ALMATY, Kazakhstan — Central Asia's film festival season is in full swing, and as movie buffs in cities like Almaty, Bishkek, Tashkent and Dushanbe sample some of the region's latest cinematic works, the debate on censorship and limited film funding is gaining fresh attention.
"Only in post-Soviet countries do we have this situation where [nearly] all cinema is sponsored by government," said Nikita Makarenko, producer of the Central Asian Festival of Independent Film in Tashkent.
"Directors want to create relationships with the government — those who don't, struggle."
Last month, the eighth Eurasia International Film Festival opened in Almaty. For regional filmmakers with limited opportunities for funding and distribution, the festival offers a great chance to network.
"It is very important to meet with international filmmakers and discuss how to find opportunities to support new projects," said Iskandar Usmonov, director of the Tajik film "Telegram," which was screened at the festival on Sept. 18. "Tajikistan, especially, is a country where we have little information about funding available."
Tajikistan, like other Central Asian states, saw film studios built during the Soviet era, but those fell into disrepair after the Soviet Union collapsed and civil war ensued.
"We lost many [film industry professionals] who left Tajikistan during the civil war," Mr. Usmonov said. "We also lost money. The government couldn't support films because, after the war, we had a very bad economic and political situation."
By far the richest country in the region, Kazakhstan rebuilt its film studios in Almaty in 2008 — part of a major push to revitalize the country's film industry that included the selection of eight projects by up-and-coming filmmakers for funding by the state production company Kazakh Film.
One of those selected, Adilkhan Yerzhanov, says he has yet to see any financial support for his project, a satire on the media and its reporting on terrorism.
Mr. Yerzhanov says he believes the reason for the lack of funding is that Kazakh Film is focused on the second installment of a trilogy about the life of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
As a result, Mr. Yerzhanov is directing his attention to a different project — "Construction," the story of a rural family's battle against corruption, which is in post-production.
"I was helped by the Soros Foundation. Without this support, I wouldn't have found the money," Mr. Yerzhanov said. "The country has a lot of oil money, and there is quite a rich class of people, but the movies that get funding praise the tribal ancestors or how fun life in sunny Astana [Kazakhstan's capital] is."
Kazakh Film's biggest release this year was the historical epic "Myn Bala," which used the country's steppes as a backdrop for the romantic tale of a young Kazakh horseman battling Dzungar invaders — Eurasian tribes of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Despite the predictably patriotic subject matter, some say that in combining high production values with gripping storytelling and accomplished acting, "Myn Bala" marks a new high in Central Asian filmmaking.
Of 'Nomads' and Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyz film critic Gulbara Tolomushova sees "Myn Bala" as a step up from Kazakh Film's last big-budget production — "Nomads," a 2008 historical drama released that was an international flop.
She adds that Kyrgyzstan is some way off producing films on that level.
Ms. Tolomushova says that some excellent low-budget and art house films have come out of Kyrgyzstan in recent years.
But she is less optimistic about a more lavish production depicting the life of Kurmanjan Datka, a Kyryz historical heroine celebrated for resisting Russian rule in the early 20th century.
The film has a budget of nearly $1 million, provided by former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev — who was overthrown in a popular revolt in 2010 — as well as private investors.
"'Myn Bala' is a great production for Kazakhstan," Ms. Tolomushova said. "The Kurmanjan film will be Kyrgyzstan's 'Nomads.' The production is very good and well-funded, but the artistic level is very low. We need five or 10 years before we are making films at the level of 'Myn Bala.'"
Still, the Kyrgyz film scene in a lively one: The country has five annual film festivals, including the One World Human Rights Festival, which was held last week in the capital, Bishkek.
State and the art
Last Sunday, the Golden Leopard Film Forum opened in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, and later this month, Tajikistan will host its fifth annual Didar International Film Festival.
The festival aims to provide "an effective interaction between Western cinema as a source of democratic values … and oriental cinema reflecting a deep philosophy of feeling and lofty ethical ideas," according to the festival's organizers — the Forum of Culture and Arts of Uzbekistan Foundation, headed by President Islam Karimov's daughter, Gulnara Karimova.
A pop singer-cum-fashion designer, Ms. Karimova has tried to cast herself as philanthropist with a passion for the arts, but is tainted by the horrific human rights record of her father's regime and her own murky business interests.
And some question her taste in film.
"Gulnara Karimova pays a lot of money to famous international directors to come here and watch our really bad, government-funded films," said Oleg Karpov, art director of Central Asian Festival of Independent Films. "It's an establishment festival, the same as the Eurasia Film Festival in Kazakhstan."
The first Central Asian Independent Film Festival was held in June, offering Tashkent audiences something different from the government-approved movies showing in state-run cinemas.
"Independent directors often make films that are really controversial and provocative that governments in Central Asia don't like," Mr. Karpov said. "We screen films that can't be shown in the countries where their directors live."
He added that government officials were in attendance at this year's festival, and many of the screened films were subsequently banned for spurious reasons: A documentary about a Tashkent man working as a Hitler impersonator was branded Nazi propaganda.
Organizers say they are prepared for future trouble.
"The first time, it was a surprise for the government. Next time maybe they will be ready," Mr. Karpov said. "I expect they will try to make problems for us before the festival begins next year."