Native Edition: reflections on indigenous cinema in the post-Soviet space

Exultation (dir. Arslan Manasyan, Kalmykia, 2022)

The RheinMain Award, goEast Film Festival’s annual short film competition, ran this year under the title “Native Edition”. Focusing on what the programmers termed the “indigenous and autonomous film cultures” of the post-Soviet space, the selection of seven films fit neatly into the festival’s stated aim of rethinking – indeed, “decolonising” – Eastern European cinema.

But what does “native” mean in the post-Soviet context, where competing imperial legacies meet complex local realities? The films selected for Native Edition – all of which are available to watch on Klassiki until 18 May – hail from autonomous republics of the Russian Federation (which encompasses 185 autochthonous populations overall), the ethnically diverse Central Asian states, and war-torn Ukraine, a multicultural society fighting for survival. How can these various backgrounds help us rethink questions of “local” and “global” as we reorient our understanding of post-Soviet film? We asked five of the RheinMain contenders about the label “native” as applied to their work, and what filmmakers and audiences can learn from these kinds of trends within the broader post-Soviet context.

Gulzat Egemberdieva, director of Neither on the Mountain, Nor in the Field (Kyrgyzstan)

My film originates from two concrete stories. In 2017, a group of Pamir Kyrgyz, led by khan Abdil Bait, came from the Pamir mountains in Afghanistan to the province of Naryn in Kyrgyzstan; I interviewed them a few days after. Khan Abdil Bait gave me footage, shot by himself and members of his family using a small Panasonic camera bought in Kabul. First, he wanted to use the video cassettes to shoot new footage but I protested and he trusted me that I could do something with it. The footage showed scenes from their daily life, including a marriage and a rider’s game, and scenes where the Afghan Kyrgyz spoke to their far-away relatives, who had emigrated to Turkey some ten years ago. The camera replaced written letters they were not able to write. This coming of the Pamir Kyrgyz to their “home country” felt somehow familiar.

The second story is my own. Many years ago, I also moved from my home village in the Issyk Kul region to my “home capital” Bishkek, where most people, including many Kyrgyz, spoke Russian, a language that I still had to learn. It didn’t feel like home. So, I decided to take a camera in my hands. As it had for the Pamir Kyrgyz, the camera became my pen. Are these experiences “decolonial”? To quote Mladena Tlostanova, “Decoloniality is an option, a stance, consciously chosen as a political, ethical, and epistemic positionality and an entry point into agency… It involves a conscious choice of how to interpret reality and how to act upon it.” In other words, it is a response to those who speak about us, look at us, and pretend to represent us. Neither on the Mountain nor on the Field uses footage shot by the Pamir Kyrgyz themselves. For them, this footage, in addition to serving as a medium of communication, is an attempt to represent themselves. Is it their “archive”? Does the word “archive” have any meaning for them? What about my film? To what extent is it “decolonial”? Only partially. Because it includes other points of view: that of my brother still residing in his home village; my own, speaking to him from afar; and of course, my own filming and editing. I hope that filmmakers and audiences from the broader post-Soviet context can learn from the “option” Tlostanova describes, and my attempt to make it my personal option, expressed on screen.

Neither on the Mountain, Nor in the Field (dir. Gulzat Egemberdieva, Kyrgyzstan, 2022)

Arslan Manasyan, director of Exultation (Kalmykia)

I made the film with the intention of benefiting people I know. For a long time already, I have been talking to real street kids whose fathers had been in prison since the ‘90s. Unfortunately, there are a lot of these teenagers in Kalmykia and I was fascinated by how dense and visceral their existence is. They don’t study, work or create. They just wallow in alcoholism and idleness. There is also a kind of freedom, a boundlessness, a liveliness to their existence. I felt youthfulness hitting my nose. Aortic rupture, a destructive life. Pointless and evil, and in proximity to death.

Perhaps their status as a “minority ethnic group” is among the reasons for the strange state of stagnation in which Kalmykia and its youth find themselves. I cannot assert with certainty, but I believe in the memory of generations, and perhaps the forced deportation of the entire Kalmyk nation from their native land for 13 years to deepest Siberia in the 1940s [produces] some subconscious trauma in contemporary Kalmyk culture. And in fact, this does not only apply to the Kalmyks: many smaller nations in Russia were deported under Stalin, such as the Chechens and Ingush. Our task is to move on, to try to rejoice, to let go of what must die in the local culture, and to preserve what can be useful for contemporary and future generations.

Exultation was made in the ghostly hope of setting these guys on some right path, though I don’t know what the right path is. I don’t know if I succeeded – they haven’t seen the film and I haven’t spoken to them for a long time, but I think films like this, made with a kind of intimacy, are especially valuable in today’s globalised world. I wanted to do something small and personal about my city and the people I know, but it seems it could be interesting to someone else as well. Films made at the ends of the earth, in places no one needs or knows, are especially interesting and important, because they can convey life in its original and incomprehensible manifestations.

Films made at the ends of the earth, in places no one needs or knows, are especially interesting and important, because they can convey life in its original and incomprehensible manifestations

Vladlena Sandu, director of No Nation Without Culture (Chechnya)

It was important for me and the cinematographer, Liza Popova, to create a document about the imperialist regime in modern Chechnya and work on the decolonisation of the Chechen Republic. I want my Chechen friends to live in a free world and my friends from other territories colonised by Russia to find freedom.

The genocide and colonisation of the Chechen people by the Russian Empire were initiated long before the Soviet Union. In 1944, during the Soviet regime, around 500,000 Chechens and Ingush were deported to Kazakhstan via a special operation called “Chechevitsa”. Over 100,000 Chechens and more than 23,000 Ingush died during the deportation, and their culture was completely destroyed, including their original writing system. The parents of all my friends and classmates were born in Kazakhstan. When they returned to Chechnya after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they began to fight for freedom and independence. In 1994, the Russian Federation started its first colonial war, naming it a “special military operation to establish constitutional order” and creating an image of Chechens as terrorists. This is a lie! My family and I witnessed that war, and I am making my full-length documentary debut, Memory, about those events. We came to Chechnya to film it in 2021. In our free time, we shot No Nation Without Culture in a guerrilla style. We filmed it through the car’s tinted windows.

No Nation Without Culture (dir. Vladlena Sandu, Chechnya, 2022)

Kamila Rustambekova, director of Tale (Uzbekistan)

My debut film highlights same-sex relationships, a topic with limited representation in our region for various reasons. The native context is vital in Tale, as same-sex relationships are criminalised in Uzbekistan, which is crucial for understanding the story. Uzbekistan, similar to other Central Asian countries (except Turkmenistan), still enforces Article 120 of the Criminal Code, which has banned same-sex relations since Soviet times. Furthermore, Uzbekistan is preparing to adopt an Information Code prohibiting “propaganda of unnatural same-sex relationships”, echoing a similar law in Russia. I want people in my country to feel safe, regardless of their sexual orientation or preferences: it is a fundamental necessity.

I believe that each filmmaker decides whether to work within a national context or not. I choose to work with what I know best, and accurate and ethical representation is always at the forefront of my work. Most of the actors in Tale are non-professional, so they are a genuine part of the local context. It was essential for me to present the reality truthfully and treat the people and subjects with respect, considering the challenges they have already faced.

I can see a problem with the term “native”. I can easily imagine this term being used and manipulated by imperialist powers, or, for example, in film industry marketing. The term could be more radical if we could also talk about “colonial filmmaking”

Sashko Protyah, director of Khayt (Ukraine)

I’m a white male who does not speak the languages of any ethnic minorities, so, strictly speaking, my opinion should not be taken into consideration. If there is something to be said anyway, I admit I can see a problem with the term “native”. I can easily imagine this term being used and manipulated by imperialist powers, or, for example, in film industry marketing. The term could be more radical if we could also talk about “colonial filmmaking”. We don’t have festivals of “Western European cinema” anywhere because this cinema is ubiquitous, and no special terms to explain it to wider audiences are needed. But I would prefer to ask someone more knowledgeable about such things. For me, the most interesting filmmaker who works with indigenous cultures and politics is [Native American director] Sky Hopinka.

Embracing decolonisation in Eastern Europe as an agenda at European festivals seems to be embarrassingly too late. [As for] Khayt, it was only the beginning of a big project that we planned with the director and sound artist Vasyl Lyah and North Azov Greek musicians and poets. Last spring, we were planning to film a music documentary. Now all of this is just ruins and thousands of people have been killed, and all we can do is donate fees for screenings of Khayt to a small community of displaced language activists who are trying to save (or at least to document) the unique culture of the Urum and Roumean people.

Mariana Hristova is a Bulgarian film critic, cultural journalist, and programmer, with a special interest in the cinema of the Balkan countries and Eastern. She is a regular contributor to Cineuropa, Talking Shorts, and, a holder of’s film critic award, and member of FIPRESCI. She also acts as a Program Adviser at Sheffield DocFest.

Explore the full RheinMain shorts programme here as part of our partnership with goEast Film Festival.