Abstracted from Screen International

For years a largely forgotten part of the world, Central Asia has been put back put on the map by the war in Afghanistan. The war has also provoked a wave of interest in the largely forgotten film cultures of the republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan which are on the front line of the conflict.

Scheduled far in advance of the September 11 attacks, the Vienna Film Festival screened a retrospective of Central Asian Film during October. "The interest in the films has been enormous," said festival director Hans Hurch. "We had not only cultural journalists but political and economic journalists from all the major national newspapers in Austria ringing up to ask for information. This has never happened before." The final figures are not in yet but the retrospective has already surpassed audience figures for any the festival's retrospectives in the past ten years - including Goddard and Rosellini.

International film festivals have been quick to grasp the timely audience appeal of Central Asia. Cottbus Film Festival has already scheduled a focus on the region while Hurch says he has had requests for information from Torrino, Nantes and other festival programmers.

"There is a big demand for some kind of information other than what you see on CNN. The public wants to know just who are the people of Central Asia and the films, especially the documentaries, help people to understand something about this culture," said Hurch.

Hurch also believes there may be a knock on effect for the cash starved Central Asian film industry, with the sudden interest helping them secure outside funding from foreign broadcasters or producers who want to film documentaries and features about the region.

During former Soviet times the combined output of the region amounted to 30 or 35 features a year which were distributed by the state to more than 5,000 cinemas. The collapse of communism saw production of feature films triple in the early 1990's, fueled by black market money combined with the still functioning state studio facilities which were used by private production companies. But by the mid 1990's production in the region had slowed to a trickle. Distribution of domestic films had all but stopped. Today, Turkmenistan, Tajikstan and Kyrgyzstan can no longer be considered to be active producers of feature films.

However, the most populous of the republics Uzbekistan (with 25m inhabitants) has been the most successful at keeping its film culture alive. The state supported Uzbek Film Studios in Tashkent still manages to produce about six or seven features a year as well as 40 shorts and a number of animated films - all with government funding. Private studios account for an additional one or two films a year but budgets are limited.

As one of the poorest countries in the region, Uzbeckistan is contending with rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Until now, the issue has not inspired a great number of films. However, Uzbek filmmaker Zulfikar Mussakov -known on the international festival circuit for his 1989 A Soldier's Story - is developing a film based on the February 1999 bomb attacks in Tashkent which president Islam Karimov has blamed on Islamic extremists.

The issue is also being addressed by one of the leaders of Uzbeck cinema, Ali Khamraev. He has often addressed the problem of women's liberation - as in his 1978 The Women Of Mevazar which travelled to many international festivals. In 1999 he completed Bo-Ba-Bu an international co-production between Uzbekstan, Italy and France starring Arielle Dombasle, shot in the deserts of Afghanistan and dealing with the religious suppression of women.

Foreign money is starting to move into the country. The Japanese, for example, have been active in terms of funding productions. Mussakov's I Wish (1997) was fully Japanese backed while his latest film Mother, which is in pre-production, has won a grant from the Japanese Foundation for the Arts.

Kazakhstan is the second largest producer of films in the region making two or three films a year. Its filmmakers, led by Darezhan Omirbaev, are perhaps the best known on the international festival circuit. Celluloid Dreams has been active in distributing Kazakh films internationally including Omirbaev's The Road - a co-production with Paris based Artcam International completed this year.

State funding amounts to about $1m a year, and private funding domestically is nearly impossible to find meaning that directors like Serik Aprymov depend on augmenting government grants with money from international sources like France's Sud Fund, the Netherlands Hubert Bowles Fund and NHK television in Japan.

Aprymov who along with Omirbaev and Raschid Nugmanov was part of the Kazakh New Wave of the late 1980's and early 1990's has just completed his fourth film, Three Brothers. A Japanese co-production with the Almaty-based indie East Cinema, it screened out of competition in Berlin last year as well as in many other festivals. "I gave up filmmaking in 1991 after my first two films, despite the fact that they received considerable international recognition," said Aprymov. "The economic situation made it just impossible to produce anything, unless you wanted to make government funded historical epics." Then there was a glimmer of hope, with foreign investors showing some interest in his films. "In 1997 a Japanese guy, a private investor, called me and offered me $50,000 to make a film."

No wonder that Aprymov sees the future of film-making in Central Asia as dependent on both Europe and Japan for funding.