Persuading Ben Kingsley and Sally Field to work on any film is a tough enough job for any director, but when the subject is of Central Asian art, at first sight this would feel impossible. However that is exactly what Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev, creators of the film “Desert of Forbidden Art”, did. The film explores the hidden and forbidden art collection of Igor Savitsky, today visible at the museum of his name in Nukus, Uzbekistan. In this revealing interview with the film’s inspirational directors, Open Central Asia gets to grips with how this unlikely film became and even more unlikely hit with audiences across the world.
OCA: Tell us how the idea of the film came about and why you felt this little-known corner of Uzbekistan deserved to have its story told?
AP & TG: We were filming in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, just finishing a two year video production on emerging leaders in the former Soviet Union. A colleague from the Brookings Institute mentioned an ‘amazing’ art collection out in Western Uzbekistan near the Aral Sea. Tchavdar was skeptical until he uncovered an out of print art book in the Moscow flea market.
We first met when I was Tchavdar’s professor at the University of Southern California’s film school. Our partnership on equal footing across generations might have seemed unlikely, but we complimented each other perfectly. Having grown up in the former USSR, Tchavdar had his roots in Eastern European and Russian culture, while my strength came from a background in teaching and making documentary films on art and the dynamics of creativity.
The improbability of the story was arresting: an amazing art collection of Soviet era forbidden Avant-Garde art, created single-handedly by one penniless man, in the desert, a poor region, in an Islamic country suspicious of art created by their former colonisers. We were hooked. Not only was this story unexplored in film, but the Museum seemed to need the international attention a film could bring to discourage attempts to raid its treasure.
The obstacles were very real. How could we tell a story which demanded a high percentage of English speakers in a country where the Russian and Uzbek languages predominated? Who was the Museum director and would he/she support the project? Right off the bat we placed a phone call to Marinika Babanazarova, director and defender of the Savitsky Collection for over 30 years. She had been designated, as a young woman, by Savitsky himself to succeed him. Prophetically she had turned her focus at university from philology to the English language – as she later confessed, upon hearing the Beatles. Her command of English and her considerable international activities in English in support of the museum made her an ideal main character in the film in present day and Igor Savitsky was the quirky hero of the Collection, though he had died in 1984.
This was 2001 – we premiered the film in 2010. It took us 9 years to complete. Why so long? Funders were skeptical – the art was not known in the West. Nukus, as a location, could not have been more remote and official government permission to film was complicated. All along the way we discovered secret admirers of the museum, individuals who made critical introductions for us to organisations, such as Peter Kaufman of Inteliigent Television and John Bowlt our authority on the Russian Avant-Garde. Each of our funders we cherished, from CEC ArtsLink, to Open Society Institute’s Arts and Culture Sub-Board in Budapest and its Uzbekistan Committee, to Amanda’s University of Southern California. We made two filming trips to Uzbekistan, three trips to Moscow to film the children of artists who had let Savitisky take their paintings, as well as trips to experts in the U.S. Another whole dimension was the never-before-seen archival film footage we found in the Russian archives and NKVD archives in Tashkent.
OCA: What were your impressions of visiting Nukus and the Savitsky museum, amongst other parts of Uzbekistan, as part of your research for the film?
AP & TG: On our first visit to Nukus in 2003 we are surprised by the contrast between this sprawling non-descript urban city in its desolate desert location and the vibrancy of the art
within the Museum. Nukus had none of the exotic architecture and cultural artifacts of Uzbekstan’s more famous Samarkand, Bukhara or Khiva. Even the near-by greatly diminished Aral Sea had become an environmental disaster.
OCA: You have an impressive cast of storytellers in Ben Kingsley and Sally Field. How did they respond to your idea of a film about Savitsky and what was it like working with such legends of the screen?
AP & TG: Documentaries with a strong social purpose attract amazing talent – in our case “legends of the screen.” Once we sent the film in its almost finished form to Sally Field, Sir Ben Kingsley and Ed Asner, they agreed immediately to participate. Sally Field voiced a letter written by artist Elena Korovay describing her impressions of Savitsky; Sir Ben became the voice of Savitsky himself; Ed Asner voiced a critical secret police trial of the artist Kurzin. When you work with artists of this stature, you give them their lines and then listen in awe and they bring them to life.
OCA: Savitsky’s story and drive to save the works of art is nothing short of heroic. Is there a particular story from his life, or painting, that you feel particularly resonates with you?
AP: The one story that I wish I had been able to witness in person was Savitsky’s first meeting with Tanskybaev when he overcame the artist’s first suspicions and then ended up going up with him to his attic and opening the old chest with hundreds of the Master’s works – these are my favorite paintings in the Collection.
OCA: How has the film been received critically?
AP & TG: The film has been very well received critically. In addition to being broadcast in the USA on PBS, its been broadcast in Australia, Denmark, New Zealand and Switzerland. It’s been screened and won awards at over 60 international films festivals including those in Brazil, Russia, China, Romania, Bulgaria, Berlin, Vancouver and London; at 30 museums worldwide: from the National Gallery in DC and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, Almaty Art Museum, Kazakhstan and Dushambe, Tajikistan – and the 54th Art Biennale, Venice Italy. In 2011 it was awarded CINE’s Masters Award for Excellence in Independent Filmmaking and in 2012 was nominated for 2 Emmy Awards, one for Outstanding Arts & Culture Programming and one for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Music. What is especially important to us is the positive impact the film has had in bringing a 4 fold increase of visitors to the museum and in promoting the Uzbek government’s recognition of the museum as a major tourist attraction.
OCA: Do you have another project in the pipeline that you can tell us about?
AP & TG: Amanda is in the research and development stage of a new feature documentary based on Mary Ellen Hannibal’s awarded book “The Spine of the Continent” exploring the effort to create wildlife corridors from Alaska to Mexico that would allow plants and animals ‘room to roam’ as climates fluctuate, and give them the best change to escape extinction.
Tchavdar is currently directing a feature documentary which he is filming in Russia’s Ural Mountains, the family home of the famous, but little known, Victor Starfin. Starfin was an ethnic Russian who was the first professional pitcher in Japan – 1936-1944 – to win 300 games. He is survived by his two daughters both of whom are working with Tchavdar. He has completed filming in Japan.