Analysis of Interview with Turgunbek Zhanakeev
Conducted by George Barros in August 2018.
George Barros interviewed Turgunbek Zhanakeev on August 6th, 2018 in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The interview was transcribed and translated by George Barros, Sydney Greenman, Hannah Hampton, Celia Metzger, Kary Stevick and David Woods during Fall 2018 as part of the Russian Movie Theater Project.
Turgunbek Zhanakeev was born Kyrgyzstan in 1962. He studied mechanical engineering at the Leningrad Polytechnic Institute in Russia after he finished primary school in 1979. His parents were both teachers, members of the Soviet intelligentsia, his father a German teacher and his mother a primary school teacher. He lived in Frunze (now Bishkek), the capital of Kyrgyzstan, and then in Leningrad during his student years. He also spent time working construction in the Caucasus during his summer breaks.
Zhanakeev watched television as a child, either the Central/Moscow Program or the Kyrgyz Program, or occasionally they would be able to view programs from Kazakhstan. When he was six, he went to a movie theater; before this he has merely been to traveling theaters that visited villages and showed movies to the locals. He remembers watching Soviet and Bollywood movies with other children (14:05). For Zhanakeev, attending the movies was akin to magic, able to experience different places, like Moscow, Paris, and Tokyo, through film and television. He also discusses the singularity of Soviet culture, emphasizing how “the entire Soviet Union watched the same films” (50:55). People from Kyrgyz to Moldovans, Georgians, and Azerbaijanis, living in Estonia, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan, to Far East all the way to Chukotka knew what was playing in the Soviet Union.
He also continuously discusses his affinity for foreign films, especially due to the Thaw opening up the Soviet bloc to the outside film industries (40:57). In addition to liking foreign films, Zhanakeev also exudes positive nostalgia towards his childhood memories of Soviet Kyrgyzstan. He especially likes Soviet cinema about the Soviet homeland with elements of “patriotism” and the “Great Patriotic War” (6:57).
He also discusses attending other events, including poetry readings, plays, and artist exhibitions. He describes the theater as a “очаг культуры” (36:50). Zhanakeev also makes several comparisons between aspects of American and Soviet moviegoing. For example, he articulates how in his childhood kids could walk to movie theaters and stay out late because the streets were safe, “no one was shot,” whereas in America “there are a lot of guns” (12:50).
Zhanakeev also describes the censorship of Soviet films in a positive light. According to Zhanakeev, Soviet films were very good thanks to the “отбор”- the state selection of films permitted to be made available to the public (19:39). That said, he refers to the Soviet Union as being “strict” (14:05), and “closed” (51:57) society, noting that “sometimes films were shelved for years,” “лежали на полках” – a euphemism for those films which never were screened to the public because they did not survive scrutiny of state censorship (45:03).
Today Zhanakeev rarely goes to the movies. In his view, modern films have become overly commercialized and pale in comparison to “classic masterpieces”. In the Soviet Union, the deregulation of state control led to the degradation of films’ quality. This process began during Perestroika when low-quality films were made about “bandits, racketeers, cooperators, speculators” (58:05). Zhanakeev argues that in the 50s and 60s Hollywood writers took 2-3 years to write quality scripts, whereas the modern film industry rushes the process to make a quick profit. He expresses his particular dislike of Marvel Cinematic Universe films because in his view the studio makes nonsensical, “non-serious” modern superhero films, such as Captain America, Spiderman, Iron Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy (52:49; 1:02:17).
For Zhanakeev, modern films’ only redeeming quality is their technological sophistication. In particular he is impressed by modern special effects, CGI, and how they depict technical marvels that will likely come into existence in the future, such as manned space exploration to Mars (1:04:25). Notably he knows a lot about those very disliked superhero films. A member of an older, more conservative generation, Zhanakeev speaks at length about the various negative social changes that have impacted moviegoing. In the Soviet Union moviegoers dressed “elegantly,” and “cleanly” as opposed to now, when people, especially youths, dress “democratically” (30:54).
Zhanakeev feels that the trend of programming quality degradation is not limited to film, but extends to televised programming, as well. Zhanakeev argues that cartoons for children, like Well, Just You Wait! / Ну, погоди! was a good cartoon, but now children’s cartoons depict gratuitous violence (1:02:17). In addition, he disparages the change in advertising that came with the advent of the internet; advertisements became “annoying” and “ubiquitous” (49:47). However, Zhanakeev says that Soviet advertisements were pleasant, people came and saw what was available, or read about it about it in Soviet newspapers like the Komsomolskaia Pravda. Friends and neighbors spoke to one another to learn about films.
Rather than going to the movies today, Zhanakeev would prefer to engage in high culture activities, such as go to the ballet, or theatre (52:49). He will, however, take his children to movies which he feels are important for highlighting Kyrgyz history and culture, such as the 2014 Kyrgyz historical epic, Queen of the Mountains (52:14).
For Turgunbek Zhanakeev, going to the movies evokes positive memories of his childhood in the Soviet Union (34:15), where moviegoing had a strong communal aspect that has since been lost. In Soviet times, moviegoing was a communal activity, a place to see everyone you know in your village, house, or region (1:00:09). It was a way of connecting with Soviet popular culture, as all Soviet citizens, regardless of ethnicity or location in the massive country watched the exact same movies. With the advent of Western-style modernity came commercialized, low quality films, and superficial human interaction on social media. According to Zhanakeev, what was once real genuine human interaction has been replaced by superficial interactions on social media, where people isolate themselves, and exchange likes and comments. Even such things as advertisements, in his view, became annoying. Films and movies nowadays portray lots of violence and scenes that are designed to make money. Soviet films were “more humane.” Zhanakeev wishes the films were good and simple, with quality human interactions. (1:05:35)