Wartime. Young Batyr has to shoulder the responsibility for his mother and a newborn sister. Batyr’s father, a renowned dutar player in their village, has died in frontline battle. Batyr decides to learn the complex art of the dutar himself, but the military hostilities continue: nobody has time for music lessons. Nonetheless, our stubborn youngster overcomes this difficult instrument—and his mother notices that a real young man has appeared in the household. (VGIK, 2000)
Khalmamed Kakabaev’s film of 1989 takes us into the stormier waters of late Soviet society after the relative calm of 1982, when Usman Saparov’s and Iazgel'dy Seidov’s The Education of a Man was released. Tempting though it may be to separate these two films along those very lines (i.e., “stagnation” versus the trenchant critique of perestroika), these two movies are in many ways kindred spirits. Both consider—and then reconsider—core, clumsy metaphors for Soviet interaction. Families and harmonies become conduits for talk of imperial homogeneity; yet just as Saparov pushes his symbols of “membership” farther than that policy would care to consider (in fact beyond speech altogether), so the music of Central Asia, so important for Kakabaev, also comes from a wider realm than modern mapmaking. The plaintive, attenuated structures of regional and “alien-sounding” music played an important role in the promotion of Soviet plurality. Many of the technical terms used by Central Asian performers appeared as an extension of pre-Islamic Iranian and Turkic performance practice; the Arabs invaded in 709 and came eventually to define a much shorter period of influence. None of this was terribly useful for policymakers in 1989.
Music came from a space larger than the Soviet Union and—paradoxically—then survived by adopting forms smaller than the stately grandeur promoted by that same union. Music, the social tool drawn upon by Kakabaev, managed to stay alive during Soviet years, giving voice to both stability and change because it frequently sounded in domestic or spontaneously festive situations—rather than the institutionalized settings of Western performance: weddings, births, and other family gatherings were reason enough to break into harmony or song. This was only one of several “oddities” in a mélange of established structures and supposedly impulsive performances that perplexed Russians. Kakabaev’s film shows this significance.
In addition, much of the Central Asian music that inspires “young Batyr” adhered to different ways of tuning instruments. It continued to display a lamentable deficiency of choral, orchestral, or massed performance; once again, our hero, just as Saparov’s desert-bound herder, is deliberately isolated among strange, adult harmonies. Russian audiences, throughout their own experience of the region, simply could not understand (or endure) locals’ purported unfamiliarity with unison singing. This “undeveloped” tradition would not be coaxed or coerced into notions of proper evolution without extensive structural violence, for Central Asians obstinately embraced monophony.
Soviet “regional” filmmaking offered studios, such as Turkmenfil'm, the metaphors that Muscovite influence would have liked to see “reworked”—in accordance with its own understanding of local culture. Kakabaev’s film does precisely that and, therefore, as with Saparov, might be accused of treading familiar water. It seems possible, however, to suggest that Kakabaev then refashions the musical, harmonious allegories a third time, giving Soviet cinematography precisely the interpretation it wants—but he keeps going. Both the musical and ecological notions of membership in our two Turkmen films are initially well-behaved sets of images, yet they invoke worryingly large, quiet, ineffable, and disrespectfully pre-Soviet networks.
Written by David MacFadyen
Kakabaev was born in 1939 and garnered his initial education from domestic institutions, transferring at the age of thirty to Ashkhabad television. This promotion was followed almost simultaneously by graduation from the Turkmen State University with philological credentials. Like Usman Saparov, he also found himself, in time, at Moscow’s elite institutions, in this case the Advanced Courses for Scriptwriters and Directors. Kakabaev was made a National Artist of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic in 1986.
1982: Father Will Come Soon
1986: The Secret Consul
1989: The Son
1989: Bird of Paradise
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.