Saodat Ismailova on her film 40 Days and Central Asian cinema traditions

Saodat Ismailova is one of a new generation of artists from Central Asia who came of age in the post-Soviet era. Born in Uzbekistan in 1981, she has lived for nearly two decades in Italy and France. She is currently working on her second feature film Barazgh. Klassiki founder Justine Waddell and curator Olga Doletskaya sat down with Saodat to discuss independent filmmaking in Central Asia, moving from documentaries to feature films, representing female histories on-screen and her future plans.

Rushana Sadikova in 40 Days of Silence (2014)

O: Saodat, this is such a beautiful film. I know you tried to film in Uzbekistan originally and it didn’t happen. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how the film came to be?

S: It was an independent film, supported by international filmmaking funds, with no Central Asian support or support from Uzbekistan. This made the process quite challenging, going from fund to fund, from producer to producer.

Another major difficulty for me was the absence of a younger film community in Uzbekistan, that look at the nature of film not from the point of view of ideology or certain state ideas, but rather from the point of view of film as the author’s voice. What you can do in independent films is to develop, test and experiment with image, sound, time, space. So making the film was like walking blind, a long blind walk.

Actually, it was an incredible experience. Uzbekistan back then, this was 2010, it was a different regime. Cinema was kept under a very close watch. It still is because the thing ex-Soviet countries clearly understand is that cinema is very accessible to a population. You need special permission to film in Uzbekistan, you have to go through certain bureaucratic procedures. I didn’t pass these, so they didn’t let me film. I never understood why. I managed to get their decision in writing, but the explanations were not clear. So, we went to film in Tajikistan. That was really nice, I have to say.


O: There are some amazing locations and amazing exteriors. What was the casting process like? How many of the actors were professional actors?

S: It took a long time to find the main character Bibicha. We started in Uzbekistan but when the production moved to Tajikistan, we moved with it.

It was quite exhausting, but we managed to find Rushana Sadikova. We cast her because she was going through a very complicated personal moment in her life too. When we were trying some scenes, I was relying on her improvisation and her personal experience, the feelings she was going through. So, that’s why Rushana was the right girl.

And the aunt, the actress who played her, Barohad Shukurova, studied at VGIK. She’s an actress and her life experience matched the role. She studied in Moscow, came back and was forced to marry. All her diplomas, photographs, everything related to her background of studying in Moscow and wanting to become an actress, were all burned by her husband. She accepted her marriage and then she revolted against that. She divorced which in this traditional society is not accepted. She continued to pursue her career as an actor. There was a feeling of her being an outcast. This was, again, very close to the character that I wrote. So then we just went to that house and filmed together. The script was written, I had a script doctor, Mike Makowsky, who helped me tune the script towards what people would expect from cinema from that part of the world.


J: You were encouraged to write what people expect from cinema from this part of the world. What do you mean by that?

S: Yes. I worked on the screenplay twice at the Screenwriters Lab at Sundance. With my full respect and admiration, I wrote the kind of cinema that international audiences understand. We all get this cinema; that it is inspiring and that that inspiration drives us to make films and to watch films. Then halfway through, I said to my producers, “I have completed this in 15 days, now for 15 days I will improvise.”

I reduced the team, I took away the artificial light. And we improvised. When I got back to Paris, the editor started editing from the screenplay. And I couldn’t understand what was happening. You know, when you have that feeling that there’s something wrong. I would look at the edit, and it would look totally fake. I couldn’t believe what I saw. And that was because we were following the script.

I did a few scenes, they were not in the script, I was just looking at footage. It was about creating a mood, creating a sensation, creating a rhythm or even a smell. Then I worked with another editor, Benjamin Mirguet. This time, I was very clear about what I wanted. When we started this conversation, I joked that this film is not an easy watch. I think it is because it’s a film that raises a lot of questions. And I think it’s a film that has a lot of imperfections. I’m not saying that it is wrong, maybe that’s what creates its language.

Shot from Qyrq Qyz, produced by the Aga Khan Music Initiative.

I’ve been working with traditional music from Central Asia for a long time. One day, I began to think about the phenomenon of cinema in Central Asia. It was brought by the Soviets.

And then I always had this question, why do the Kazakh and Kyrgyz, why do they make films so much easier? Why are their films read by audiences so much more easily? I started comparing this phenomenon with music. Because music is the code of any culture. You can read the way your mind is structured through the music. The Nomads have music that is horizontal because it’s all about movement. They move from point A to B to C and there is action.

What about the Uzbeks? Our art is very hermetic. We are urban, we are more traditional, we are more religious. Now, speaking about Uzbek music, makom, when you think about the nature of this music, it’s never narrative. It’s cyclical music, really: you give one sensation, another sensation, a sentence, another sensation. It’s very demanding, you don’t enter this music easily, it requires an effort from the listener. Once you enter, then it starts working. For me, probably there is something about that in Uzbek film. And that’s where I started to feel confident.

I said, “I should let it go, I should not be scared, I should follow this thought of verticality and of not saying directly but giving sensations and my audience can read or associate their own experience and feelings.” That was what I was thinking when I was at the editing table; the screenplay that I had written disappeared.


O: As you said, once the viewer enters, the film starts working on you. That’s exactly how I felt about the film, you populate the film with your own meaning, you start reflecting on different aspects of the story.

S: The major part of the film came out of the improvisations that we filmed, that’s where the magic was. Maybe this is my nature, again, but if there are 20 crew in a little room and there’s this grandmother from a village…

There is the question of gender. A woman and a lot of men, it doesn’t work, there is no magic, they get intimidated, they feel shy, they aren’t relaxed. These are the things that should be thought through in filming from the beginning. Another incredible support for me was the sound and Jakob Kierkegaard, the composer. When I asked him to record the score for the film, he started reacting to my characters and the story. Then it slowly started taking shape, moving forwards. I should say that sound for me is essential for my work; to build it.


J: You have made 10 films about Uzbek music. So, can you tell us a little bit about becoming a filmmaker?

S: I studied filmmaking in Tashkent, but my father is a DOP, he studied in VGIK.


J: So you grew up on film sets?

S: Yes, I grew up on film sets, knowing the older generation of filmmakers from my childhood. But since I had good English and Maths, my parents said I should become an economist.

I went to study Economics for a year, and I went crazy [laughs]. Then I went to the Art Institute. Of course, I had a really clear idea that what I wanted to do was 5 years in Tashkent, and then go to VGIK for my Master’s. But then Marco Müller was producing a film with Djamshed Usmonov. It was filmed on the Tajik border, but their base was in Tashkent. Marco saw my short films from university, and he invited me to come to Fabrica, the Benetton Communication Research center in Treviso, Italy. I made a documentary there called Aral, Fishing on an Invisible Sea (2004). And then I got this commission from the Aga Khan Music Programme.

They would say, “go and film this musician or that.” It was an incredible experience for me because I was already out of Uzbekistan but I could go back inside my culture, already with different values and thoughts, reflecting on the value and meaning of it for me. And I could travel through Central Asia. This was when I started understanding the fact that Central Asia is one big region, the borders are an invention. It was all delineated during Soviet times. And even then, looking at films of Ali Khamraev or Shuhrat Abbosov, they had the freedom to invite the best actors from Kyrgyzstan, a DOP from Moscow, etc. After we became independent, we became these small countries that are separate from each other. We have separates from each other more than from Moscow. But now I understand clearly that if we don’t develop this capacity of working within the region, we lose a richness that we could have. It’s related to actors, to makeup, lighting, everything. This is a part of cinema which is related to my culture. It’s reflected in my cinematic practice, in my artwork. Art is where I really started expanding the sensation that there is one whole region of Central Asia. This happened thanks to those documentary films.

Still from Zukhra, Saodat Ismailova's 32-minute video installation at the 2013 Venice Art Biennale

J: One of the outstanding characteristics of 40 Days is, obviously, the way it was filmed. The colours and composition. How did you find your DOP? Do you think that your appreciation of how to frame comes from your dad, or is your own filming style something that comes from you and your experiences outside of Uzbekistan?

S: One supports the other. My brother who’s 8 years older than me is a painter. I grew up next to him while he was painting and drawing. He brought home the films of Parajanov. Or Tarkovsky. Of course, my father created the foundation, and then it was my brother. And then, of course, going abroad.

But I know now that the feeling of composition, for me, is essential to my filmmaking, and sometimes it can be too aesthetic. But that’s how it is, that’s how I see it naturally, how I frame naturally. With Benito Strangio, my DOP, it was a really nice experience. We would sometimes disagree, sometimes he would say ‘go and frame yourself then!’ and then I filmed it [laughs] but that was in mutual understanding. When I had artificial light, it all looked fake for me. I guess that came from my documentary background.

It was like porridge. Everything mixed, me not yet being able to put up the walls and to define my language. Of course, if I could, I would work with a DOP from a Soviet background. I think Soviet cinematography is outstanding. I was thinking about Alisher Hamidhodzhaev, he was the DOP for German’s Jr Paper Soldier. He’s from Uzbekistan. I would love to work with him. It would be nice to bring Alisher back to Uzbekistan. And he’s so good at documentaries and hand-held cameras. Maybe one day.


J: So a natural question follows, do you have future plans to film in Uzbekistan? Can we ask what they are?

S: I have a deadline in mid-May to finish my second screenplay. I’ve been writing for a really long time [laughs].

40 Days was a complicated project, it was not something I could have jumped to another film from. It was something I needed to go through and digest, but I never thought it was going to take so long. Then I started doing art projects without producers, without money or crew [laughs]. It’s a wonderful way to work. It grew and suddenly my practice went two ways: as an artist and a filmmaker. Maybe it’s a cycle, now art is more active and as soon as I go back to my second feature film, I hope film will overtake. It’s a road movie, it’s a love story [laughs]. I really would like to film it in Central Asia, really forgetting about the countries, film ex-Soviet cities, film the mountains.

Scene from 40 Days of Silence (2014)

J: Another aspect of the film that I was really intrigued by was the use of nature. It was almost like out of Thomas Hardy’s writing. There’s a beautiful sequence where the goats come and pull at the trees, for example. I wanted to ask you about your relationship with nature as a filmmaker, how you use nature.

S: I think this is related to the femininity of nature, that we women are so related to nature. I think so, I don’t know. But there is an absolute connection between the awakening of nature and the way it maybe influences us. The moon is there for us always, we are under the total control of the moon [laughs].

I think the feminine world in general is more embedded into nature. I feel it from the mythical world too. The world of tales is also a feminine world, it is related to nature and to eternal time, there is no time, it is there always. I think nature and these archetypes, tales, knowledge that’s transmitted from generation to generation is always embedded into nature, I see it as a whole. Also, in this film, this girl goes through a vow of silence. Her mood and sensation is a direct connection to nature. It would be possible to develop it more, but already the monologue or a memory of a grandmother on a landscape where she remembers her life… We tried to edit it differently but as soon as I went out to nature and I had a long panorama, the female story then overwhelms nature, the landscape. It has a different meaning and it affects you differently. Yes, there is a direct connection to nature, I know it from my short works as well. I cannot explain it but I think with shots of nature I can really tell a bit part of my story, the storytelling helps.

Scene from 40 Days of Silence (2014)

O: It makes me think about that scene when the girl is looking through the passports of male relatives and the male histories are in the official documents, but the female histories are in the myths and the tales, all of those oral histories.

S: I think history as we understand it is totally related to a male world. It has a systematic nature. For us, we can tell our story in 25 different ways depending on how the moon influences us and I think that’s beautiful [laughs].

I think that’s where it gets into a bigger issue. This patriarchal society tries to control and experiences a certain fear of female nature. And there’s a rope in this garden, actually, this is related to a certain borderline state. When one makes a vow of silence, in fact, everything gets activated inside of you: fears, doubts. Of course, fears normally get visualized by stories that you have listened to, folk stories, tales. This is one of the stories I’ve heard, following this rope that appeared out of nowhere in the garden. Like an umbilical cord that she follows. Because the relationship with her mother is not that present in the film, so there is a sense of growing up but trying to leave the body from the mother, get detached. It’s about creating these worlds that raise from the inside of us when we take the vow of silence.

This ritual is widely practised still in Central Asia. It’s not accepted by the Orthodox society, because it’s pre-Islamic. It’s interesting that it’s practised both by men and women. Often it is related to depression, mental disturbance, traumatic experience as healing. A lot of girls to whom I spoke to that went through the vow of silence had traumatic experiences related to a man. Sometimes getting married off at 15-years-old. The teen period is so fragile, so sensible and these poor girls when they are married off with men at this early age, it’s an absolute disturbance. So you heal yourself. You heal your demons, you heal your own strength. I think once you go out of it, you are capable to handle your environment and yourself. In the Western world that is done by therapists but there it doesn’t exist. They use the experience of the vow of silence. And I should also say that the original idea was inspired by an image of my cousin. She was married off to the South of Uzbekistan, in a village. I knew that she lost a child. But she had such dignity, she was full of dignity. For me, she was so beautiful, she would shine. But she would always be silent. There was no emotion, you wouldn’t understand what was behind that. And that image started the film.