Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Uzbek Film Industry in Crisis

State censorship and under funding has crippled Uzbek filmmaking.
By Sid Yanyshev

Uzbek filmmakers reacted with delight to the sacking of the head of the national film company but warned that the dire state of the country’s cash-strapped movie industry will not improve as long as the problem of censorship remains.


Uzbekkino director Murad Muhammad Dost lost his job of more than three years following complaints to President Islam Karimov from a 20-strong group of people involved in the business that he had “ruined the Uzbek film industry”.


But his replacement, Agzam Iskhakov, a cinematography consultant in the president’s office for the past eight years, has a difficult task ahead of him if he is to revive an industry almost crippled by under funding and state interference.


Uzbekfilm, the film studio within Uzbekkino, releases only a few films each year and their quality is poor due to a shortage of professional scriptwriters and camera operators. Many cinemas have been sold off, and in the past three years not a single new film has been distributed. In the documentary film unit, almost all the cameras are broken; industry newspapers and magazines have shut down; even the annual film festival has been cancelled because there is nothing to show.


Dost, who has been moved to a new position, refused to comment on his departure from Uzbekkino. His deputy, Tuychi Ahmedov, confirmed that Dost had been moved to the position of head consultant at the president’s office.


Ahmedov defended his former boss, who he said had done a “great deal of good for our cinema”. He pointed out that under Dost’s stewardship, a presidential decree was issued promising money for 15 feature films a year and around 40 billion sums (40 million US dollars) to re-equip studios.


But the money never materialised. This year, only two or three films have been made, not surprising perhaps since state-run Uzbekkino has no script or editing departments.


There are around 30 private film studios in Uzbekistan but only nine are involved in filmmaking. The others restrict themselves to advertising or music videos to escape the attention of Uzbekistan’s film censors, blamed by many for exacerbating the industry’s decline.


Created by Uzbekkino, an “expert commission” comprising film critics, health ministry representatives and a sexologist watches output from private studios to prevent anything deemed illegal under Uzbek law from making it to the screen.


“We assess films on several fundamental categories, which are unacceptable for the Uzbek mentality,” said commission chairman and film critic Saodat Khojaeva. “We see if there is any pornography in a film, whether it is a thriller and whether it contains calls for violence or inter-ethnic conflict.”


Mahmud Eshanov, head of the Uzbekkino film-licensing department, denies the commission acts as a censor.


“It only ensures that the law is upheld,” said Eshanov. “Since this commission was created, the vast majority of films examined by it have been distributed.”


Those directors and writers whose work does make it onto the screen like Jamal Musakov, Nazim Abbasov and Yusuf Razikov invariably come from the state sector, while their independent counterparts are left out in the cold.


Though most abide by the rules – ensuring they avoid anything controversial or forbidden by law – they still find it difficult to make it past the final hurdle, getting a distribution license.


Private producer Abdurahman Davlatov’s film “Bombastik-3” has been in limbo for years after it was denied a license. The problem that it features a scene in which the main characters get into a hot air balloon and fly to a magical country where wondrous creatures and giants live.


“We were told, ‘How can that be. Citizens of Uzbekistan simply flew across the border? Where were our border guards?’ They say that we made Uzbek border guards look like fools,” said Davlatov. “But this is a simple children’s fairytale, a comedy, and there is no politics in it.”


In another film, Davlatov sparked the censors’ ire with a comedy in which two men go to neighbouring Kazakstan to fish but constantly get into trouble there.


“We were told that we were portraying Kazaks in a bad light. But this is the nature of the genre. There have to be unlucky and stupid people in a comedy, otherwise it won’t be a comedy.”


Davlatov accuses the commission members of trying to cover their own backs, “[They] are scared that if they let a film go onto the screen, higher-up bodies will perhaps see something seditious in it, and then the censors themselves will be in trouble.”


The result of this censorship, Davlatov said, is that private film producers are unwilling to invest large amounts on films that may never be distributed, restricting themselves to digital format rather than the more expensive celluloid.


If censorship is to continue, he said, then the commission must make clear exactly what is and is not acceptable.


“The commission should have a document which states specifically, for example, that showing a person in a bathing suit is pornography or unacceptably erotic. The director and producer should know beforehand whether their film would receive a certificate or not. Then they won’t be afraid to invest their money,” he said.


Sid Yanyshev is an IWPR contributor in Tashkent