Bakhtyar Khudojnazarov’s Brother and the search for modern Tajik cinema

Firuz Sabsaliev and Timur Tursunov in Brother (dir. Bakhtyar Khudojnazarov, 1989)

Bakhtyar Khudojnazarov (1965-2015) occupies a unique position in the history of Tajik cinema. As Tajikistan emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was quickly plunged into a brutal civil war that lasted from 1992-97. In this troubled period, Khudojnazarov was the sole representative of its struggling film industry to receive international recognition, winning a Silver Lion in Venice for his sophomore feature Kosh Ba Kosh in 1993 and further acclaim with the comedy Luna Papa in 1999.

Khudojnazarov helped to define independent Tajik film, but his career had already begun in the dying days of the Soviet system. His 1989 feature debut Brother has recently been restored thanks to the efforts of Veit Helmer, a German filmmaker and friend of Khudojnazarov; this restored version is streaming on Klassiki from 12 September – 5 October as part of our partnership with Samizdat Eastern European Film Festival 2023. This Huckleberry Finn-style adventure follows two brothers – teenage Farukh and seven-year-old “Ponchik”, or “donut” – on a train ride across the plains and mountains of Tajikistan in search of their estranged father, who works in a sanatorium on the Afghan border. A touching and rarely seen snapshot of a nation on the verge of definitive change, Brother is also a moving evocation of childhood and adolescence.

To discuss the significance of the film for Tajik cinema, its impact in the early nineties, and the state of filmmaking in the country today, Samizdat co-curator Ilia Ryzhenko sat down for a special conversation with Anisa Sabiri and Firuz Sabsaliev. Anisa is the co-curator of Samizdat’s Central Asian programming and the director of previous festival title Rhythms of Lost Time (2021); she has also written for Klassiki on the issues facing Tajik cinema in the post-Soviet period. Firuz plays the lead role of Farukh in Brother and brings a unique personal perspective on the film and Khudojnazarov’s personality. What follows is a condensed and abridged version of the recorded conversation: Klassiki subscribers can watch the full version here.


Anisa, you chose Brother to represent Central Asia at the festival this year, and from our past conversations I know that this is a very dear and important film for you. Could you tell us briefly why it’s so interesting for you?

Anisa Sabiri: Well, firstly because Khudojnazarov is one of only a few leading directors from Tajikistan who symbolise the new wave of not just Tajik film, but Central Asian film as a whole. Brother marked the start of his career as a famous director. And I think that a key factor of this film is that it was shot when Tajikistan was at the beginning of new era of so-called independence – which in reality was different from that of other post-Soviet countries who had seized independence from Russian influence at the time. Because in Tajikistan, a civil war broke out. And it seems to me that Brother is a film that reflects or perhaps even predicts the isolation of the Tajik people, their search for themselves, for their identity, the problem of brotherhood – which both exists, in one sense, and which is complex and difficult in another. In a sense, we’re all still riding that train along with Ponchik and his brother.

Brother is a film that reflects or perhaps even predicts the isolation of the Tajik people, their search for themselves, for their identity, the problem of brotherhood. In a sense, we’re all still riding that train along with Ponchik and his brother

Firuz, I want to continue on that topic. Can you tell us a little about that period for you, how you came to appear in the film, and how the early nineties felt for you in Tajikistan?

Firuz Sabsaliev: I ended up in the film by chance. I was a student at the Moscow Film School together with Bakhtyar. We got to know each other there. Since we were compatriots, he came to our exams; he’d already graduated and was already preparing this film. He reached out to us. The working title of the film was The Little White Cloud. Apparently, he clocked me at the exam, and we had a very brief conversation. We introduced ourselves, and he said that he was planning on shooting that summer, a feature-length film. And that he wanted me to audition. At the time I had no pretensions about cinema, I was just a first-year student, I’d only been studying for half a year, and of course, out of respect for my elder, I said yes, I’ll be ready. And that was that.

When summer came around, I went on my holidays, and I got a call from Tajikfilm inviting me to a film test. I went to Dushanbe, shot some camera tests. It was all very serious and strict. There were lots of candidates there. I tried out alongside three different Ponchiks, and apart from myself there were three or four Farukhs. So, it was a matter of chance, but luckily for me I got the winning ticket, as an actor who was just starting out, who had no grounding, no experience. After I got involved in this story, I experienced a kind of awakening.

Picking up on what Anisa was saying, I can say that this was at the beginning of that pivotal moment in the life of the people and the system more broadly. That was the start. We had only just taken our seats on that train with Brother, while the history of the country was unfolding, and all these life rules, all these conditions, these programmes were disappearing. In my youth I’d never thought about these things.


What stands out for me in the film, naturally, is the wonderful second act, when the characters are travelling on that train. But I’m probably more moved by the third act, particularly one of the last scenes: when the father falls in the lake and insists that only his own son come to his aid. He’s trying to create a dynamic, trying to make his son care for him, even though he hasn’t given him anything at all up to that point. Anisa, I wanted to hear a little about your interpretation of the film, which scenes stand out for you the most.

AS: Well, that same scene, really, because I think that there’s a metaphor there on Bakhtyar’s part with the Soviet Union in the role of the father. I don’t know, maybe Firuz can comment on whether that was intentional. But knowing about Bakhtyar, and you can see this in his other films I think, he had a close bond, a kind of spiritual bond with the Soviet Union. He suffered for living through the collapse of that country. I think that in this scene the father is like the Soviet Union, that homeland that has departed, and it’s as if these children, his sons, have to save him. It’s also a metaphor for the need to save the children, the Tajik people in that moment – to save the nation and bring it back. I don’t know whether Firuz agrees with all this, but it seems to me that it’s a model that carries over into films like Kosh Ba Kosh and Luna Papa in particular. Firuz, what do you think?

Firuz Sabsaliev and Timur Tursunov in Brother (dir. Bakhtyar Khudojnazarov, 1989)

FS: You know, I think that the relationships between children and fathers are universal. Everything starts from there. And then we are an Eastern people – we have a culture of respect between old and young, father and son. So, in a sense, this creates the figure of the father, it forms his personality. In his films Bakhtyar wrote about and spoke about his own life experiences. In the main, in Brother, these relationships are Bakhtyar’s own, they’re those of his father and younger brother. In general, the relationship between fathers and children is an eternal problem, it’s never resolved. And so, they return again and again in his films: first in Brother, then in Kosh Ba Kosh, then in Luna Papa on a bigger scale.

As for fathers, how to put it. Again, it’s about education. You can’t just apply pressure. With time, you realise that you can’t do everything yourself, not for long. My two favourite scenes in Brother are the scene on the roof with the father after they go swimming, and the scene where I run away from my little brother; really, I’m abandoning him, you could put it like that. That scene with the father, when we fight, it means a lot. At that time, that was the message society was receiving. And to go against one’s father – that’s not in our culture, that’s not how we were raised. Nonetheless, Bakhtyar ran with that theme because that’s what was happening then. Then there was a total collapse, it wasn’t just that we no longer respected our fathers: during the civil war there was such chaos. That lack of education and respect, what did it all lead to?

Really, as cinema, Brother is quite simple. It’s about two brothers on a train. But if you dig into it, it contains a whole philosophy about the relationship between fathers, children, brothers. It’s very difficult to communicate with your family, those close to you. A throwaway remark can be so painful that it’s better to remain silent. These were painful ideas to deal with. Relationships with one’s parents, with mum and dad, and the relationships between the parents themselves, which reflect back on the children. All of this troubled him constantly.

I understood more with every film, from working with him, talking to him. We didn’t speak much: mostly we talked when we were working, which was when we could feel and understand one another. I’m talking about myself. Bakhtyar had plenty of people to talk to, he met people from all over the world. But for me his was a kind of master, my teacher, my older brother, my friend. He was everything for me. In film he was my teacher, in life he was my friend. He was the kind of person, God willing, that everyone should have in their life. I feel his absence very strongly, I really miss him. But sooner or later we’ll all meet again, because all roads lead us back to those we love.

It’s very difficult to communicate with your family, those close to you. A throwaway remark can be so painful that it’s better to remain silent. These were painful ideas to deal with

Firuz, you spoke there about the film issuing a plea to society, to society’s norms at that time, and also about Farukh’s plea to his own father. I wanted to ask you about how the film was received in Tajikistan. I know that it also attracted a lot of attention from abroad.

FS: When it came out? I was in the second year of my studies; I wasn’t in Tajikistan. But it was shown on television a lot. At that time in a censored version. Because back then there was still a central television station. It was the moment when they’re on the train and Galina’s breast is in shot. You can barely see it. They cut that moment out. And they took it out of circulation periodically. Because at that time on the whole only Soviet films were shown, all those films that had been made during the Soviet period. And that period marked the start of contemporary filmmaking.

When I came to Dushanbe for the holidays three or four years later, everyone was talking about Brother. Some people asked me: “Listen, what’s it about? What was all that?” Which is to say, our audience was encountering a new tendency in Tajik cinema. That was important. Bakhtyar’s starting point was national film. This national history. As for now, they probably don’t have good copies, and Bakhtyar’s films aren’t shown or talked about, especially here. We have one channel where sometimes, occasionally, they mention him. But in general, it’s as though he never existed. It’s a very sad story.

Firuz Sabsaliev and Timur Tursunov in Brother (dir. Bakhtyar Khudojnazarov, 1989)

Bakhtyar could be very fierce on set: he was how he needed to be. If you promised him something, you had to deliver. That’s what he was like. For us, it’s work, but for him it was his whole life. He had nothing else. He said to me once: “Firuz, we’re going to finish shooting now, you’ll turn off your phone and disappear. You’ll go back to your hotel, go about your business. You’re back on set tomorrow at 6 in the morning. But it’s not like that for me. Now I have to go and talk to the actors, and there are a lot of them. Then I need to think about how to shoot tomorrow’s scenes. Then I need to ring my producer in Germany to discuss my next project. Firuz, directing is not a profession for me, it’s my way of life. Remember that.” And he was right. That’s why I tried to do what was needed. To do what he asked. Because on set, you need to have one leader. And that’s what he always was for me. I was always sure that whatever he said needed to be done. And when I watched back what I’d done on the monitor, then all my words, doubts, questions flew away. I just did my job and that was that. And I took great pleasure in that.


Anisa, can you tell us a little about the state of contemporary filmmaking in Tajikistan? It’s a very open question, you can answer it how you wish.

I think there are two blocs, two groups of filmmakers. On the one hand, there are independent projects with very small budgets. They are quite literally homemade, and as a rule they are distributed either on YouTube or occasionally at festivals. On the other hand, there’s what we might call more industrial cinema, made according to more “Soviet” standards, or “Russian” standards, these days. They are financed by the Tajikfilm studio, but they are subject to censorship; they get distribution through Tajikfilm, that is, via state apparatuses, so they are totally controlled by the state. Correspondingly, these films are shown in theatres. We don’t have many film theatres, so very few people see these films either. Or they get shown on television. As a rule, they’re in Tajik. We’re talking about a few features a year. These films are about social questions that interest the government, they have clear messages: about how to behave, defined social roles and norms that are relayed to society. In crude terms, it’s a more propagandistic cinema.

There are also some filmmakers who try to work abroad, who live abroad, but who deal with topics that relate to Tajikistan. There aren’t many of them, and that kind of film also tends to end up at festivals, it’s more connected to international industry. But that’s about it.

Watch Brother on Klassiki from 12 September – 5 October as part of our partnership with Samizdat Eastern European Film Festival.