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Uzbek Film Industry Blossoms, But Quality Takes A Hit

Ayub Shahobiddinov's award-winning "Parizod" is one of the few latter-day Uzbek films to match the quality of those produced during the country's golden age of cinema in the 1960s.
Ayub Shahobiddinov's award-winning "Parizod" is one of the few latter-day Uzbek films to match the quality of those produced during the country's golden age of cinema in the 1960s.
It's early in the marriage, and Diana's union with Sardor is already creating tensions between the savvy modern bride and her more traditional mother-in-law.

"How do you know how to do that?" the mother-in-law asks venomously when she sees Diana baking bread. "From the Internet," the young bride barks back.

Such snappy dialogue helped make the Uzbek film "Super Kelinchak," or "Super Bride", a box-office sensation in 2008, with "from the Internet" becoming one of the year's biggest catch phrases.

Many would count "Super Bride" as a successful example of the Uzbek film industry's revival, thanks in part to the emergence of cheap digital technology, which has allowed it to churn out hundreds of films over the past decade.

But Gulchehra Jamilova, an iconic Uzbek actress who made a name for herself during the 1960s, is not a fan.

"A bad melon is bound to be full of seeds," she says, using an old Uzbek proverb to describe the digital-cinema boom in the country's film industry.

The Uzbek 'New Wave'

In the eyes of many cineastes, today's hastily produced films fall far short of the cinematic standard Uzbekistan set during its golden age in the 1960s, when censorship under the Soviet Union was relaxed and opened the way for the "New Wave" of Uzbek cinema.

"I don't know why, but the number of senseless movies is increasing," says Jamilova. "The recent movies are not professional and, frankly speaking, I want to run away thinking I should never have watched them."

WATCH: "Super Bride" (no subtitles) -- the famous "baking" scene occurs after 59 minutes, 20 seconds

All domestically-produced films must be approved by Uzbekkino, the state agency that grants film licenses in the authoritarian country.

This has led many leading filmmakers, wary of proposing topics that would not receive the required seal of approval, to turn to films that offer more light-hearted content.

And while that may raise the ire of Uzbek film traditionalists, the prospect of commercial success aided by lower production costs and an established market is too strong to ignore.

The approach has helped save an industry that only managed to make about 25 films in the decade that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

According to Uzbekkino, there are currently 700 film studios in Uzbekistan, which altogether produce as many as 50 digital films per year.

Upon their release, such films stand a good chance of succeeding.

A Brief History Of Uzbek Film

A Brief History Of Uzbek Film

Uzbekistan has long been a hub for film production and the distribution of films in Central Asia, dating back to its humble but notable beginnings at the start of the 20th century.

Khudoibergan Devanov, the first filmmaker in Uzbekistan, made his debut documentary, "The Monuments Of Our Land," in Khorezm in the early spring of 1913. Eleven years later, in 1924, Uzbekistan was the first Central Asian country to open its own film studio, Buchkino, in the city of Bukhara.

World War II helped Uzbekistan's budding film industry enter a period of cinematic enlightenment. The war forced Soviet authorities to relocate various strategic industries and, as a result, the Uzbek republic became a center of Soviet film production.

Uzbekistan continued its run of cinematic success well into the late 1980s, but its film industry fell on had times following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Uzbekistan's population of 28 million makes the country Central Asia's biggest film market.

Moreover, since cinema theaters and television stations in Uzbekistan exclusively screen Uzbek movies, there is a reliable domestic customer base.

Regionally, Uzbek films have proved popular, allowing for export opportunities.

The turn of the century ushered in the transformation of Uzbek film when young local directors began eschewing traditional yet expensive celluloid film-editing techniques.

Instead they opted for digital technologies that enabled them to produce films in just a few weeks for $30,000 to $60,000.

This has led to inevitable debates about quantity versus quality.

Bakhodr Yuldashov, a well-known Uzbek director who helmed the World War II-era film "Shiva," acknowledges the success of the new films, but questions whether it is worth the cost.

"The issue is not the number of films produced, but their quality," he says. "If they really can handle producing that many movies, the studios are doing a good job. It's better when many studios are working. But are they doing well? I don't believe so."

Gulnara Abikeyeva, a renowned Central Asian film critic and art director of the Eurasia International Film festival, admits that "Uzbek cinema is going the Bollywood way."

But she also sees a silver lining, saying that "with the increase in the number of movies produced, the quality will eventually catch up."

Actress Jamilova won't be waiting in line to see them, however.

"[The Uzbek film industry's] commercial structure is based on commercial interests," she says. "In general, a commercial type of cinema has appeared, but I do not consider these to be cinematic films. That's why I do not watch them."

Glimmers Of Quality

Lucky for traditionalists like Jamilova, it's too soon to announce the complete demise of the old school.

In September, "Parizod", a high quality Uzbek film directed by Ayub Shahobiddinov, won the Grand Prix award at Kinoshok, an annual festival for movies from the Commonwealth of Independent States as well Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

"Parizod" -- or "Heaven -- My Abode" in English -- tells the story of a beautiful young woman with mystical powers who forever changes the lives of some villagers when she arrives in their hamlet.

Unlike many of Uzbekistan's digital offerings, it's a film that has drawn praise from Abikeyeva, suggesting that there may yet be hope for the standard of domestically produced movies.

"'Parizod' is very unusual, I feel like for the Central Asian film industry as a whole and the Uzbek film industry in particular, it is very unusual, and unusually mysterious," she says. "We can even say it is unusually spiritual. Through this movie, Shahobiddinov tells us a secret of the cultures, the secret of being."

Written by Deana Kjuka based on reporting by Shukhrat Babajanov

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