A father dreams of seeing a strong, fearless adult in his son. He sends shy, seven-year old Chaman to his grandfather, to a distant pasture. Chaman grows slowly accustomed to his new way of life. He won’t be head of the sheep-fold quickly, helping his grandfather with all kinds of daily chores.
This is how Usman Saparov’s―though co-directed with Iazgel'dy Seidov, all discussions credit Saparov as the film’s director―1982 film has been canonized by recent Russian cinematography. This synopsis and its subject come to us from a nation that has been ravaged by post-Soviet politics, in particular the well-entrenched, self-satisfied figure of President Saparmurat Niyazov. It is perhaps as a consequence of the woeful status quo in Turkmenistan that so many of its citizens, both at home and abroad, look back to films such as The Education of a Man with great fondness. They cast a glance at small-scale, touching interaction at a time when grandiose state projects have slowly destroyed national cinema, in particular since the early 1990s.
Saparov himself, although of Tatar heritage and working in Moscow since 1994, has often said that the end of the Soviet Union―the end of its well-funded, politically hued, and often homogenized filmmaking―has meant the demise of a “home” for him. The director’s current, enforced exile gives us another, unexpected reason to reconsider this film as a story of lost links, a simple narrative of maturation far from once-familiar places.
There are more oddities in store. Although Turkmen filmmaking in the 1980s was keen (at Moscow’s prompting) to employ folkloric motifs, to vivify the tedium of Brezhnevian culture, this film has retained―if not increased―its respect among today’s movie buffs for how it both endorsed and employed typical, condescendingly-proffered metaphors from the middle of the empire. The reason for this strange respect comes from ways in which those metaphors are put to use. The Education of a Man tells of friendship, of “family,” and yet it places these “politicizable” figures against a very imposing backdrop indeed―a playing field that dramatically overshoots the tenets of manageable policy. Nature is a grander, more social sphere than conservative doctrine of the early 1980s would care to have pondered.
The empty, windswept spaces in which this film places itself reflect some core paradoxes of Soviet filmmaking within Central Asia as a whole. There are clearly spiritual facets to these traditional, familiar networks amid empty landscapes, and yet Saparov’s purportedly lyrical, “devoutly local” families speak with equal directness to their viewers in Moscow. This movie shows its Russian audiences (visually, not verbally) the spaces on the edge of an empire where the clarity of mapmaking starts to grow faint. These are unpeopled realms where rhetoric also falls quiet; there is a very good reason why this film is so hushed. Several things could not be said so far from home.
After all, Russia’s experience of Central Asia is a centuries-long tale of massive repression in two senses: Moscow, for example, suppressed a “zero-Islam” it needed for self-definition, only then to invade and inhibit Islam. Russia ignored itself in order to invade itself, all to no apparent benefit. Joseph Schumpeter once asserted that all empires are affectively atavistic (i.e., driven in the present by experiences of the past) and paradoxically, “defensively aggressive.” Empires generate reasons to protect themselves from “probable” invasion and thus occupy terrain on their periphery. Yet that occupation just creates a new periphery. This sounds exhausting and certainly was so for Moscow; some would suggest that by adding Turkestan to the empire many decades prior, Russia’s safety was lessened, not bolstered. Hence the unmapped, whispering wilderness.
Saparov’s quiet film came at a time when Turkmenistan’s Education Ministry was asking for new tales of “upbringing,” new ways in which to socialize the next generation. Saparov does so softly, respectfully and with deference to local tradition. Nonetheless, by placing his familial images of impending adulthood outside of urban settings, away from their concrete addresses, and opting instead for the busy little noises of the environment, the director makes two important points. The first may seem reasonably straightforward, if not tediously familiar: the tale of a growing boy hints at a social potential possibly lost. Saparov’s second emphasis, that of maturation into natural, not just human “linkages,” takes his children’s film and turns it into a very adult challenge indeed; the need for any social activity―be it a sheep-fold, a smallholding, or an empire―to define its doable limits, to map itself. By placing Chaman’s story in the “middle of nowhere,” childhood naivety starts to ponder some disconcertingly big dreams.
Written by David MacFadyen
Born in Ashkhabad, 1952, Saparov graduated from the Cinematography Department of Moscow’s prestigious State Filmmaking Institute (VGIK). He would subsequently garner further screenwriting and directorial guidance from Aleksandr Mitta (1979, Advanced Courses for Scriptwriters and Directors), and then establish himself professionally as a cinematographer. Today his reputation stretches far beyond that initial experience, for he has feature films, documentaries, television series, and multiple children’s broadcasts to his name. A full listing of his documentary works alone runs to over sixty entries. The Education of a Man aside, he is best known today for Little Angel, Make Me Happy (1992) and his work as director of Russia’s Sesame Street for Russia’s NTV between 1997 and 2000.
1979: Baby Camel
1983: The Education of a Man (co-directed with Iazgel'dy Seidov)
1985: Adventures on Small Islands
1987: The Mad Woman
1992: Little Angel, Make Me Happy
2000: Stairway to Heaven
Born in the village of Alta in 1932, Seidov graduated from the Directing Department of the State Filmmaking Institute (VGIK) in 1962, where he was enrolled in the last workshop masterclass taught by Lev Kuleshov, one of the founders of Soviet avant-garde cinema in the 1920s.
1962: Evening Performance
1978: The Tragedy of Kugitang co-directed with Kakov Orazsakhatov)
1982: The Education of a Man (co-directed with Usman Saparov)
1986: Report from Karakum
1988: Legend of the Ancient Mountains
This series is co-sponsored by the Center for Russian and East European Studies and the Film Studies Program. It was made possible by the support of the Office of the Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, and it would not have been possible without the generosity of Forrest Ciesol.