A Jewel Form of Storytelling:

Reimagining Central Asian Cinema

Anisa Sabiri
Over the seventy-year history of Soviet rule, Tajik and Central Asian storytelling was moulded by a state-regulated national policy, serving the interests of Moscow. Through some personal observations, this essay discusses the challenges a Central Asian artist faces in finding an original voice within the global film industry.
indigenous storytelling; Soviet Cinema; Persian literature; Tajik language; Central Asia; decolonisation; post-Soviet history.





Suggested Citation


Boz mekhoham, ki az nav kudaki nodon shavam,
Boz mekhoham, ki az nav kudaki giryon shavam.

Once again I want to be an ignorant child,
Once again I would like to cry like a baby.


I was five years old when my grandmother taught me to read in Russian, thereby opening up a magical world of storytelling. Having been a chief bureaucrat in the Moscow-subsidised bookstore in Dushanbe, she turned our house into a library with thousands of books published in Russian. Her selection of literature was informed by a strong, intuitive understanding of the Soviet market’s demands rather than any affection for reading, so rare Samizdat authors such as Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky and Nietzsche nestled on our bookshelves along with must-have subscription collections by Dickens, Dumas, Pushkin, and Dostoevsky.

But even among the rarest examples such as illustrative instructions for yoga or sex, one could not find a single Tajik author in our library, with the exception of a pocket-sized glossy publication called “Stars of Poetry” (Zvezdy poezii, 1984) – a Russian-translated collection of excerpts from Tajik-Persian classical poems which looked more like a beautiful souvenir.

پارسی دری در این میهن.
چون به نام و دبیره ی خود نیست
گشته بی اصل خویش استرون.

Every reader here is blind to the written word,
Every listener deaf to their mother tongue.
When our language is torn out of the land,
That land becomes infertile.2

Isfandiyor Nazar

In Farsi-speaking Tajikistan, Russian remains the language of arts and academia. Being educated within the European tradition and the Russian school of thought was mainly the preserve of the intelligentsia, or those who lived in big cities. Even during Khrushchev's Ottepel’ (thaw), when Central Asia underwent a process that can be summarised as being “partially analogous to decolonization” (Kalinovsky, 2018: 66), the reading of Persian literature remained uncommon among the Tajik population: “Young people only read Persian classics in specialised upper-level courses or in religious settings outside of formal schooling (quoted in Hodgkin. 2021: 646). The general public could access them only in Russian translation, filtered through the Soviet ideological lens.

I miss those special evenings when my father used to translate poems from Zvezdy poezii from Russian back to the original Tajik/Farsi, so that I could sense the difference in the sound and rhythm. We used to talk about the oversimplification of the spiritual, transcendental nature of this poetry, with divine love reduced to human lust, and esotericism reframed as Western philosophy. Unfortunately, at that time my Tajik was too poor to comprehend well enough that those translations were as decorative as the book design.

Last summer in Tashkent I was able to visit the House (now a museum) of Sergei Borodin (1902-1974) – a Russian writer who had moved to Central Asia with a mission to write about the East and translate Tajik and Uzbek revolutionary writers. Among the exhibits of Borodin’s life presented in a wealthy house with no resemblance to an ordinary Soviet home, the visitor sees Borodin’s explanation of his approach to translation, clearly stating the Soviet agenda:

We create books that unite the central ideas of our time, be they historial, sci-fi
or biographical – the most humanistic ideas of modernity – into one literature.3

The loss of meaning in translation of Persian poetry would be due not only to the sort of linguistic nuances that Tajik-Kazakh historian Safar Abdullo poetically called “a kiss through the glass', but also to political will. “The Stalinist restoration of the Eastern classics to the Eastern masses, then, was an act of sublation. According to the logic of the dialectic, it completed the process that had begun with a massive negation: the reforms of culture, education, language, and script that had, in combination with the murder of an entire generation of intellectuals for supposed nationalism or pan-Islamism, deprived the masses of those same classics”4 (Hodgkin 1994: 634).

To nai sohibi zaboni khesh,
Nashavi sohibi jahoni khesh.

As long as you aren’t master of your own language,
You won’t be master of your own world.5

Loiq Sherali

In 2018 I began to realise the colonial nature of the Russian language I had made my name in. As a young woman from the capital, I had been proud of my native-sounding Russian. I had won a state award for my first book and felt excited about my career as a Russian-speaking Tajik author. But I no longer felt comfortable with it. By this stage, to increase my income, I was working all over Tajikistan as a tour guide and was surprised that although people may have heard of me, they had never read my poetry. I felt that my writing did not make sense anymore; it felt post-colonial, heavily informed by the Russian and European arts landscape that only people like me, who lived in the capital, studied at school. I set about trying to decolonise my literature by doing what the Francophone Tunisian writer Abdelwahab Meddeb used to do – mislead the reader so they wouldn’t understand him and “get lost in his narration as in streets of an old town” (Dejeux 1982: 103-4).

I tried to incorporate Tajik words, change sentence structures, and turn them into Tajik rhythms but as my awareness of the problem increased, I found my thoughts trapped in foreign phrases and sentences that did not fully express what I meant. I struggled, witnessing my own language as ‘foreign’, and experienced what Wittgenstein (1953, pt. 1, sect. 109) calls the “bewitchment” – but what was the way out of this labyrinth?

When I finally stopped writing, I chose film as my “axe for a frozen sea” (Kelemen 2022), inspired by my decolonised perspective. I could not have guessed that five years later, taking my first short film around prestigious international festivals, I would be stuck in the same repetitive post-colonial trap in filmmaking that I had previously experienced in literature.

First of all, totalitarianism is linguistic oppression.
Today we all suffer, as a return to life is difficult and painful. (Mamardashvili 1991)

A few days ago, before writing this article, when my plane was landing in London, I had a peculiar identity-related conversation with an elderly Russian woman from Saint Petersburg. “How can a Tajik woman get… well, you know… get from Tajikistan to London, and even make films,” she kept wondering with innocent excitement. She smiled and continued: “Maybe you are the next Christopher Nolan?” I told Tat’iana that I had received a UK government scholarship to obtain my MA in London and, oversimplifying all the political and social aspects of my pathway, concluded that I had stayed on afterwards. Tat’iana, whose daughter lives in Brighton, was desperate to fill in the gaps. “But no, maybe you do have at least some Slavic blood?” When we landed, she tried to convince me that I looked like a typically pure Slavic girl.

This woman was born and raised in the USSR just like my parents and grandparents, and yet she did not know anything about Tajik culture. When I lived in Moscow I used to experience the same inequality paradox: well-educated Russians were confused, unable to comprehend how a non-Russian can speak the Russian language as well as they do, have similar manners, and be familiar with literature, art and philosophy. It brought to mind what the Francophone Afro-Caribbean psychiatrist Frantz Fanon wrote about decolonising Africa:

In any group of young men in the Antilles, the one who expresses himself well, who has mastered the language, is inordinately feared; keep an eye on that one, he is almost white. In France one says, “He talks like a book.” In Martinique, “He talks like a white man” (Fanon 2021: 128).

As a non-white person trying to prove my equality with the descendants of my parents’ colonisers, I tried to speak the best I could by rendering my art in the language that my colonised ancestors were forced to speak. I had thus entrapped myself because it was not only the language I spoke but also the very foundation of my artistic expression.

Likewise, Tajik and Central Asian cinema had never been free from the grammar of Soviet Russian filmmaking. I am very aware, especially when comparing our cinema to that of Iran and Afghanistan, that the Tajik film ‘language’ remains disconnected from its linguistic and cultural roots. In Muhammad Iqbal-i Lokhuri’s words:

ای غنچه خوابیده چو نرگس نگران خیز

کاشانهٔ ما رفت بتاراج غمان خیز

از ناله مرغ چمن از بانگ اذان خیز

از گرمی هنگامه آتش نفسان خیز

اقبال لاهوری6

O sleeping bud, like a vigilant narcissus, arise,
Our dwelling has been plundered by sorrows, arise.
From the nightingale’s lament, from the call to prayer, arise,
From the heat of uproar, like the breath of fire, arise.
From deep slumber, heavy sleep, heavy sleep, arise,
From heavy sleep, arise!7

The first Central Asian film studio was the Russo-Bukharan Film Company Bukhkino, founded in 1924. At that time national borders were vague, and Bukhara was a spiritual and political centre for the diverse Central Asian population - including Tajiks. To this day Bukharans, as well as Uzbeks in Samarkand and some other towns, still using the Tajik language in their daily communication alongside the state language of Uzbek8. Establishing the first film studio in Bukhara was a significant act of modernisation for the whole of Central Asia. Other Central Asian film studios arose soon after, and just like Bukhkino, being financially, technically and ideologically dependent on Moscow produced exotic self-orientalising films intended to serve State propaganda.

Over almost seventy years in the USSR, Central Asian filmmakers were never able to liberate themselves from Moscow's influence. All screenplays had to be approved by the State Committee Goskino, and distribution depended on its approval. Cinemas were state-funded, and all arts education required students to follow the style of their course master – usually, a celebrated artist who did not encourage originality or authenticity amongst their students. But whereas Georgian filmmakers were allowed to make films in their native language, Central Asian ones were not - even in the case of important historical dramas. Bension [Boris] Kimyagarov’s (Sudba poeta / A Poet’s Fate,9 1959, USSR, Soviet Republic of Tajikistan) focused on the life of the 9th Century poet Abuabdullo Rudaki, widely hailed as the father of the Farsi/Tajik/Dari language - a story told in perfect Russian.

Boris Kimyagarov’s cult trilogy Skazanie o Rustame / Legend of Rustam (1971, USSR, Soviet Republic of Tajikistan), Rustam i Sukhrab / Rustam and Sukhrab (1972, USSR, Soviet Republic of Tajikistan) and Skazanie o Siiavushe / Legend of Siyavush (1977, USSR, Soviet Republic of Tajikistan) was based on the Persian epic poem Shahnameh, which is regarded by all Persian-speaking nations as defining their ethnonational cultural identity. Kimyagarov, who enjoyed the trust of the Moscow authorities, was known as the best-financed filmmaker in Soviet Tajikistan, allowing him to address potentially sensitive topics. The trilogy was produced entirely in Russian.

For Moscow, the cultural erasure of native languages amongst the Muslim population of Central Asia - the Persian language being the lingua franca among all Central Asians - also had a geopolitical aspect, because of the borders with Iran and Afghanistan.

For the generations beginning their education in Soviet schools and adult education classes, the literacy blackboard was wiped clean, ready for new writing. (Bacon 1966: 191).

In “Soviet Language Policy In Central Asia” Mark Dickens points out: “While there was no official language de jure, the heavily centralised Soviet system demanded a de facto official language for the purpose of governing the state, and only one language could fulfil that purpose effectively for the Soviets, namely Russian.” (Dickens 1988: 9) First Latinised and then Cyrillised, Farsi has been used under this Soviet Russification policy to the present day. When I try to explain to a Russian-speaking person (who thinks they have ‘Europeanised’ it for the better) the harm this does to a language with a completely different structure and phonetics, I invite them to read Russian words written in Latin letters. But the deepest pain lies beneath: Farsi is an imaginative, symbolic language. Every letter has a religious, mystical meaning. It is the language of a long poetic and allegoric system of thought. It is simply a different way of thinking, even down to the direction in which it is written: right to left.

The language you speak from birth makes you familiar with a certain rhythm that cannot be learnt otherwise. This birthright was denied to me. Today, even with the increasing focus on national languages in Central Asian countries, it would be presumptuous to assume that we will soon experience a renaissance in national forms of art. In fact, we are starting to see what Georgian philosopher Merab Mamardashvili called “falling out of life” (“vypadenie iz zhizni”).10 He writes:

We live in a space in which a monstrous mass of waste products of the production of thought and language has been accumulated. This space is heavily littered with by-products, secondary products of normal mental and spiritual activity, mythologised by their fragments. Therefore, even when we want to think, when there is an urge or a mental stimulus, nothing works out for us. Something is already broken in the language itself, at its very foundation. (Mamardashvili 1992)11

These ‘secondary products’ in Central Asian film are not related solely to spoken language, but also to the forms of artistic language that we use to express ourselves.

If we have slept for seventy years, then it is by no means the innocent sleep of a righteous man awakening in all his beauty and purity. After this dream, we metamorphosed and degenerated. After all, one can wake up as an insect, like one of Kafka's characters. (Mamardashvili 1992)12

Within the global and European film industries there is a lack of understanding and representation of Central Asian modes of storytelling. It reminds me of Kwasi Wiredu’s ideas about the language of the West, which he describes as being “an impediment to the ‘entrapped’ African philosophers” (Wiredu, quoted in Ofuasia and Dasaolu, 2017: 81).

The remote and immediate consequences of the steeping of African scholars in Western modes of philosophic tinkering is the experience of a delay in self-understanding and realization, since African scholars are consigned to grappling with concepts and discourses in a mode of philosophizing that is not primarily theirs. (Wiredu, quoted in Ofuasia and Dasaolu, 2017: 81)

Wiredu goes on to ask: “How can an authentic African philosophy be born from this methodology?”

Central Asian filmmakers, including myself, are excited to be represented at international festivals and film markets – mainly because of the promises of financing and lack of funding at home. We present our globally underrepresented stories with our decolonial agenda to the industry, and it gradually remoulds them into something more familiar to a Western audience. We happily go through the motions, stamping ourselves with the logotypes of prestigious mentorships, festivals and workshops, standing in line on the conveyor belt of Western dramaturgy.

Having studied screenwriting at a top Western film school, I expected to enter the world of storytelling liberated from my conservative Soviet education. But the process, including supervision from an experienced producer, left me with a compromised screenplay that I could no longer stand behind. I was in the same situation as in 2014 when I stopped writing poetry. Last year the painful déjà vu of having lost my original authorial voice forced me to start again from scratch.

Az on ki tu namurdaī, man niz zindaam
Dar qabzai hijoi tu oNo,vardaam panoh
Ore, faqat tu budaī dar hifzi joni man
Alhaq, faqat tu budaī manro panohgoh

As long as you are not dead, I too am alive
I have taken refuge in the grip of your syllables
Yes, it is only you who have sheltered my soul
Truly, it is only you who have provided me refuge.13

Tūkhtamysh Tūkhtaev

Trying to locate an indigenous language of Tajik or Central Asian cinema, I often think of Sergei Parajanov. Remarking on one of his finest works, he says: “Sayat Nova is like a Persian jewellery case. On the outside its beauty fills the eyes; you see the fine miniatures. Then you open it, and inside you see still more Persian accessories.” (Holloway 1996)

My first experience of Parajanov was at the age of 14; at that time I was very interested in alternative cinema, and had found DVDs of films by directors like Tarkovsky, Makhmalbaf, Wenders, Herzog, and others. Sayat Nova (The Colour of Pomegranates, 1969, USSR/Armenia) was among them. When I watched it, it struck me as the most Persian film I have ever seen. What I liked the most, besides its aesthetic quality, was its lack of narrative; it spoke to me through the gaps, just as the Persian poetry my dad used to read to me had done when I was a child.

Only recently, when I studied Parajanov’s work and influences more closely, did I understand why my teenage mind, at that time unsullied by mainstream Western cinema, had been so taken by it. It was a ‘jewel form’ of storytelling, redolent of the Persian-influenced world that stretches from India to the Caucasus.

Yuri Slezkine spoke of “the chronic ethnophilia of the Soviet regime” (Slezkine 1994: 415), describing ethnic elements being orientalised in Soviet film as “a sign of deviousness, weakness or negligence”:14

Symbols are rarely democratic and we will see that the fruit has always also been culturally appropriated by the dominating regimes governing the Caucasus. So, too, during Soviet Armenia, Parajanov was well aware of this. Keeping the symbol’s traditions alive would make him complicit to the nationalization policies of the regime. But there are other instances, in which he tries to subvert the fruit’s conventional meaning, pokes fun at it and explicitly associates it with violence and political control. This deconstructive use of the symbol sheds light on the director’s creative process. Parajanov has often been considered an inventor of unseen images. If most of his symbolic associations are negative reactions towards the kind of symbolic nonsense that came out of Soviet renationalization policies, his private associations can be seen as an attempt to create an alternative, uncorrupted symbolic universe. (Pfifer 2015)

Parajanov’s work was a resurrection in the cemetery of indigenous storytelling. But his stand against the monster of Soviet ideology came too late, and sadly he has so far been the only miracle-worker able to breathe life into the relics.

Unlike other Soviet filmmakers Parajanov operated within the Indo-Persian tradition, which he probably accessed through painting. As James Steffen notes: “the director frequently visited the collection of Persian art of The Art Museum of Georgia, and in an interview for the Soviet journal Ekran, he specifically quotes Qajar-era painting as an influence in this regard” (Steffen 2013: 232).

“Outtakes [from Sayat Nova] include shots of several nineteenth-century paintings of the collection in Tbilisi: Twins, Persian Dancer and Lover with a Servant. Similar paintings depicting pomegranates in the context of love scenes are also part of that collection. In Ashik Kerib (1988), Parajanov used these paintings during the opening titles and the engagement and wedding ceremony at the beginning and end of the film.” (Pfifer 2015).