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The shadow of war A generation of filmmakers who grew up during Tajikistan’s civil war tell their country’s stories
Story by Kayti Burt for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.
Tajikistan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, only to plunge immediately into a bloody civil war. The armed conflict between pro-government forces and the groups that came to form the United Tajik Opposition began in the spring of 1992. Within a year, the hostilities had claimed upwards of 20,000 lives. By the time the UN brokered a peace agreement in 1997, the country was devastated; scores more had died and as many as 1.2 million people had been displaced. (The death toll remains disputed to this day, with some estimates placing it at more than 150,000 people.) In the 26 years since the war’s end, an entire generation has grown up in its shadow. As Central Asia analyst Bruce Pannier wrote on the peace deal’s 20th anniversary in 2017, “the people who lived through [the war] remember it so well that most would endure anything their government does if it would mean Tajikistan would not fall again into civil war.” The country’s authoritarian regime, which Emomali Rahmon has ruled as president since 1994, understands this perfectly well. Indeed, the authorities have gone to great lengths to shape the narrative surrounding both the war and the ensuing peace, blaming outside forces for “imposing” the conflict and crediting Rahmon with ending the bloodshed.
For scholars, journalists, and creatives in Tajikistan, deviating from the official line on the war is taboo. But this hasn’t stopped people from engaging with the not-so-distant past. For The Beet, culture writer Kayti Burt reports on how a generation of filmmakers who grew up amid Tajikistan’s civil war are trying to tell their country’s stories.
This article first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.
Growing up in 1990s and aughts-era Tajikistan, Anisa Sabiri accessed her favorite films via VHS tapes and DVDs shared among friends. “The main films that I was watching were Soviet films or Russian films because that was what we had on TV,” says Sabiri over a call from London, where she now lives. “And so these really specially curated films that I was getting from friends, those were the ones that made me want to become a filmmaker.” To Sabiri, these films — the works of Andrei Tarkovsky and Mohsen Makhmalbaf — were “like jewels.” They showed her something beyond the state-controlled programming on local television.
Sabiri was born in 1991, the year Tajikistan became independent amid the Soviet Union’s collapse, and shortly before the outbreak of civil war in 1992. The war lasted five years, killing tens of thousands of people, displacing 10–20 percent of the country’s population, and destroying 20 percent of its schools. It’s a period that looms large for those who grew up during and in the aftermath of the conflict — though not one that can always be explicitly depicted in Tajik film. Tajikistan’s authoritarian government systematically restricts freedom of expression through censorship and intimidation, and tightly controls the narrative about the civil war.
Sabiri’s 2018 short film The Crying of Tanbur is set in 1993, shortly after the start of the war; it follows Khafez, a 11-year-old boy whose journalist father is killed on the frontlines, and whose mother is struggling to feed her two children. While the project was ultimately shot and screened in Tajikistan, state censors initially threatened its production.“The director [of the film license board] wrote on my screenplay, [by] hand, that we didn’t have a civil war, so we can’t make a film on the civil war,” Sabiri recalls. “That’s such an absurd thing to say.”
The response left Sabiri scrambling to rewrite the script in just two weeks, to remove overt references to the civil war in order to go forward with production in Tajikistan as planned. “It was so stressful and, to be honest, until the very last day, we didn't know if maybe we would be stopped from filming.”
Muhiddin Muzaffar’s 2022 feature film Fortune is also set in 1993. Inspired by his own childhood during the civil war, it follows Kahhor and Mannon, two longtime best friends living in northern Tajikistan whose relationship is torn apart by a winning lottery ticket. The film, which was partially funded by the state production company Tajikfilm, never explicitly mentions the war. But the director speaks openly about the historical backdrop when discussing his personal inspiration for the film.
“It was both a fun childhood and a difficult one,” Muzaffar, who was born in 1987, tells The Beet. “There were no battles in the north of Tajikistan, so it was relatively calm here. I remember there wasn’t enough food, people stood in long lines for bread. The echo of the war reached us and affected the general mood.”
Fortune deftly depicts how this type of economic hardship can destabilize even the strongest bonds of community, friendship, and family. “People whose best years fell during the collapse of the USSR and the civil war didn’t know what to do next, everything they believed in began to crumble before our eyes,” Muzaffar explains. “People were starving and stealing. This is what I wanted to convey in the film — the tragedy of the whole country through the people of that time.”
‘People mainly go to Hollywood blockbusters’
Film scholar and director Sharofat Arabova says narrative films about Tajikistan’s civil war are more of a recent development. “The production of fiction films set during the civil war started in 2018–2019, and I think the young generation feels the need now to reassess the time they were born in,” Arabova explains. In her view, Fortune and The Crying of Tanbur are similar because they “are inspired by personal attachment to the events” of the war.
Arabova was born in 1985, and grew up with direct access to Tajikistan’s filmmaking industry. Her father, Mamatkul Arabov, was a documentary filmmaker and camera operator for Tajikfilm, Tajikistan’s national film studio since the Soviet period. Arabov taught his daughter how to take photographs on his Zenit film camera; he took her to work in the editing room at Tajikfilm, and to film premieres at the Dushanbe Film House.
As a child and teenager, Arabova frequented the “old-style cinemas” in Dushanbe. But it’s not so easy to go to the movies in Tajikistan today. Nor is it easy to stream the latest film or TV show when only a third of the country has Internet access, and those who are online experience some of the slowest and most expensive connections in the world. Tajikistan is the poorest country in Central Asia; the average monthly salary hovers around $160, which makes growing a domestic movie-going audience extremely difficult. Much of the population, 30 percent of which the UN World Food Program classifies as “moderately food insecure,” has little to no expendable income.
“We don't really have a cinema culture because the tickets are so incredibly expensive,” says Sabiri. She also notes that most films are shown in the Russian language, which presents another potential barrier for Tajik-speakers.
“We have only three operating cinemas in our capital city,” says Muzaffar. “Now, people mainly go to Hollywood blockbusters, to Marvel and DC [movies]. Few people go to our films. That's why cinemas say that it is not profitable to show them.”
According to Arabova, film distribution is a “major challenge for Tajik cinema” both at home and abroad. “There are many opinions among Tajik filmmakers and producers about whether to target and own the local market first, and later aim to distribute films internationally,” she says. “But the problem is [that] there’s no internal film market in the country.”
‘We had everything but money’
When Muzaffar and his colleagues founded Sugdsinamo, a partially state-funded film company based in Tajikistan’s Sughd province, they devoted their first five years to “winning the audience’s attention and getting people back to the cinema.” “For us, it was the most difficult five years,” Muzaffar recalls. “We tried to save money as best we could. One person worked for three. In cold and hot weather, without the necessary equipment, funding, and specialists, we filmed what seemed to us an important movie.”
Today, Sugdsinamo is seven years old and has 11 permanent employees. The studio has made 10 films (including one short film, three documentaries, and six feature films), with project budgets running from $25,000 to $100,000. “We cover the problems of modern society,” says Muzaffar when asked how Sugdsinamo chooses which films to make. “Many stories are formed on the conflict between the old Soviet generation and the young, Muslim and secular society. Our country is a storehouse of interesting stories, places, and destinies. We just have to start telling them, and I hope we will share them with the world.”
Fortune, Sugdsinamo’s most recent film, had its world premiere at South Korea’s Busan International Film Festival, one of the largest film festivals in Asia. (The Crying of Tanbur also screened at BIFF.) Fortune had a budget of $100,000 and was produced in cooperation with Tajikfilm, which provided “its specialists, equipment, and covered part of the budget.”
Sabiri financed both The Crying of Tanbur and her 2021 documentary Rhythms of Lost Time through crowdfunding, bolstered by the tourists — mostly from the Global North — she met during her seven years working as a guide in the Pamir Mountains. An American couple named Joe and Smita Proto have been particularly instrumental in helping Sabiri finance her projects. They went to the Pamirs for their 10th anniversary, met Sabiri, and wanted to help her produce The Crying of Tanbur.
“We were gathering the crew already and we had everything, but we didn't have money. I mean, I had some in place for development but not for production,” Sabiri tells The Beet. “And when I told them [the Protos] this story, they really fell in love with it.” The couple helped raise $17,000 for filming.
Sabiri has since graduated from the London Film School with a Master’s degree in screenwriting and is currently working on financing her first feature film project, tentatively titled Lola, “a female-driven drama set in pre-war Tajikistan.” For Sabiri, it holds many of the ambitions she had with The Crying of Tanbur that, because of state censorship and limited resources, she was unable to achieve. The fundraiser for Lola has raised roughly $45,000 of a planned $50,000 budget; if she raises enough money, Sabiri plans to film in Uzbekistan.
‘Sculpt from what we have’
For Muzaffar, this moment is only one in the long history of Tajik filmmaking; “cinema in Tajikistan has not yet reached its triumph,” he underscores. Muzaffar points to the cinematography developed during the Soviet era, when “Tajikfilm met all the standards, both technical and creative.” He remembers Kamil Yarmatov, who studied in Moscow and became a celebrated film director of the 1930s and beyond (like Muzaffar, Yarmatov was born in the city of Konibodom), as well as other Central Asian filmmakers like Boris Kimyagarov, Takhir Sabirov, and Bako Sadykov.
Looking ahead to the future of Tajik cinema, Muzaffar plans to “sculpt from what we have and use ingenuity to save money on filming.” He also plans to continue to work at building the domestic audience’s faith in homegrown films. “We have to [earn] back trust with good movies,” he says. “Then there will be spectators, and awards, and cherished support.”
Sabiri sees the obstacles facing Tajik cinema as large and complex, but she hasn’t given up hope. The director returned to Tajikistan temporarily in 2018 to run My Vision, a two-month film residency for locals between the ages of 18 and 35 with filmmaking or media experience. The program resulted in the completion of seven films, developed without censorship.
Sabiri describes these stories as “inspiring,” and she also considers the resulting film screenings, conducted as part of a Tajik Cinema Week, a success. “It was a beautiful event,” she says. “Some screenings were in the pub. Some screenings were in little independent places. And one was like a red carpet; all the ambassadors, all the international organizations, everybody came — celebrities, and so on. And these filmmakers were the main heroes of this event.”
That said, Sabiri herself no longer lives and works in her home country, for fear of falling afoul of Tajikistan’s censorship restrictions. “I miss [Tajikistan] incredibly because that was actually something I really didn't want to have in [my] life: to be disconnected with my country. I tried to avoid it so many times,” she laments.
Asked about her broader hopes for the future of Tajik cinema, Sabiri is reluctant to get specific, as turbulent geopolitical conditions in Central Asia and the world will be such a deciding factor. “I think it's very much linked to what happens to Russia, because our politics are tightly connected,” Sabiri says. “If Ukraine wins [the war] — hopefully, fingers crossed — I think that there will be positive change for Tajikistan. And then people who are in exile or [who] can't return, and of course […] people who are based in Tajikistan, will be able to make things freely.”
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