Uzbekistan: Film Industry Flourishes After a Decade of Post-Soviet Decline
Film industry is flourishing in Uzbekistan as low-budget movies starring famous singers and utilizing heart-wrenching plots are gaining popularity with the Uzbek audiences. However, widespread copyright piracy and shortage of investment remain major roadblocks for the industry’s development.
According to the 2008 statistics of UzbekKino, the state agency overseeing the Uzbek film industry, there are close to fifty private film studios in the country. In 2008 they produced 48 films, compared with 30 in 2006, 20 in 2005, and a dozen produced between 1991 and 2000.
Uzbek TV soap operas modeled after Latin American and Korean ones are also becoming popular across Uzbekistan. In November 2008, Uzbek filmmakers instituted an annual ceremony to award best films and actors. The current trend marks a stark contrast to the early 1990s, a period when the Uzbek film industry was on the verge of collapse as lavish Soviet state subsidies abruptly ended.
Most Uzbek films rely on low budgets and heart wrenching plots to attract viewers. The 2005 box-office hit, "An American Groom," fits this genre. A young Uzbek-American visits his grandfather’s village in a remote part of Uzbekistan only to fall in love with an Uzbek girl from a conservative family. The girl rejects his charms and refuses to marry him. The American wins her over only after he masters nuances of Uzbek traditions and his affluent grandfather generously gifts one million dollars to her family.
“Super Kelinchak,” (Super Daughter-in-Law), a 2008 box office hit, tells the story of a posh city woman who falls for and marries a man from a family where conservative values run strong and wives are subordinated to their in-laws. In the course of the ensuing power struggle with her feisty mother-in-law, the city woman learns how to wear traditional clothes, milk cows and respect family traditions.
Sobirjon Rahimov, an assistant film producer based in Tashkent, told Ferghana.ru that film directors often pay out-of-pocket to produce such movies. “It costs about 30 to 50 thousand [US] dollars to make [a film], but the return can be three time bigger.” According to Rahimov, it takes less then three months to complete a film in Uzbekistan.
Rahimov said that directors often invite famous pop singers, comedians and TV personalities to star in major roles because their popularity attracts viewers. An A-list actor is paid $3000 for a major role, while people who have acting aspirations pay cash themselves to play supporting roles.
Uzbek film critics say that in seeking quick profits, most films lack quality. In February 2009, Jahongir Kasymov, deputy director of UzbekKino, told Uzbek state newspaper Xalk Suzi journalists:
“Not all films deserve high awards. Sometimes, the authors pay attention to the form, but not to the content… Unfortunately, the level of their art and professionalism is quite low.”
According to Rahimov, one reason for low quality is that large investments in good quality movies do not pay. Rahimov suggested that movie producers lose a large share of their profits to movie piracy – an endemic problem in Uzbekistan. Across Uzbekistan, bootleg stands selling pirated movies abound. According to Rahimov, Uzbek film producers appeals to the state to crack down on movie piracy have been largely unsuccessful.
The Uzbek government has shown some willingness to support film industry. Each year, the government provides UzbekKino funds for six feature films and several documentaries. However, according to Rahimov, these funds do not reach private studios. Instead, UzbekKino tends to spend these funds for costly projects that promote Uzbek state ideology. For example, “Tamerlane,” a 2003 UzbekKino production depicting a medieval conqueror – Uzbekistan’s current flavor for national hero - flopped at the box office despite its big budget.
In 2002, several film directors sent a letter to Uzbek government, accusing the UzbekKino leadership of mismanagement and corruption. The change in UzbekKino leadership did not resolve problems of the film industry.
Movie theaters too are inaccessible for the country’s primarily rural population.
“They used to play Indian movies in our theater in the Soviet days. But nobody goes to see movies. People watch movies at home,” a resident in the central city of Jizzah told Ferghana.ru.
Many Uzbek viewers seem to prefer watching films at homes on TV or on DVD players to save costs. One can buy a pirated DVD disk containing 10 films for less than two dollars at any street newspaper stand. A movie ticket for a theater in Tashkent costs four thousand sums. Cheap Chinese DVD players fill bazaars.
But there is some hope that things may change. Small makeshift movie theaters for ten or fifteen people are popping up in some Uzbek towns. Some of these theaters feature Dolby Surround systems and popcorn stands. Although still playing pirated movies, they are attracting young viewers.