Poor administration of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers by the Soviet Union resulted in this vast inland lake losing some 80 percent of its surface area. It ranks as one of the 20th century's great ecologic disasters.
"Aral: Fishing In An Invisible Sea" is a documentary about three generations of fishermen struggling to survive in that haunted landscape. The winner of the best documentary at the 2004 Toronto Film Festival, "Aral" is one of 120 films being shown at this year's One World film festival in Prague.
Thirty-year-old Spaniard Carlos Casas co-directed "Aral," along with Uzbek filmmaker Saodat Ismailova.
"I hope that the film will help in some cases to notice the problem, not in the typical political way, but in the human aspects, because this is what the film focuses on," Casas says. "I don't want to deal with the political situation. I don't want to [present] any critical stance about that. I just want to portray human dignity in these places."
Igor Blazevic, the director of the festival, believes this is exactly what documentaries should do. Speaking with RFE/RL at One World's bustling offices in central Prague, Blazevic says the festival strives to present a multifaceted picture of the world.
He says he believes the mainstream media focus too narrowly on a handful of stories, usually concerning those with political and economic power.
"I'm aware that the ordinary people are not just crying victims, but the ordinary people are really extremely impressive, extremely inspiring human beings, fighting for their dignity in extreme situations, [fighting] for their freedom, liberty, survival," Blazevic says. "And good documentaries are communicating this story. So they're bringing some additional understanding of what's going on around us."
Blazevic says he is always surprised by how many of these stories he is himself unaware of.
"I watch in a two- or three-month period about 400 documentary films. And most of them are powerful films, but hard," he says. "And after seven years of doing that, I'm impressed that I'm not sick and tired of that, but completely the opposite. With each year, I'm more and more motivated and more and more surprised about how uninformed I am about what's going on, and I'm a relatively well-informed person because by profession I spend a lot of time watching news and so on."
Blazevic, a native of Bosnia-Herzegovina, came to Prague in 1991. He began working for People in Need, a Czech nongovernmental relief and development organization. In 1999, the group latched onto the idea of a film festival as a tool to raise awareness of human rights and democracy issues.
The festival attracted 3,000 moviegoers in its first year. Last year, 28,000 people bought tickets in Prague. Another 26,000 others saw the films in 14 cities around the Czech Republic.
This year, films about Iraq are in the spotlight. But Blazevic says the festival also strives to cover what he calls the world's "uncovered hotspots." He points to a documentary about Kyrgyzstan called "Bride Kidnapping" and a film about life in Belarus called "89 mm." The title refers to the difference in the width of railway tracks between Eastern and Western Europe.
Twenty-six-year old German filmmaker Sebastian Heinzel is the director of "89 mm." It looks at the lives of six young Belarusians in a country considered to be the last dictatorship in Europe.
"They're all very different. The one is, for example, a dancer in a nightclub. The other one is a soldier. A third is an oppositional resistance fighter," Heinzel says. "They are all very different, but what [unites them] is a love for their country, which is very young, in a way. Which was new for me as a German. They have a real relationship to their country which is maybe stronger than the relationships of people of my age [to] my country."
Last year, the jury split on the main prize, the Minister of Culture Award. The judges singled out two films -- "Arna's Children," the story of a Jewish woman who helped a group of Palestinian theater students express their anger over the Israeli occupation; and "S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine," personal recollections of the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s.
"Arna's Children" upset two jury members because they felt the movie portrayed its protagonists -- some of whom went on to become suicide bombers -- as heroes.
Blazevic doesn't interpret the film that way, but realizes others saw it differently. In any case, he says he believes "Arna's Children" should be seen, and passionately debated. Films should ask questions, he says, not answer them.
"I don't think that film can really give any sort of clear-cut answers and instructions to anybody [about] how he or she should think or behave," Blazevic says. "To tell you the truth, when we are selecting the films, I am really very cautious to avoid any sort of the propaganda type of films or even, let's say, NGO type of propaganda, which is basically aggressively telling the people that this is the truth. People in this part of the world are extremely sensitive of anybody saying to them what are the values and what are the truths."
Believe those who are seeking the truth, it has been said, and doubt those who find it.
Even young fisherman Janibek Anuarov, in "Aral," has trouble reconciling history with what his eyes tell him: "I cannot imagine that grandfather's stories of an immense sea, which was sailed on by great ships, is based on the truth."