For Western audiences who are only just starting to discover Uzbek films—a phenomenon due in large part to some high-profile retrospectives that have been appearing at international film festivals and theaters in the last few years—it may come as a surprise to learn that cinema in Uzbekistan is in fact a tradition that stretches back more than a century. To learn more about the unique history of Uzbek cinema, read on for some fascinating facts.
The first Uzbek film was made in 1913.
It says a great deal about Uzbekistan’s relationship with the art of filmmaking that Uzbek films began to be produced almost as soon as cinematography was invented. Khudoibergan Devanov, Uzbekistan’s first filmmaker and an important pioneer of cinema technology and production, made his film debut in the early spring of 1913. Like many early films, Devanov’s film was a documentary titled The Monuments of Our Land.
Uzbekistan was the home of the first Central Asian film studio.
While cinema production made significant strides all over Central Asia in the 1920s, Uzbekistan enjoys the distinction of being the first country in the region to open its own film studio. In 1924, the film studio Buchkino was founded in the central Uzbek city of Bukhara. This was followed a year later by the establishment of an even larger-scale studio called Uzbekfilm in Tashkent in 1925. In later years, all the other Central Asia republics would follow suit. Turkmenistan established its first studio in 1926, Kazakhstan established a documentary unit in 1929 and a feature film studio in 1934, Tajikistan founded a documentary unit in 1930, and Kyrgyzstan founded a documentary unit in 1942.
Early Uzbek cinema was strongly influenced by Soviet ideology.
Many of the early feature films (as distinct from documentaries) produced by Uzbek and other Central Asian studios were helmed by directors and supported by film crews from Russia. As a result, these films tended to reflect—sometimes quite heavily—the Soviet ideology of the time. For example, Uzbek films like Musul’manka (1925) and Vtoraia zhena (1927) focused on the liberation of the “Eastern woman,” an important theme in the early days of the Soviet republics.
World War II ushered in a new era for Uzbek film.
During World War II, Soviet authorities were forced to relocate various strategic industries. As a result, Central Asia became the main hub of Soviet film production. However, while most Central Asian films from this period focused, naturally enough, on patriotic and heroic themes and depicted the struggles occurring in the European parts of the Soviet Union, Uzbek cinema fared somewhat differently. Rather than being overly caught up in the production of war-related films, Uzbekistan continued to produce features that were based on pre-revolutionary literary themes. Perhaps the most famous of these is Takhir i Zukhra (1945), an Uzbek retelling of Romeo and Juliet in which Takhir and Zukhra, childhood sweethearts who grew up together at the royal court, are torn apart as teenagers following Takhir’s banishment from the kingdom. Featuring Bollywood-style musical interludes and beautiful sets and costumes, as well as enchanting performances from Gulyam Aglayev and Yuldus Rysayeva as Takhir and Zukhra respectively, the film continues to delight audiences today.
The 1950s and ‘60s brought thematic changes to Uzbek cinema.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, cinema in Uzbekistan, as well as in the other Central Asian republics, became more formal and institutionalized. During these years, a Union of Cinematographers was formed in each of the republics. However, in contrast to the small film industries of Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, which each averaged one feature film per year, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan had greater and more diverse output. For example, while many Uzbek films continued to focus on historical themes, more films began to tell stories of the daily lives of ordinary Uzbek people.
During the 1960s and ‘70s, Uzbek cinema witnessed rapid development.
The film industries of all the Soviet republics saw impressive growth and development during the 1960s and 1970s. Taking advantage of more open relations with Western nations, many Central Asian filmmakers worked outside of their home countries for the first time, while European directors came to Central Asia to make works exploring Central Asian themes. The period is often referred to as the “New Wave” or “Golden Age” of Uzbek cinema. In addition, during this time, Tashkent served as an important artistic and cultural hub for the Soviet Union: it hosted the main Soviet film festivals, as well as the International Film Festival for Asian and African countries.
Uzbek cinema has grown since the end of the Soviet Union.
Central Asian cinema, including Uzbekistan’s film industry, has expanded in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the decade after achieving independence, Uzbekistan’s film studios made upwards of 25 films. In recent years, however, there has been a significant increase in digital filmmaking technologies coupled with Bollywood-inspired content that aims to make the most of Uzbekistan’s reliable domestic viewer base. At present, Uzbekfilm estimates that there are 700 film studios in Uzbekistan that together produce as many as 50 digital films each year.