard said.
Other films in the lineup include Highlander, a 1992 film directed by the Ossetian director Murat Djusoev that depicts life in the mountains of the Caucasus. The oldest film being screened is a Georgian silent picture from 1929, My Grandmother, directed by Kote Miqaberidze, while the most recently released film is 2010’s Precinct (Sahə), an Azerbaijani drama involving romance and career choices.
The “global Russian” website Snob.ru, the online platform of oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov’s Snob Magazine, is reporting a funny story about Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and the Venice Biennale. The exhibition at the Azerbaijani pavilion, it seems, has been put on hold after Aliyev personally draped over a sculpture by participating feminist artist Aidan Salakhova.
The reason? Aliyev found the work demeaning to women.
Arriving on opening day – an unusual practice for a head of state, writes Snob's Maria Shubina, but an understandable one, this being only Azerbaijan’s third time at the festival – Aliyev examined the exposition. One of Salakhova's works, titled “The Book,” depicted a black oval of a woman’s head and torso in Islamic dress, with no distinguishable face and protruding white hands that appear to hold the Quaran. It was at this point that the president reportedly declared that such a work could not represent his secular nation’s attitude toward women, and covered it with a sheet.
Salakhova’s work in the Biennale, if Snob’s illustrations are to be believed, also features a vaginal-shaped black-and-white sculpture known as “The Black Stone.” Her “Destination” series, to which “The Book” belongs, includes a piece where the traditionally-dressed woman holds a double-sided penis - a giveaway, one might suspect, that Salakhova is anything but an Islamic propagandist.
“Reading irony, seeing double entendre – all of this is, undoubtedly, not for presidents,” Shubina writes, adding the incident has produced so much buzz for Salakhova, it is as though she and Aliyev were in cahoots.