When Hungarian filmmaker Marta Meszaros made her way to the isolated central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan to shoot the last of a series of autobiographical films two years ago, her trip did more than dig up the memory of her father’s execution at the hands of the Stalinist regime. It brought to light the millions of similarly tragic stories, gathering dust for decades, hidden behind the ‘official’ histories.
Meszaros is one of the few filmmakers to revisit the memory of the tragedy of central Asia under Soviet authority. ‘My starting point was my parents, who along with the many who came to Kyrgyzstan in the 1930s, were to become the victims of Stalinism,’ explained Meszaros. ‘I have great respect for those who make films about the Holocaust because there is a great need for them, yet at the same time there is little talk about the Gulag and the 20 million people who were murdered during the Stalinist regime.’
It was in this troubled outpost of the historic Silk Road, nestled deep within the mountainous landscape of central Asia, where I had the opportunity to meet with Meszaros. I too was on a mission of my own to seek out documentary sources of this country’s past, looking for archival footage revealing the lives of people who lived under the former Soviet regime. My journey was to look for libraries sometimes referred to as the ‘Red Archives’, researching for a TV series aimed at presenting the little-known stories of the Soviet Union. The stories I found within these archives ranged from the determining moments of political life on a grand scale, to the every-day lives of the people who lived under the watchful eye of the Soviet state.
I soon realized that more than collecting stories, we were trying to uncover a period that the people themselves had yet to come to terms with.
Kyrgyzstan, similar to most post-communist states, has yet to address its troubled modern history, let alone take the time to uncover and analyze the doc evidence of its Soviet-era past. Perhaps there was even an element of fear involved in confronting its past.
‘During the filming, many locals looked at me with a great deal of respect for daring to reveal the truth and not letting the past fall into oblivion,’ said Meszaro. ‘We can’t forget that central Asia lived in a state of terror for 70 years, and there are still many Communists or former Communists who remain in power.’
I met Meszaros and her crew at the Lake Issyk-Kul Hotel in the center of Bishkek in the final days of shooting Little Vilma, the Last Diary. The film, undertaken with the state film production outfit Kyrgyz Film, recounted the story of how Meszaros was orphaned when her sculptor father Laszlo Meszaros was murdered by Soviet troops during the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. While the film was a personal project, Meszaros was aware that she was also documenting only one of the millions of similar stories from the sometimes gory and little-discussed history of Kyrgyzstan.
It was in these ‘Red Archives’ that the documentary evidence of the then-secretive Soviet state was contained, thousands of hours of archival footage that remain largely idle within vaults of the National Archives.
The topics deal with a wide range of subjects, including culture, politics, education, science and the military. Some images or propaganda newsreels are telling enough to describe a story on their own: the massive and bulky infrastructure projects dreamed up by the Soviet regime reveal the images of ambition that spurred the former empire; the newsreels of workers heroically toiling the land; and the meticulously documented Communist Party congresses. These are only the tip of the iceberg.
For storytellers, who view conflict as key, there seemed no shortage of material in the politically troubled central Asian region. The Kyrgyz, after all, were a nomadic people only two generations ago. When they formed a state, it was as a Soviet republic, completely supported by the Soviet Union. Film production, mostly propaganda materials, was funded and largely controlled by Moscow.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the financial burden of running the archives was jettisoned back to an unprepared Bishkek. The National Archives in Bishkek, for one, lost the significant funds that financed its film production and maintained the archives. It also raised a practical question. Since Moscow had funded the archive for decades, who actually owned the footage in the National Archive?
‘Until recently, we did not really know the value of the Soviet era archives,’ says Arisbai Alibaev, head of Kyrgyz Film. ‘And the big challenge we are facing is to systematically categorize what we have.’
The urgency of preserving the world’s documentary memory was recognized in 1992, when unesco launched the ‘Memory of the World Program’ to protect and promote that heritage. With organizations such as unesco at the forefront of efforts to preserve the documentary footage within the state archives, the nature of the mammoth task becomes apparent. Preserving the past costs money.
Although there was a hungry desire to coproduce projects with Western partners as a potential solution to these financial woes, only a handful of producers understood the expectations of European or North American broadcasters. Most showed me obscure films produced during the Soviet era – films in many cases over a decade old – wonderful tales of the Silk Road or the Kyrgyz epic poem, the Manas. Topics of interest, but none that tackled issues before Kyrgyz independence in 1991.
Local producers have access to the state archives, although they complain of the long periods of time required to sift through the newsreels and footage. Modernization has not been a priority. All you have to do is wander into the central square of Bishkek to see how the country lives with its past on a daily basis. Even now, a monumental sculpture of Lenin stands stoically overlooking the city. While the government may say it would be too costly to remove the monument, one can’t help but think that, in many ways, time stands still in Kyrgyzstan.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that those ‘Red Archives’ I was looking for had a totally different meaning to the lives of the people they document. In speaking to producers and archive owners, I had a distinct feeling that they themselves were not ready, or perhaps did not want, to face the values that the materials contained. They were simply notions of the past, something they have little time or money to ponder over – notions that they may well still be afraid to face.
Journalist and project manager Andrew Princz is editor of news and cultural website http://www.ontheglobe.com