Over the years of its existence, the Tashkent International Film Festival, a prominent Central Asian film forum, has undergone several name changes. It was first held in the Uzbek SSR in 1958. The festival became biennial in 1968 under the name Festival of Films of Asia and Africa, and from 1977 onwards, Latin America was included in its title, clearly defining the geography of participating countries. The Festival of Cinemas of Asia, Africa and Latin America served as a platform for cultural dialogue, bringing together the USSR and newly independent post-colonial states that emerged after World War II. According to Rossen Djagalov, an American researcher of the festival’s history as a diplomatic tool, the choice of Tashkent as the festival venue was not accidental. “As the largest city in Soviet Central Asia, combining ancient history and modern industrialization, the Uzbek capital embodied ‘Central Asian modernity.’ Tashkent was supposed to serve as an example of the Soviet model for former colonial societies.” Until 1988, the Tashkent International Film Festival, held under the slogan ‘For peace, social progress, and the people’s freedom,’ contributed to the widespread promotion and distribution of Soviet, Central Asian, and Caucasian films. It also introduced the USSR audience to cinema from developing countries and even unknown regions where the film industry was just emerging. The demonstration of each other’s achievements became a stimulus for the professional growth of future masters of world cinema, further fostering international co-productions, such as ‘Alibaba and the Forty Thieves’ (India-USSR, 1980) directed by Umesh Mehra and Latif Faiziyev, ‘Mera naam Joker’ by Raj Kapoor (India, 1970), ‘The Battle of the Three Kings’ (USSR-Morocco-Spain-Italy, 1990) by Moroccan director Souheil Ben- Barka and Uzbek director Uchqun Nazarov, etc. The festival also became a platform for debates on the development of cinema in new countries and played a role in increasing the number of local film critics and the development of film studies in Uzbekistan. After the disintegration of the USSR, in the early years of Independent Uzbekistan the festival was renamed Tashkent International Film Festival and was held in 1992 and 1997. It was revived only in 2021 under the name ‘Pearl of the Silk Road’, organized by the Agency of Cinematography under the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Uzbekistan.
This year the 15th Tashkent International Film Festival was held in the capital of Uzbekistan from September 29 to October 2.
During the past three years, I had the opportunity to attend the revived film festival in various capacities: as a member of the official Tajik delegation in 2021, as a participant in the pitching session for Central Asian film projects organized by Alliance Francais in Uzbekistan during the Tashkent Film Festival in 2022, and as a jury member for the National Film Competition in 2023. This experience provided me with a multifaceted perspective on the event.
The former Soviet-type of Cinema theatre called earlier ‘Panoramic’ was renovated and renamed Alisher Navoi Cinema Palace, serving as the venue for the festival’s Opening Ceremony, as well as for panel discussions inside the building and under the open sky. Notably, on weekdays, the Alisher Navoi Cinema Palace is used as a Cinema reserved specifically for screening Uzbek films. Another main festival venue is the ‘Uzbekfilm’ Studio, where educational events for the local students of film and mass media departments and fellows of ‘Make a Film in 5 Days’, the intensive competition program, take place. ‘Make a Film in 5 Days’ provides invited teams of young filmmakers from the post-Soviet space with a unique opportunity to make a short film in various locations of the country such as historical landmarks and exotic markets in Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva etc., depending on the script. The festival provides the teams with the local film crew and equipment, but pre-production, filming, and post-production must be completed within 5 days, after which the film is judged by an international jury.
The festival also hosts industry panels where the film professionals discuss relevant issues or make presentations, and where memorandums of cooperation in the field of co-production between Uzbekistan and invited countries are signed. For example, Umesh Mehra, an Indian film director is collaborating with Uzbekistan again on a remake of ‘Alibaba and the Forty Thieves’. Thus, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have launched a joint feature film project about Alisher Navoi and Abdurahman Jami, the classics of the two nations of the 15th century, and other projects. Overall the film festival strives to balance between popular cinema, attracting international film stars, and more artistic cinema. For example, the meeting with Takeshi Kitano, the Japanese film director, was a significant event in 2022, and there was a meeting with Alexander Sokurov, the Russian film director, along with the Uzbek premiere of his recent film ‘Fairy Tale’, banned in Russia in 2023.
Overall, the involvement of Uzbek youth, the local students and festival volunteers, is impressive. In 2022, participants of the festival’s educational program, including workshops and lectures, representing various creative university departments in Tashkent, were given special T-shirts with the name of their creative profession: film director, producer, actor, cinematographer, screenwriter, composer. Additionally, the nearby Tashkent branch of the All- Russian State Institute of Cinematography named after S. Gerasimov (VGIK) serves as another festival venue for the meeting of established filmmakers, actors and students. Alliance Francais has been organizing the ‘Talents of Central Asia’ pitching session in the framework of the Tashkent Film Festival for the second year, selecting the top three film projects that will have the opportunity to be presented to the Centre National du Cinéma et de l'İmage Animée (CNC) in the future. It is an important development given the emergence of a local incubation hub for film projects in Central Asia compared to project markets and international labs in Europe, where only 1 or 2 projects from Central Asia participate annually.
In 2021-2022, the film festival was a non-competitive film forum for feature films, featuring only panoramic screenings of invited films, while the competition was reserved for short films by young directors and the ‘Shoot a Film in 5 Days’ program. An innovation in 2023 was the reevaluation of the significance of the film festival platform for promoting Central Asian and national feature films. Therefore, separate competitions were introduced for national films and films from Central Asia. Thus, in 2023, the film festival had three international jury panels:
Anne Demy- Geroe (Australia), Co- President of NETPAC, the film critics Gulnara Abikeeva (Kazakhstan), Gulbara Tolomusheva (Kyrgyzstan), Olga Strada (Italy), and I from Tajikistan, evaluated 15 national films in 5 categories: ‘Best Film’, ‘Best Director’, ‘Best Actor/Actress’, and ‘Special Mention by the Jury’.
The film directors Ali Khamraev (Uzbekistan), Alexander Sokurov (Russia), Siddiq Barmak (Afghanistan-France), Shukhrat Makhmudov (Uzbekistan), and Khodjakuli Narliev (Turkmenistan) assessed the national and international short film competition program, ‘Making a Film in 5 Days’.
The film directors Krzysztof Zanussi (Poland), Semih Kaplanoglu (Turkey), Irakli Kvirikadze (Georgia), Venice Film Festival programmer Giulia D ’Agnolo Vallan (USA), and Christiane Büchner (Germany), Berlin Film Festival’s Forum programmer, evaluated 11 films from 5 Central Asian republics: three each from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, and one each from Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
Due to the program’s extensive nature and the intense work of the international jury, the organizers decided that our jury would watch the films remotely, and announce the winners of the National Competition at the grand Opening Ceremony of the film festival.
The National Competition program aimed to strike a balance between Uzbekistan's arthouse and mainstream cinema. This is explained by Uzbekistan’s long-standing reputation in Central Asia as a hub of Bollywood-style entertaining cinema, supported by numerous independent production houses and dubbing studios, exporting Uzbek mainstream films, particularly melodramas, to neighboring countries such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Therefore, the competition program included both arthouse and popular films produced in Uzbekistan over the last 3 years, directed by both veterans and young filmmakers.
These films include ‘Captivity’ by Rashid Malikov, ‘Legacy’ by Hilol Nasimov, ‘Screenwriter’ by Zulfiqor Musokov, ‘School is My Life’ by Ilkhom Muhammadibragimov, ‘Adversities of Life’ by Abdukayum Yuldoshev, ‘I Am Not a Terrorist. The Story of My Death’ by Muhammadali Iskandarov, ‘Wedding in a Day’ by Shokhruh Rasulov, ‘Woman’s Heart’ by Jamila Pulatova, ‘Road to Nowhere’ by Kamara Kamalova, ‘Flight 101’ by Akrom Shahnazarov, ‘Aroma of Melons in Samarkand’ by Ali Khamraev, ‘Baron-2’ by Rustam Sadiyev, ‘Peri’s Gift’ by Farhod Mahmudov, ‘Women’s Fate’ by Dilmurod Masaidov, and ‘Abdulla Oripov, singer of Independence’ by Muzaffar Erkinov.
After reviewing the entire program, our jury decided to commend the film ‘Road to Nowhere’ by Kamara Kamalova as the ‘Best Film’. It is an intimate story set in Bukhara’s mahalla (city district), portraying a clash between traditionally accepted behavior and new morals. The film unfolds slowly, with a reflexive and, at times, autobiographical texture, as the director made the film at the age of 84, sharing the outlook of the aged protagonist. Despite the film’s produced on state funds, it maintains an independent treatment. This award highlighted the heroic contribution of Kamara Kamalova, who remained the only female film director working in Uzbek cinema for a long time.
The award for ‘Best Director’ went to Ali Khamraev, a veteran of Uzbek cinema, for his 2021 film ‘The Aroma of Melons in Samarkand’, a nostalgic atmospheric narrative about the twists of life in this ancient city, revolving around the protagonist who builds a memorial monument in honor of his father missing in World War II. The ‘Best Actor’ award was posthumously given to the lead actor of the film ‘Flight 101’ Hoshim Arslonov, who played a pilot embarking on his last flight before retirement. Rano Shodieva, a renowned Uzbek actress, was honored with the ‘Best Actress’ award for her performance in the female-driven film ‘Women’s Fate’, directed by Dilmurod Masaidov. The jury granted a special prize to the film ‘The Screenwriter’ by Zulfikar Musakov, in which there is an interplay between reality and imagination. The film contains autobiographical elements, revealing the challenges of creating the film the author truly desires. Our jury decided to recognize films by young filmmakers alongside veterans of cinema and, therefore, established two Jury Special Mention Diplomas. The recipients were the film ‘Abdulla Aripov: Singer of Independence’, directed by Muzaffar Erkinov, the film interesting as a product of post-independent Uzbekistan, reflecting on its culture, state-building, and the hardships that evoke the rise of national identity. Another Jury Special Mentions was awarded to the film ‘Adversities of Life’ directed by Abdukayum Yuldoshev, the film somehow similar to ‘The Aroma of Melons in Samarkand’, that touches on the theme of ‘mahalla’, a fundamentally Central Asian collective neighborliness around which residents gather not only to solve relevant daily issues but also to become a social force resisting the city’s wrong renovation.
In addition to competitive programs, the presentations of world cinema with the participation of delegations from 52 countries were conducted. About 20 cinemas in Tashkent and other cities of Uzbekistan were involved, showcasing around 50 domestic and 100 foreign films. One of the festival’s strengths deserving appreciation is the broad popularization of films from the world panorama section under the title ‘Kinokaravan’ (Cine-caravan). This is especially important for Central Asian cinema in a situation where the regional films find it challenging to secure regional distribution. In 2021-2022, each official delegation was directed to various cities in Uzbekistan for a few days to screen their films in regional theaters, a tribute to the tradition of the Tashkent Film Festival of the Soviet era. For example, the Tajik delegation had the opportunity to explore ancient cities such as Kokand, Fergana, Margilan . Other delegations could visit Bukhara, Navoi, Surkhandarya, Kashkadarya, Khorezm, and Karakalpakstan. Thus, coming to Uzbekistan allowed them to immerse themselves in the regional culture of the country. Local hospitality was expressed through the presence of famous actors and figures from Uzbek cinema accompanying these delegations, facilitating dialogue.
In addition to the competitive film screenings, the film festival featured a program of about 40 Turkic-language films. These screenings, along with the presentation of the Golden Star Award for contributions to strengthening cultural ties in Turkic world, were organized by the International Organization of Turkic Culture (TÜRKSOY).
In 2023, as part of the Tashkent Film Festival, the 115th anniversary of Khudaybergen Devanov, the first photographer and founder of Uzbek cinema, was celebrated. In 1908, he conducted the first documentary filming and public demonstrations of cinema in Khorezm. In connection with this, a cinema named after Khudaybergen Devanov was ceremoniously opened in Khorezm, his homeland.
Returning to the annals of cinema, one recalls the train that was captured in the first documentary shots. The Tashkent Film Festival also has its own train, ‘Afrasiyab’ (named after the legendary Samarkand king), which traditionally, even in the Soviet period, transported festival guests to Samarkand and Bukhara. And this time too, about 300 festival guests were smoothly and organically transported from Tashkent to Samarkand on this train. The Closing Ceremony of the film festival took place in Samarkand at the Silk Road Samarkand tourist complex, designed by Babur Ismailov, the talented contemporary Uzbek artist. The structure of the Eternal City (another name for the Silk Road Samarkand complex) itself resembled a revived fairy tale of ‘One Thousand and One Nights’, and the amphitheater stage reminded of the observatory of Ulugh Beg, a historical monument of Samarkand from the 15th century.
At the Closing Ceremony, the results of the ‘Cinema of Central Asia’ Competition were announced, a program that can be called the highlight of this year film festival. To this day, no Central Asian film festival has a stable competition program intended exclusively for feature and documentary films from Central Asian countries. This is largely explained by the fact that not many feature-length art films are produced in the region and in individual countries. The programmers usually face risks collecting these films, thus balancing the programs with films from nearby and distant foreign countries. Several years ago, the Eurasian International Film Festival (Kazakhstan) focused on films from Central Asian countries, later the Dushanbe International Film Festival (Tajikistan) attempted to present a program of feature films from all Central Asian countries, but it has not been held since the pandemic. Therefore, for the development of cinema, it is significant that the Tashkent Film Festival of this year introduced a Central Asian competition. For example, Krzysztof Zanussi, the Jury Chairman, noted one of the merits of this festival, stating that it ‘…allows to discover films that are otherwise difficult to see. Central Asian films are not available in Europe, we don’t see them, and at the festival, we have the opportunity to get to know the authors and their works’. The winners of the Central Asian film competition were the films ‘Sunday’ by Uzbek director Shokir Kholikov (Best Film), ‘Steppe’ by Kazakh director Maxim Akbarov (Best Debut), ‘Brothers’ by Kazakh director Darkhan Tulegenov (Best Director), ‘Teaching Ademoka’ by Kazakh director Adilkhan Yerzhanov (Jury’s Special Prize), and Kyrgyz actress Taalaikan Abazova, who played in the film ‘Esimde’, was awarded the prize for ‘Best Female Role’. The ‘Best Male Role’ was awarded to the Kyrgyz film ‘Smell of Wormwood’ by Aibek Dairbekov.
Summing up my impressions of the 15th Tashkent International Film Festival, it’s worth noting the strong aspects of the film forum. These include the engagement of a vast number of students and young people in workshops and public talks, regional screenings of international film program, and the promotion of Central Asian films (both in competition and in panoramas). These films are often intentionally dubbed into Uzbek for the local audiences, allowing them to finally see movies from neighboring countries. For the second consecutive year, the pitching event ‘Talents of Central Asia’, organized in collaboration with Alliance Francais, stands out. This event could become the first step towards establishing a Tashkent Film Market in the framework of the International Tashkent Film Festival in the coming years, continuing the cultural Silk Road legacy.
Written by Sharofat Arabova