Uzbek theater thriving in dangerous arena

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In one of the Ilkholm’s touring plays, “White White Black Stork,” the young male protagonist is forced into marriage after he confesses his love for another man to his father — a hugely taboo subject for Uzbekistan’s predominantly conservative Muslim society.

But the actors say their mission is not to offend.

“We are not trying to provoke people into some kind of reaction,” said Ilkholm actor Vyacheslav Tszyu. “We simply interpret the world in which we live and the essence of things as we see it.”

A recent flashpoint was the first Central Asian Independent Film Festival (CAFIF), which the Ilkhom hosted in June. More than 40 films were screened, including documentaries on the fate of Afghan refugees and treatment of disabled people in Central Asia, as well as a portrait of an Uzbek professional Hitler impersonator.

“We saw negative images expressed with more emotion than the glamorous, positive images we see in official films,” said Alex Ulko who sat on CAFIF’s jury. “Pictures of devastation, poverty, drinking, haggling and so on. People are tired of the sugary images the government puts on the screen.”

But gritty depictions of life in Uzbekistan don’t tend to go down well with the authorities: In 2010, photographer Umida Akhmedova was convicted of slander for her images of rural life that the government claimed portrayed the country as place “where people live in the Middle Ages.”

After the festival, the Ilkhom was besieged with calls from the Ministry of Culture demanding an explanation and has since been subject to an ongoing financial audit.

‘Like a living organism’

It wasn’t the first time the Ilkhom had appeared under threat. In 2007, Weil was murdered on the steps of his apartment building.

“I felt the danger after the murder of Mark Weil,” said Boris Gafurov, Ilkhom’s artistic director. “The whole team felt it. Nobody knew what would happen, especially since we didn’t know who did it and why.”

Three Muslim men were convicted of Weil’s murder last year. The official line is that they had been offended by Weil’s staging of Pushkin’s “Imitating the Koran.”

But many believe men were scapegoats.

“I think it’s almost certain that the three men who were convicted of killing him weren’t the people who killed him,” said Mr. Murray, who knew Weil personally. “It’s a totalitarian regime. People who are opposed to the government are going to suffer violence. That’s just how the country is.”

Uzbekistan’s high rate of emigration also provides a challenge for the Ilkholm. Ten percent of Uzbekswork abroad, and young Uzbeks with creative talent often prefer to pursue careers in more open societies.

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