The Pioneering women-filmmakers in early Central Asian Cinema

Author: ISPAEC


    (The paper is published in the Proceedings of the 4rd Dhaka International Conference on Women in Cinema (January 13-14, 2018, Dhaka). Ed. M.Shafiqur Rahman (Dhaka: Rainbow Film Society), 15-19)

   The purpose of this article is to research the contribution of the first women working in the cinema of the Central Asian region in the late 1920-1930s, to trace their interpretation of the problem of the emancipation of the Oriental woman in their creative works, bringing the examples of the early films like the joint Kyrgyz-Uzbek film The Covered Van (1927), the following Tajik films When the Emirs Die (1931), The Roof of the World (1939) and Without the Paranja (Burqa) (1940), and the Turkmen film Dursun (1940).

   The Soviet government faced a number of important tasks in the 1920-1930s, such as collectivization of the farms, industrialization, the fight against the anti-revolutionary movements like basmachism, imperialism, the anti-religious propaganda and the agitation for the emancipation of the Oriental women that all together symbolized the introduction of a new order of life. The cinema began to serve the purposes of the mass change of consciousness, and, in its turn it functioned as a PR channel of the most important campaingns of the Soviet society of that period.

    This period in the Central Asian cinema is marked by the increased number of films with women subjects, dedicated to the so-called the liberated woman of the East, the expression that later became a catch phrase in Russian. The women, involved in the creation of these films, served as an illustrative example of liberation and free-thinking that were demonstrated during their educational work in the Central Asian republics. In addition, they knew the women's stories very well to reflect them in art. Most often these women revolved in the vanguard of the creative circles of that time, practicing writing prose and poems, fascinated by philosophy, and who definitely became interested in the new art form, the cinema, that allowed animating the imaginary.

   However, despite the cherished desire for the gender equality between men and women, not all the women who came in cinema received a chance to make a film. More often they became screenplaywriters or film editors, since it was necessary to have a certain film school bakground to become a film director. The examples from the history of cinema illustrate that there were girls (foreign or local) among the first women filmmakers in Central Asia, who received a good education in the pre-revolutionary Turkestan as well as in Russia, whose families were open minded to cultivate girls’ passion for movies, theater and dance. They used to become actresses or wrote film scripts.

   The women who became the first screenwriters of Uzbek cinema were the writers Valentina Sobberey and Lolakhon Saifullina, who were based in Tashkent. The Central Committee of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan jointly with Uzbekgoskino studio announced a contest for the best script about the life of the Uzbek people in 1926 that attracted the women writers to the cinema field.[i] Thus, Valentina Sobberey is known as the screenwriter of the first Uzbek film The Jackals of Ravat (1927) and Out of the Arches of the Mosque (1927) both directed by K.Gertel, The Second Wife (1927) directed by M.Doronin. Lolakhon Saifulina co-wrote the Second Wife, and later wrote scripts for the films The Covered van (1927) and The Leper woman (1928) both directed by O.Frelih.

   Due to the lack of professional film actresses in the Central Asian republics, the actresses from Moscow and Leningrad were invited to play the local characters. They naturally differed by European look, that along with the oriental costumes created an exotic image from the colonial past of the new republics. Among these first actresses were Rachil Messerer (Second wife, The Leper Woman), K.Pimenova (The Jackals of Ravat), Olga Tretyakova, played in the first Central Asian productions by Bukharan studio ‘Bukhkino’ The Muslim woman (1924), later in the Tajik film The Living God’ (1935), Olga Spirova acted in The Minaret of Death (1925) produced by ‘Bukhkino’ and The Covered van along with another actress Elena Chaika. In connection with the desire for the truthful documentation of the reality, some filmmakers began to select characters among the local people by types, calling them not actors but models. This marked the appearance of the pioneering national actresses such as Aisha Tyumenbaeva (The Covered van) in Kyrgyz cinema, Sofya Tuybaeva (The Emigrant) in Tajik cinema, Zulfiya Shakirova (The Daughter of the Saint, 1931) in Uzbek cinema.

   The Covered van written by L.Saifullina, directed by O.Frelih and featured the 15-year-old Kyrgyz girl Aisha Tyumenbaeva, was a synthesis of documentary and fiction. It is necessary to note, that the early Central Asian film productions blured the boundary between a documentary and a feature film, marking the absence of clear outlines. The first filmmakers, who used to come into feature films from the documentary background and vice versa, were incorporating the acquired techniques in both of the genres. In addition, the ideological montage allowed the staging of any events freely, their recreation and sometimes substitution. It was the typical of the genre of ‘agitpropfilms’, the docufictional propaganda films on the relevant topics that were popular in the Central Asian cinema then.

   The plot of the movie The Covered van has a tale-like structure. The hero, the poor shepherd Kalymbet, is in love with the rich man’s daughter Ayjamal, who loves him too. There is another girl from a simple family being in love with Kalymbet as well, and is adviced to marry him as equal by social status, but he ignores her. While Kalymbet sets on a journey for earnings the ‘kalym’ money (a wedding ransom) to marry Ayjamal, his beloved is married off to Baimet, the son of rich parents, who is very patriarchal and narrow-minded. Kalymbet is picked up by the Red Army men, whom he befriends, passing the tests for honesty and kindness. When he returns home the passion between him and the married Ayjamal sparkles again, making them run away together. Unluckily the lovers are caught by the White Army men, who act as ‘White Pirates’ in the Central Asian mountains under the leadership of aristocrat Prince Olshansky. In turn, Olshansky is portrayed as an immoral person, who harasses Ayjamal and blackmails Kalymbet. Baimet, Ajamal’s husband, demands his wife to be extradited to him, but in return, the pirates ask him to pay 10 sheeps as ransom. The protagonist Ayjamal is represented as a strong personality, capable of leaving her unloved usurper husband, especially the kulak (and it was acceptable at that time according to the rules of this revolutionary scenario!), and resists the harassments of the pirate. Even the attitude of the Olshansky’s wife, who is portrayed as an educated woman and somehow resembles the suffragettes lookwise, shows her disdain for the husband hitting rock bottom. In general, despite the fact that this film was directed by the male filmmaker O.Frelih, it is marked by the ironic look at the male characters, negative and positive ones, as well as by the feminine sensitivity in details, the love for ethnography, the subject of the women’s fate of both of the girls loving one man, that were introduced by L.Saifullina. It should be noted that the scriptwriters of the silent cinema were required to be skillfull in composing the intertitles for the films that should be powerful, sharp and concise at the same time. This was done expertly by L.Saifulina, whose intertitles were distinguished by wittiness and wisdom, like the folk sayings.

   The 1931 was marked by the arrival of Lidya Pechorina in Tajikistan, the recent VGIK graduate, who became not only the first woman filmmaker in Tajik cinema but also directed the first Tajik feature film When the Emirs Die (1931). L.Pechorina was also appointed as a Responsible Secretary of the Association of the Revolutionary Cinema Workers (ARRK) of Tajikistan, a kind of filmmakers’ union in 1931.[ii] This Association followed regularly the Party's general line for the eradication of the hostile ideological tendencies in cinema. In turn, the decisions taken by the ARRK had significant impact on the fate of any film or filmmaker of that period.[iii] L.Pechorina lived up to 1957, but unfortunately, remained known as the director of the only feature film When the Emirs Die (1932), though produced a number of popular science documentaries afterwards at other Soviet studios. The script of this film was written by the writer El Registan (a.k.a. Gabriel Ureklyan), but creatively reworked by the director L.Pechorina and the cinematographer A.Levington. Once again the actors for the film, so called models, were chosen from the local villagers-farmers, as it was stated in the opening intertitles.

   The shooting took place in the village of Karatag near Stalinabad (Dushanbe) and went with production difficulties. In turn, L.Pechorina was very well aware of the Parallel and Intellectual Montage, flashbacks, time laps, experiencing the influence of the revolutionary cinema of S.Eisenstein and V.Pudovkin, while the intertitles of her film resembled the Soviet propaganda posters and functioned as an organic continuation of the film image. Her editing thinking is capacious as a revolutionary poster. For example, there are 4 shots in the film: the portrait of the Bukharan Emir is shown, then the shot of the standing humble farmers, afterwards the intertitle saying ‘All their life long’ and then the repetition of the shot of the humble farmers with their heads bowed. In general, the film When the Emirs Die is devoted to the establishment of the Soviet power in a Tajik village, the villagers’ struggle for water with kulaks, who eventually kill the Chairman of the Collective Farm, the Red Army soldier, the person with guts to oppose the entire old order.

   L. Pechorina, 26 years old, who became the first female director to work in Tajik cinema, was delegated apparently to the young conservative republic as an example of female emancipation, while the local women still covered their faces by paranjas (burqa) in Tajikistan as it was documented in the survived newsreels. Alexandra Khokhlova, the wife of the Soviet film theoritician Lev Kuleshov, visited the Tajikfilm studio in 1935 and noted that the local women-editors used to come from the outside wearing the paranjas and used to take them off only during the work. Surprisingly, the female subject remained unexplored in the films by L.Pechorina. The new life of the ‘Mekhnat’ Collective Farm is represented only by the uncovered faces of the women embroiderers who sew the ‘suzane’ (the wall panel), the farmers’s gift to the Congress of Soviets in her film When the Emirs Die. One of the women gives the suzane to the chairman, who, in turn, wraps the first crop of cotton, grown in their Collective Farm, in it. The malaria as a disease does not affect absolutely the Tajik women in the next docufictional propaganda film Malaria is the enemy of the country (1932) directed by L.Pechorina in Tajikistan. The film tells the story of the young agitator, the Komsomol member, trying hard to distribute medicines to local ‘dehqans’ (villagers) and educate them. But the dehqans refuse to take the medication, spit the tablets and prefer them the old treatment of the folk ‘tabibs’ (doctors) and mullas. There are the documentary shots of crying babies in the hands of nurses, refusing to take medicines too, at the end of the film. Isn’t it a metaphor for the aboriginal population being like children? In this case, the film is marketed exclusively for the male population (there are no female characters being present except in the rare documentary footage), as the most active social group, the decision-makers in the Tajik society. Despite the lengthy dialogues of the main protagonist and the local people, the intertitles were absent in this silent film. Perhaps because the film screenings had the off-screen live narration about the explanation of malaria, its symptoms, diagnosis, reasons for the medication etc., that could vary depending on the audience every time the film was on.

   The next Tajik documentary is The Roof of the World (1939), created by Elizaveta Svilova at the Tajikfilm studio, the wife of the Soviet documentary filmmaker Dziga Vertov. However, she is listed as an editor in the film credits, and the name of the director, unfortunately, is missing. The film is dedicated to the Pamir geologo-military expedition to the Badakhshan Autonomous Region of Tajikistan. The Tajik documentary films of the Stalinist period can be easily called as a ‘still-life’ by the way everything was arranged around the idea, scripted and staged. The director of The Roof of the World tends to focus his film on the Central Asian women whether one of them milks a cow, collects the root-crops, researches the samples in the laboratory as a botanist, listens to a lecture about the quality of the grown grains, studies or teaches in a school. Thus the panorama of modern life, their capabilities and the role models were presented to the women audience of those years. But first of all, the film was supposed to glorify the achievements of the new power in Tajikistan. There is an interesting sequence in the film as an illustrative example of acculturation, about the Red Army soldier who teaches the Pamiri girl the Russian dance steps.

   It is noteworthy to mention that the uncovered female face in the Central Asian cinema in view of the strategy of emancipation of women, symbolized the openness of the society and the particular moral freedom. Quite significant is the example of another Tajik documentary Without the Paranja (Burqa) (1940), directed by the male directors E.Akubdjanov and N.Zeleransky, scripted by the female writer L.Jalilova. The heroine of the film is a Tajik woman, represented again in various contradictory hypostases: firstly, as the Chairman of the Regional Committee Mastura Avezova, who was the first Tajik woman famous by dropping her paranja (burqa) forever. Secondly, as the women covered by paranja, who recognize their illiteracy, requesting M.Avezova to help them to get rid of the veil, ‘the hateful symbol of oppression and the remnant of the past’. Once again the Old and the New are being juxtaposed in a single shot. For example, M. Avezova is driving in a car and the woman in the paranja, rides a donkey, holding her ill child. The women point out to M.Avezova that they want to study and work in their written statements. The final life-affirming ideological chord in the film is the sequence of the athlete parade in Moscow on the Red Square, where the Tajik women participated for a first time, marching before Stalin and wearing the gymnastic costumes. The female characters in the films of the Stalinist period were often portrayed being dedicated to the Soviet leader and reciting lengthy glorifying dialogues in his honor. Sometimes Stalin was seen not like the father of the nation, but perhaps more like an ‘ideal husband’, the object of aspirations of a Soviet woman: he attracted people to strive for Moscow and to surpass the labor plans, fearing and loving him blindly.

   The similar follower of the Stakhanovite movement, for example, was the heroine of the Turkmen film Dursun (1940), directed by E.Ivanov-Barkov. The script of the film was written by the female dramaturgist Z.Markina and M.Vituhnovsky on the basis of the popular theatrical play of that time. The film raises the interesting and relevant topic of the gender competition between the husband Nuri and his wife Dursun, who begins to obscure the fame of her husband-dzhigit (‘dzhigit – is the concept of heroism and masculinity in Turk cultures) by becoming the first Turkmen woman who collected a record amount of cotton per shift. Dursun is fascinated by the Soviet agronomist Maria Demchenko, who initiated the massive socialist competition for the collection of more crops in the mid-1930s, and wants to be like her. In turn, Dursun introduced a method of collecting cotton by both hands simultaneously and keeping them into the big comfortable pockets of the apron she designed. Nuri can not stand her popularity in the village, points his wife constantly at the incomplete domestic (female) obligations like washing dishes, preparation of dinner etc., and eventually makes her leave the house after the fight. The authors skillfully confront the public and the personal interests, like the horse-racing of dzhigits, Nuri’s hobby, presented almost as leisure, and the physical labor of the woman Dursun, who took the first place in the USSR for her record amount of collected cotton. The canvas of the film is organically intertwined with the ethnographic music, performed by the national ‘Bakhsha’ style singer, who is eager to celebrate Dursun's feats. The situation becomes comical and tragic at the same time when Dursun is appointed as a taskmaster of the backward brigade, where her husband Nuri works in. There is the soft humor and irony over the male characters in the film, in particular, Nuri boasting of his ‘dzhigitism’ (masculinity) and who was almost expelled from the Komsomol (the organization of the young communists), but Dursun defends him, thus making a step towards the reconciliation with her husband. Nuri, in turn, proves his love for Dursun by collecting cotton with two hands wearing the ‘female’ apron in the field overnight and promising her to win the horse races as well. It is noteworthy that the idea of old, represented by the character of Nuri’s Father, the most experienced and respected farmer in the village, does not oppose the young woman who represents the idea of a new beginning, but on the contrary, supports her in every way.

   The pioneering women-filmmakers of the early Central Asian cinema made an indisputable contribution to the development of cinema in this region, preparing the ground for the further focus on women's issues, bringing the woman's worldview, sensitivity and the observation of life to the films, as well as the humor and the author's understanding of women stories.


[i] History of Soviet Cinema. Ed.I.Vladimirtseva, A.Sandler. Vol.1. M.: Iskusstvo, 1969. 576 pp. P. 705.

[ii] Ahrorov, Ato. Tajik cinema (1929-1969). Dushanbe: Donish, 1971. 230 pp. P.36-38, 27.

[iii] Khokhlova, Catherine. 1931st //Cinema Art. #1, 2001. (date of access: 1.12.2017)


Dr. Sharofat Arabova,

Lead researcher, Institute of Asian and European Studies,

Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan, Film historian, culturelogist