Uzbek Rhapsody: The Films of Ali Khamraev
- Uzbek Rhapsody:
- The Films of Ali Khamraev
"If there is a giant who sits astride the history of Uzbek cinema, it's Ali Khamraev, one of those rare talents like Welles or Godard or Scorsese whose love for the medium is so intense that his best films burst with criss-crossing energies and insights, like a fireworks display."—Kent Jones, Film Comment
From February 12 through March 3, the Gene Siskel Film Center, in collaboration with Seagull Films, presents Uzbek Rhapsody: The Films of Ali Khamraev, a series of eight rarely seen films shown in 35mm prints specially imported from Russia and Central Asia for this touring retrospective.
This series highlights the work not only of an overlooked director but also of a rich and under-explored frontier on the cinematic map. The cinema of the Central Asian Soviet republics--sometimes referred to as "the 'stans"--began to emerge from the shadow of the USSR in the 1960s, with the decline of Stalinist orthodoxy and increased investment in regional film industries. In recent years, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Central Asian cinema has come even more sharply into focus, with the growing recognition of distinct filmmaking traditions in each of its nations, and of a group of major filmmakers ripe for discovery in the west, including Tolomush Okeev of Kyrgyzstan, Darezhan Omirbaev and Ardak Amirkulov of Kazakhstan, and, preeminently, Ali Khamraev of Uzbekistan.
Born in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent in 1937, Khamraev made his directing debut in 1964 and first attracted critical attention with the 1966 adultery drama WHITE, WHITE STORKS (playing Feb. 12 & 14). He achieved popular success in the late 1960s and 1970s with a series of action films set in Central Asia during the civil wars of 1920s: RED SANDS (1969), THE EXTRAORDINARY COMMISAR (1970), THE BODYGUARD (1979, playing Feb. 19 & 24), and his biggest hit, THE SEVENTH BULLET (1972, playing Feb. 26 & 28). Resembling American and spaghetti westerns, these films deftly mix ideological issues with superb action scenes and stunning landscapes. As critic Olaf Möller (Film Comment) notes, "Khamraev is a born storyteller...a Genghis Khan-ian giant of genre filmmaking."
Khamraev also began expanding his range, becoming "a director of extraordinary versatility" (Peter Rollberg, Historical Dictionary of Russian and Soviet Cinema). MAN FOLLOWS BIRDS (1975, playing Feb. 12 & 16), perhaps his most acclaimed film, is a phantasmagoric medieval odyssey that evokes Paradjanov and Tarkovsky (the latter both an inspiration and a personal friend). There are strong autobiographical elements in his period pieces TRIPTYCH (1979, playing Feb. 19 & 21) and I REMEMBER YOU (1986, playing Feb. 20 & 23). Khamraev also directed musicals, documentaries, and historical epics. Recurring themes in his films include the oppression of women (most strongly exemplified by 1971's WITHOUT FEAR, playing Feb. 13 & 17) and the conflict between traditional and progressive forces. In the 1990s, Khamraev relocated to Italy; the offbeat sexual parable BO BA BU (1998, playing Feb. 26 & Mar. 3), his only film completed during this period, was a focus of controversy at several international film festivals. In 2004 he returned to Russia, where he has directed television miniseries.
This project is organized by Seagull Films in collaboration with Mardjani Foundation. Special thanks to Alla Verlotsky of Seagull Films.
- MAN FOLLOWS BIRDS
- (CHELOVEK UKHODIT ZA PTITSAMI)
- 1975, Ali Khamraev, USSR/Uzbekistan, 87 min.
- With Dzhanik Faiziyev, Dilorom Kambarova
In a film that’s been compared with the work of Paradjanov for its colorful, mystical, and myth-based story, Khamraev fashions a fragmented, dreamlike coming-of-age tale. Medieval Uzbekistan is the setting for an odyssey that launches an orphaned boy into a harsh world, where first love is brutally trumped by aristocratic privilege, friendship is fragile and fleeting, and violent challenges lurk at every turn. Khamraev’s triumph is in creating a fairytale world of wonder that transforms the tawdriness of reality. In Russian with English subtitles. 35mm. (BS)
- WHITE, WHITE STORKS
- (BELIYE, BELIYE AISTI)
- 1966, Ali Khamraev, USSR/Uzbekistan, 82 min.
- With Lyutfi Sarymsakova, Sairam Isayeva
In his first feature to receive international acclaim, Khamraev took a painterly view of the landscape of the steppes while establishing his trademark theme of the role of atypical and rebellious women. Set in the rural village of White Storks, the story tackles the taboo subject of an extramarital affair. Strong-willed Malika, married but childless, is openly consorting with another man with whom she shares a seemingly tender bond. Even more fascinating than the trajectory of the affair itself is Khamraev’s detailing of intricate, tradition-bound family relationships, and his depiction of customs including the violent, fast-paced horseback game of Buzkashi. In Russian with English subtitles. 35mm. (BS)
- WITHOUT FEAR
- (BEZ STRAKHA)
- 1971, Ali Khamraev, USSR/Uzbekistan, 96 min.
Circa 1920, a young Red Army officer with a keen enthusiasm to launch his native village into the modern age issues a decree that women are to abandon Islamic garb and drop their veils. A 14-year-old girl takes the first step with tragic and unforeseen consequences, and yet the officer continues to pressure his reluctant wife to lead the other women into compliance, a move that will throw the village into revolt. Co-written by Andrei Konchalovsy, WITHOUT FEAR sensitively portrays the dilemma of an ancient culture in conflict with an alien bureaucracy. In Russian with English subtitles. 35mm. (BS)
- THE BODYGUARD
- 1979, Ali Khamraev, USSR/Tadzhikistan, 91 min.
- With Aleksandr Kaidanovsky, Gulya Tashbayeva
Like THE SEVENTH BULLET (playing Feb. 26 & 28), THE BODYGUARD is an example of the "Red Western," set again during the Basmachi Revolt of the 1920s. This time, however, the primary reference point is not Sergio Leone, but the classic Hollywood westerns of Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann. When a Basmachi leader is captured, the Red Army enlists a veteran local hunter to escort the prisoner, accompanied by his servant and daughter, across difficult terrain, pursued every step of the way by a relentless Basmachi usurper and his soothsayer wife. The morally ambiguous power struggles among the beleaguered group recall Mann's great THE NAKED SPUR, as do the spectacular landscapes of snowy mountain and vast desert. In Russian with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)
- 1979, Ali Khamraev, USSR/Uzbekistan, 76 min.
- With Dilorom Kambarova, Gulya Tashbayeva
"TRIPYTCH places Khamraev in the forefront of Soviet cinema and assures his status as the best Uzbek director."
—Ronald Holloway, Variety
This intriguing mixture of melodrama and politics is not divided into three parts; the title instead refers to three female characters whose lives intersect in a small town in northern Uzbekistan during the difficult days following World War II. The first is an old woman trapped in a forced marriage; the second is a schoolteacher imposing progress on the remote region; the third, and most important, is Khalima (Kambarova), an illiterate but determined young woman who resolves to build her own house without either her husband's or the state's approval. The film's harsh vision of life in postwar Uzbekistan, as well as its ambivalent attitude toward the conflicting demands of individualism and collectivism, made it the object of official disapproval. In Russian with English subtitles. (MR)
- I REMEMBER YOU
- (YA TEBYA POMNYU)
- 1985, Ali Khamraev, USSR/Uzbekistan, 92 min.
- With Vyacheslav Bogachyov, Zinaida Sharko
Often put in a class with Fellini’s AMARCORD for its dreamy mosaic of visual memories, I REMEMBER YOU begins with a dying mother’s wish that sends her son on a haunting train journey from the steppes of Uzbekistan to the Russian hinterland in search of his father’s grave. Just as the traveler’s home city of Samarkand is situated on the border between East and West, Khamraev balances his film on the edge of two cultures, evoking the soul of Russia and the crumbling beauty of what was once the Silk Road. A poetic mix of entrancing imagery that swirls from ancient to garish pop creates an unforgettable psychic landscape. In Russian with English subtitles. 35mm. (BS)
- THE SEVENTH BULLET
- (SEDYMAYA PULYA)
- 1972, Ali Khamraev, USSR/Uzbekistan, 84 min.
- With Suimenkul Chokmorov, Dilorom Kambarova
"An excellent example of a popular melodrama offering genuine food for thought."
—The Voice of the Turtle
Sergio Leone's westerns were very popular in the Soviet Union, where they inspired a series of "Red Westerns" (aka "Eastern Westerns" and "Sov-Easterns") often set during the Basmachi Revolt of the 1920s, which pitted Islamic traditionalists against Communist reformers in Central Asia. Co-scripted by Andrei Konchalovsky, THE SEVENTH BULLET centers on Maxumov, a Red Army officer whose men are persuaded to switch sides by the charismatic Basmachi leader Khairulla. In a daring move, Maxumov allows himself to be captured and brought to Khairulla's stronghold, where he struggles to regain the hearts and minds of his apostate soldiers. The ideological battles (presented with remarkable ambiguity) are matched by slam-bang shootouts and chases. In Russian with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)
- BO BA BU
- 1998, Ali Khamraev, Uzbekistan/Italy/France, 82 min.
- With Arielle Dombasle, Abdrashid Abdrakhmanov
"Has a mesmerizing majesty that commands respect. The compositions are fabulous, the light sublime...When it comes to topless allure and effortless, statuesque glamour, the fortysomething Dombasle puts starlets half her age to shame."
—Lisa Nesselson, Variety
Something like a compact predecessor to DOGVILLE, Khamraev's most recent film is also his most controversial. Seemingly fallen from the sky, a bedraggled blonde with a fashion-model figure (Dombasle of PAULINE AT THE BEACH) turns up in the middle of an unnamed desert land. She is promptly enslaved by a pair of sheepherders who speak only in monosyllabic grunts. She teaches the men table manners; they abuse her and fight over her. This most unusual film has been deemed exploitative by some, a caustic critique of gender relations by others. 35mm. (MR)