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In the Eye of the Storm

Rachid Nougmanov, 27.10.2001
Interview by Ron Holloway for Cinemaya, The Asian Film Quarterly, 54/55, 2002

Widely recognized as one of the most influential filmmakers and key political leaders in Central Asia, Rachid Nugmanov has directed only a handful of films, but two of them made cinema history. At the tender age of 35, he was elected First Secretary of the Union of Kazakh Filmmakers in 1989 - at that time an uncommon rise to authority in the ranks of Soviet cinema. His first feature film, The Needle (1988), was seen by an estimated audience of 25 million - an incredible box office sum by any standards. Over the past decade we have remained in close contact as he evolved from a revolutionary filmmaker to a political revolutionary. This interview took place at last years Viennale (19-31 October 2001), on the occasion of an all-embracing retrospective on the cinema of the Central Asian Republics titled Aus dem Herzen der Welt (From the Heart of the World).

His filmography, although sparse, is impressive. Born 1954 in Alma-Ata (today Almaty), Kazakhstan, USSR, he graduated from the Architectural Institute in Alma-Ata in 1977, then tramped around Kazakhstan and Russia as forester, architect, archaeologist, designer, and part-time filmmaker(Zgga, 1977). In 1984, together with other Kazakh colleagues, he entered the Moscow Film School (VGIK) to study in the Master Class of Sergei Solovyov, the Moscow-based Russian director who had previously shot The Wild Pigeon (1985) in Kazakhstan. Four films followed in quick succession:

1986 Ya-Ha (documentary, VGIK) (USSR),
1987 The Art of Being Quiet (short feature) episode in the omnibus film And We Shall Keep Our Love Forever (USSR),
1988 The Needle (feature) (Kazakhstan/USSR),
1992 The Wild East (feature) (Kazakhstan).

In addition to his duties as First Secretary of the Union of Kazakh Filmmakers, he served as head of the Alem film unit at the Kazakhfilm Studios.

Once queried as to what a typical Kazakh New Wave filmmaker might be, Rachid Nugmanov offered the following profile:

Date of Birth: between 1954 and 1960.
Genealogy: nobodys child.
Location: Alma-Ata, the most remote republic capital from Moscow.
Education: more than one degree.
Years in Business: after 1984.
Budget: very low.
Party Membership: none.
Special Interests: making movies.

Today, Rachid Nugmanov lives in Tours, France. He is active in International Affairs for the Republican Peoples Party of Kazakhstan.

Congratulations on your essay in the Viennale catalogue for the Central Asian retrospective. It brings back memories. When did we first meet?

In 1989, at the Moscow film festival. Thats when our Kazakh New Wave made an impact on visiting guests. Thats when you wrote about us in that imposing Variety article. And thats when we received an invitation to attend the Sundance festival in January of 1990. Then came the 1991 Kazakh retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Suddenly, within a few months, we were known around the world.

In your essay you infer that the Kazakh New wave was over with the release of Darezhan Omirbaevs Kairat, winner of the Silver Leopard at the 1992 Locarno festival. Was it really that short?

A wave is, after all, a wave. Perhaps I am viewing the three or four years of its existence too much from my former position as the elected First Secretary of the Union of Kazakh Filmmakers (1989-1992). Thats when Kazakh cinema was really on the move. In retrospect, ours was not a full-fledged movement - rather, the wave hit the beach and then disappeared as quickly as it came. However, for the sake of clarity, or perspective, I can well understand why some critics and historians like to state that the Kazakh New Wave lasted approximately ten years, from 1984 to 1994.

How did the Kazakh New Wave start? Who were its charter members?

Although we were not all the same age, most of us had assisted Sergei Solovyov on The Wild Pigeon (1985), a Mosfilm feature he had shot in Kazakhstan in 1984. Within a couple years we were well known on the festival circuit for making films about ourselves, our culture, our personal feelings. Abai Karpikov (born 1955) portrayed the pessimism of Kazakh youth in Little Fish in Love (1989). Ardak Amirkulov (born 1955) directed The Fall of Otrar (1991), the first genuine Kazakh epic. Bakhyt Kalibaev (born 1958) collaborated with Alexander Baranov on Three (1988), a satirical spoof about filming on location in Kazakhstan. Darezhan Omirbaev (born 1958), editor of the New Film journal, was recognized as a genuine auteur after the international success of his brilliant debut short, Summer Heat, or July (1988). Serik Aprimov (born 1960) took the pulse of the decaying Soviet empire in The Last Stop (1989). Amir Karakulov (born 1966), the youngest of the group, directed a sophisticated psycho-drama, A Woman between Two Brothers (1991). Not everyone received a VGIK diploma, but all of us found work in film production at the Kazakh Studios. And once the so-called Kazakh New Wave started, it was like a snowball rolling down a hill.

Of course, there was also Rachid Nugmanov. Born 1954, you were the oldest of the group.

My first VGIK film, Ya-Ha (1986), was an improvised 40-minute fiction-documentary about underground rock-bands shot in the cellars of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. Then when Igla (The Needle) (1988), an abandoned project, was thrown into my lap, I directed an avant-garde, action-gangster, rock-and-drugs feature film starring rock-star Victor Tsoi. When The Needle was released, it caught fire and drew an overall audience of circa 25 million. With a thousand prints were in circulation, it turned out to be one of the most successful productions in Soviet film history! A year later, my colleagues elected me the First Secretary of the Union of Kazakh Filmmakers - just in time for that momentous 1989 Moscow film festival. Thats when I had the idea: Lets dub ourselves the Kazakh New Wave!

What about Yermek Shinarbaev and Talgat Temenov, two other directors generally grouped with the Kazakh New Wave?

Both had previously enrolled at VGIK. Yermek Shinarbaev (born 1953), whose The Place on the Tricorne (1993) forms a kind of thematic trilogy with Omirbaevs Kairat and Karakulovs A Woman between Two Brothers, graduated from VGIK in 1982. And Talgat Temenov (born 1954), whose Wolf-Cub among Men (1989) was produced by Mosfilm although shot in a Kazakh village, graduated from Solovyovs master class at VGIK in 1984. Of course, they were quickly assimilated into the group.

You were 30-years-old when you enrolled at VGIK. What did you do professionally before that?

I first studied architecture and archaeology. For three years I tramped around Kazakhstan on projects related to preservation of our national culture - often with my older brother Murat, a photographer and later cameraman. During the late 1970s I spent summers in St. Petersburg, where I became acquainted with the underground rock scene. There were also amateur theatre groups, who staged performances that started somewhere and ended someplace. St. Petersburg was a hotbed for performances that fit a new life style.

Is that how you met Victor Tsoi?

Yes. At that time, particularly in the 1980s, Victor was the personification of rock samizdat - the recording of illegal and forbidden underground rock albums. Although a gifted lyricist and rock performer, Tsoi was not allowed to give public concerts. So he worked as a stoker in buildings during the day and performed with his KINO band in basements at night. Once, when he was invited to Moscow, he was intimidated by the police - because, back then, rock musicians were considered parasites. So the subculture scene in St. Petersburg was his base. At this time rock was considered the only way out - at least for the young crowd.

Shortly after you enrolled at VGIK in 1984, you returned to St. Petersburg to Ya-Ha (1986). Did you feel you were breaking new ground?

Of course. This free-flowing sketch of the underground rock scene was the first short film produced in Solovyovs master class. Stylistically, the whole film was constructed around ad hoc improvisations. On one level, it was influenced by the working methods taught by Anatoly Vasiliev at VGIK and practiced daily in our workshops. On another level, it aimed to catch the force, the power, the atmosphere of the underground rock scene in St. Petersburg. Furthermore, we were driven by the heady feeling of taking some risks - simply because rock did not yet officially exist. But with Victor Tsoi before the camera, backed by his KINO rock band on the soundtrack, we knew we were also as close to a certain reality as you could get - to say nothing of violating the principles of dull socialist realism.

How much did Ya-Ha cost? And was it ever commercially released?

About 1,500 rubles - or circa $2,400. Although the film was popular among rock fans and independent filmmakers, it was never commercially released in the USSR. For many, Ya-Ha remains a legend - here was a film everyone had heard about, but no one had actually seen! Also, it was the first - and last - film on the underground rock scene. By the end of 1986, things had loosened up, and rock bands became a legitimate part of the music scene. Concerts were now given above-ground to larger audiences.

After Ya-Ha, you made the short feature The Art of Being Quiet (1987). It, too, has rarely been seen. What was it about?

Let me tell you first how it came about. During our classes at VGIK I liked the classes conducted by Anatoly Vasiliev, a well-known director at the Taganka Theatre. His classes were oriented towards staging theatrical pieces that would help students to develop their own personal style. As examples, I staged a piece called Little Dutch, and Amir Karakulov directed one called Pioneers Song. These laid the groundwork for our so-called unpredictable acting style - by that I mean: controlled improvisation within the context of pop-art environments and avant-garde filmmaking. These exercises later influenced our student films at VGIK.

We also spent a lot of time at VGIK viewing French New Wave films. I particularly liked the loose, improvisational style of Jean-Luc Godard. Thus The Art of Being Quiet can be viewed as a Godard-like treatise on non-communication. Four people meet at a dacha, where nothing of importance really happens. Originally, this was to be one episode in an omnibus film that could be shown as a feature under the title We Shall Keep Our Love Forever. By 1987, five short features had been completed: Ardak Amirkulovs Tactical Games (aka Tactical Games in a Well-Travelled Landscape), Serik Aprimovs Hypnotist (aka Hypnotizer), Abai Karpikovs One and a Half Grand, Murat Alpievs Furious Kreisberg, and my film The Art of Being Quiet. Later, they were all shown separately.

After The Art of Being Quiet, you teamed with Victor Tsoi again to make The Needle in the summer of 1988. Did Tsoi work with other directors before his tragic death in 1990?

Yes. Victor Tsoi also starred in Sergei Solovyovs Assa (1988), a feature-film collage of genres and styles, part thriller and part melodrama, spiced with romantic kitsch and rock music. Some Soviet critics felt that Assa had been influenced by Ya-Ha. Tsoi was also featured in two documentaries made by Alexei Uchitel about the St. Petersburg rock scene. In Rok (Rock) (1988) he filmed not only Tsoi and his KINO band, but also other Russian rock bands: DDT, AQUARIUM, AUKCION. In Uchitels Posledny Geroy (The Last Hero) (1989) the focus is entirely on Victor Tsoi. Today, ten years after his tragic death, you can still find graffiti on walls in every large city that read: Tsoi is alive!

Although his music is heard on the soundtrack of The Needle, Victor Tsoi also gives a brilliant performance as the leading actor. Was it easy to direct him?

Tsoi came to the role by accident. In the autumn of 1987, while I was putting the finishing touches on The Art of Being Quiet, the Alem film unit, an independent production group at the Kazakhfilm Studios in Alma-Ata, was preparing to shoot The Needle under a different director. Just before shooting was to begin, the director abandoned the project. So I was asked if I would be willing to step in and save the project, since the funding had already been allocated. I agreed, but on my conditions: a free hand to re-interpret the script, my brother Murat as the cameraman, and no screen tests for the actors. The conditions were accepted on the spot. Then I phoned Victor Tsoi and asked: Do you want to be a movie star? He agreed on his condition: he wanted to compose the musical score for the film. The shooting began the next day - and was completed in the summer of 1988.

Did The Needle have to be approved by censors?

It wasnt until January of 1989 that The Needle received an R rating - that is, prohibited for audiences under 16 years of age. Nevertheless, it was seen by over nine million people during the first three months of release. Why? Because the theme itself was so new to Soviet audiences. Its the story of a student - played by Victor Tsoi - who returns to Alma-Ata and discovers that his old girlfriend is now a junkie. In order to save her, he has to confront the local drug mafia headed by a corrupt doctor. He rescues her, then has to pay the consequences. In May of 1989, two months before the Moscow film festival, a Victor Tsoi album was released that contained the title song from The Needle. The film had made him famous all over the Soviet Union.

This year, at Venice, actor-director Sergei Bodrov Jr tipped his hat to the rock legend in his debut feature film, Sisters (2001). And last year, in Riga at the 2000 Arsenals festival, he was honored with a memorial tribute of five films in which he appeared.

And the sixth film he was supposed to appear in was Diki Vostok (The Wild East) (1992), my last film. It was scripted with him in mind. We were about to begin shooting when he died in that tragic highway accident mentioned in Sisters. Tsoi was only 28 years old. He was the Soviet James Dean. The loss stunned everybody, especially me. Eventually The Wild East had to be completed, but without Victor. Hes the missing element.

Six years ago, when Gönul Dönmez-Colin interviewed you for Cinemaya - Rachid Nougmanov, The Wild East, Rockers, Bikers and A New Life (Issue 31, Winter 1995-96) - you were lamenting not only the death of Victor Tsoi, but also the demise of the Kazakh New Wave.

That was in 1993, right after the release of The Wild East. A year later, in the summer of 1994, only one film was in production in Almaty. Three projects were halted midway through production. The explosion of freedom in the early 1990s has now faded away. New laws support the president and destroy the opposition. The last independent TV station closed in 1997. President Nursultan Nazarbaev is running the country with an iron hand. Ever since Kazakhstan declared independence in 1991, his grip on the ruling Otan (Fatherland) Party has grown by the year.

Where does that leave the Kazakh film industry?

Dariga Aliev, Nursultan Nazarbaevs eldest daughter, is the head of Kazakh film. She also controls television and newspapers through a media holding company. Shes married to Rakhat Aliev, a notorious national figure. Hes the first deputy chairman of the National Security Service - the Kazakh KNB - the successor to the KGB of the Soviet era. Hes also head of the tax police.

Meanwhile, Kazakh intellectuals have left the country. Akezhan Kazhegeldin, the former prime minister, is now living in exile after threats of assassination for founding the Republican Peoples Party Kazakhstan (RPPK), an opposition party. And you have settled in France. When did this happen?

I received my French passport in 1993. My wife is French.

Last year, when you delivered a paper at the Harvard Forum for Central Asian Studies (3 April 2000), you were listed as Kazakh Filmmaker and Opposition Politician. Have you left the directors chair altogether?

Not altogether. I still hope to make another film in Kazakhstan, although the only sure route today is through co-productions. A filmmaker-politician should always carry scripts around with him. As a matter of fact, when we met at the 1997 Cannes festival, I was there with a project-in-development: The Master Mechanic, an action adventure story.

Today youre a leading political figure in the RPPK, in charge of International Affairs. Youre also listed on the Internet with the International Eurasian Democracy Foundation (www.eurasia.org.ru). Is it difficult for you to return to Kazakhstan?

Last year, when President Nazarbaev planned a visit to Washington, he petitioned Madeleine Albright, the then U.S. Secretary of State, to squash a FBI investigation of allegations of corruption and money laundering. Last July, when opposition activists were flying to Washington for a Congressional Hearing, they were stopped at the Almaty airport by an officer of the tax police. The police claim the RPPK was financing criminal groups. Any supporter of former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin is harassed and even physically assaulted. During my last visit to Almaty a few months ago, my brother Murats office was searched. Upon departure, my plane was delayed 30 minutes while I was being held for questioning. The police were using scare tactics.

Perhaps filmmaking is a less dangerous profession. Have you ever thought of filming your favorite book - Jack Kerouacs On the Road?

Why not? Its the perfect road-movie. Ive already visited all the places mentioned in the book: New York, San Francisco, Denver, New Orleans. That was back in 1990. It was my first trip to America, and you arranged for the air tickets. Remember?



The above interview took place in Vienna on 27 October 2001. One month later, the Economist (24 November 2001) reported that on November 15th Rakhat Aliev had tendered his resignation as first deputy of the Kazakh KNB Security Service and as head of the tax police when ordered to appear before parliament to answer charges of corruption. He was then appointed deputy head of the Presidents bodyguard service.

According to World Audit, a British-based organization monitoring the abuse of human rights, Kazakhstan is ranked 117th out of 149 countries. Kazakhstan is one of 23 countries that fail to take minimal steps to prevent human trafficking.The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) refused Kazakhstan membership, denying even observer status.

Former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, now exiled head of the RPPK opposition, believes Kazakhstan is 10-12 years away from becoming a major oil producer. The key to Kazakh wealth is the building of a pipe line. Thus the stakes are high in the Caspian Sea region.

RON HOLLOWAY is an American writer, film critic and journalist. For the past 25 years he has been a Berlin-based correspondent on film, television and the media for Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and Moving Pictures International. He has written articles on film, theater and cultural affairs for the Financial Times and the Herald Tribune. He has assembled the only complete index of the films and filmmakers of the ex-USSR, The Holloway File.

Published in CINEMAYA, winter-spring / 2002 / No. 54-55 / pp. 13-19


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