The Rugged Odysseys of Ali Khamraev

Eclipse is a selection of lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics in simple affordable editions. Each series is a brief cinematheque retrospective for the adventurous home viewer.

An artist of rock-solid humanism and amazing expressive power, Ali Khamraev is a giant who sits astride the history of Uzbek cinema. A graduate of Moscow’s Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in 1961, he went on to make more than thirty documentaries and twenty feature films – criss-crossing between romantic comedies, Western adventures, political dramas, TV mini-series, and art cinema. Through them all, Khamraev engages in the unveiling of traditional Muslim Uzbekistan and expresses a faith in the modernizing influence of Soviet values and technology. A wizard with landscapes and an instinctual expert of social dynamics, Ali Khamraev is truly an underappreciated master of world cinema.

White, White Storks (Belye, belye aisty)

Influenced by Mikhail Kalatozov’s black-and-white classic The Cranes Are Flying, the Italian Neorealist movement, and the interpersonal dramas of Yasujiro Ozu, Ali Khamraev traces the impossible romance of a married woman and an unconventional outsider in a small, traditional Uzbek village called “White Storks.”

The Seventh Bullet (Sedmaya pulya)

Set during the Central Asian revolts of the 1920s, a Red Army commander allows himself to be captured by a Basmachi warlord to reunite with his imprisoned battalion and lead them to victory in this Western-inspired adventure in the Soviet frontier.

The Bodyguard (Telokhranitel)

A grizzled mountain trapper and a conscientious revolutionary are tasked by a Red Army unit with the difficult task of transporting a captured sultan, along with his daughter and his loyal servant, through a harsh mountain landscape to a neighbouring province while pursued by a ruthless Bashmachi warrior.

Triptych (Triptikh)

This modernist political melodrama set in a small northern town in 1946 follows three women struggling with the social constraints of post-World War II Uzbekistan: an illiterate girl who wants to build a house on her own, a school teacher aiming to bring progressive ideas to the villagers, and an old woman kidnapped in her youth by a poor peasant and forced into marriage.

I Remember You (Ya tebya pomnyu)

In this semi-autobiographical meditation on the past, an adult son’s journey from Samarkand across Russia to find the grave of his father becomes a poetic voyage into his subconscious memory and an exploration of intersecting Uzbek and Russian traditions.

With notes by Kent Jones

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It’s all too easy to collapse Soviet cinema with the cinema of Russia, omitting the output of various Soviet republics working in different cultural contexts and languages. Case in point: the Central Asian state/nation of Uzbekistan. With the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic founded in 1924, the studio that would become Uzbekfilm was established by the USSR less than seven months later – an indication of the importance the USSR placed on film and of its cultural significance. Uzbek actors and filmmakers like Yo’ldosh A’zamov, Shuhrat Abbosov, Damir Salimov, and Georgi Yungvald-Khilkevich were frequently trained in Russian schools and production facilities like Lenfilm, Mosfilm, Vostokfilm, the Odessa Film Studio, and the State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK), then returned to work for Uzbekfilm to create films garnering Soviet and even international acclaim. For those of us in the West, these names and this cinema likely remain unknown. If not, then that exception is likely to be found in Ali Khamraev, a pillar of Uzbek film and a master of both art and commercial cinemas.

Ali Khamraev typifies the polynational ideal of the Soviet regime. He was born in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent in 1937, the son of a Tajik man and a Ukrainian woman, and graduated from Moscow’s VGIK in 1961, returning that same year to work at Uzbekfilm. Over his career, Khamraev has made over 50 documentaries and feature films, screened his work at various international festivals, counted director Andrei Tarkovsky among his friends and peers, lived for a period in Italy, and continues to work today. His worldliness, his humanity, and his appreciation for communist ideals root his most celebrated films made during the 1960s and 1970s, usually examining the tension between the old Muslim traditions of Uzbekistan and the progressive Soviet ideas introduced into those communities. Frequently, Khamraev’s cinema places an oppressed and/or impoverished woman at its centre, making her a locus for conflict between cultural backwardness and liberating ambitions. Thus, Khamraev’s films are often cited as being preoccupied with an “unveiling,” both with regard to the women who seek greater agency in their lives and to the culture at large stuck in old, stagnant ways. In some cases, Khamraev proposes change through the actions of heroically enlightened and innovative men resisting the chauvinism and oppression of his home country. In others, the liberation of Uzbekistan rests with its women who reject traditional strictures in favour of more modern values. Always, Khamraev seeks out humanity and dignity in his subjects.

The social conscience of Ali Khamraev is all the more impressive when its consistency is appreciated against the breadth of genres and modes he worked within and the compositional expertise he wielded throughout. Perhaps I’ll leave it to frequent Criterion collaborator and global film scholar Kent Jones to extol the virtues of Khamraev:

If there is a giant who sits astride the history of Uzbek cinema, it’s Ali Khamraev. An artist of rock-solid humanism and amazing expressive power. Ali Khamraev, one of those rare talents like Welles or Godard or Scorsese whose love for the medium is so intense that his best films burst with criss-crossing energies and insights, like a fireworks display. Khamraev is a towering figure, a wizard with landscapes (they all seem charged, often enchanted) and an instinctual genius with actors.

I expect that the quality of transfer for Khamraev’s films and the limited exposure most have to his work makes the Criterion Collection’s Eclipse Series the most suitable forum to collect and promote these movies to film fans. The five films chosen here were selected for their quality, for their variety, and because, well, they’re available to see! (Don’t let anyone kid you, folks. The internet has by no means solved cinema’s circulation issues.)

For a colour scheme to this proposed Eclipse set, MMC! takes its inspiration from the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic’s flag and recommends a red and baby blue treatment.

Credits: It should be obvious to anyone reading this post in full that our cover summary cribs heavily from Kent Jones’s discussions of Khamraev and the films. These writings are part of Seagull Films’ retrospective program Uzbek Rhapsody: The Films of Ali Khamraev, an eight-film collection of titles whose summaries MMC! also draws heavy upon. Thanks also to David Walsh and Joanne Laurier’s article “Tackling life head on: The films of Uzbek-Soviet director Ali Khamraev” and Robert Bird’s article “Uzbek Elegy: The Films of Ali Khamraev.”

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3 thoughts on “The Rugged Odysseys of Ali Khamraev

  1. Connor August 29, 2018 / 6:16 am

    While we’re on the subject of Soviet Central Asian cinema, I could see Eclipse doing a set on Rashid Nugmanov and the Kazakh New Wave.

    In particular, Nugmanov’s last three films, Yahha, The Needle, and (my personal favorite) The Wild East.

    • Connor August 29, 2018 / 6:18 am

      I even have a color scheme in mind: dark blue and gold, like the Kazakh flag

    • spinenumbered August 29, 2018 / 1:40 pm

      I always appreciate recommendations, especially when they are a blind spot for me. Nugmanov seems like a very interesting figure. I’ll have to track these titles down! Thanks Connor.

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