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Olga and Her Houseplants

January 5, 2011

Somehow it was colder inside the building then it was outside. The hallways were painted a kind of psych-ward blue, which probably added to the general chilliness, and they were dark and empty like a cave. At the end of the corridor was a solitary office, and inside there was a sad-faced Russian woman, wearing a crimson coat with faux fur around her neck, surrounded by potted cacti and assorted succulants. She took a few discs out of her drawer and pushed them my way. “Three hundred som each.” Movie titles were scribbled on top in sharpie. “Will you need a receipt?” she said. I don’t know, I said, I guess so. “Well in that case, it will be more…”

We were in the crumbling shell of the Soviet film industry, and the sole archivist of Kyrgyzfilm was selling me bootleg copies of her own studio’s movies, hush hush. When the USSR was still standing, every republic had its own well-funded cinematic factory – Uzbekfilm, Tajikfilm, Kazakhfilm. The empire collapsed, but the state-funded studios remained, limping along into a new age. The moneyflow from Moscow dried up, and now the operation was running along on whatever funds the latest government could slip their way. That wasn’t much – the country was poor, and so was the state. So they kept their pockets lined with “special orders” like mine. I was happy to help.

The archivist was named Olga, and she had been working at Kyrgyzfilm for more than forty years. “It was a good job,” she said, in the glory days. Seven people worked at the archives back then, cleaning and cataloging the films, watching them daily to check for damage. Now she watched them alone. With independence, her coworkers got sloughed off until she was the only one left. Her office was the only one remaining in this shivering building – the rest were padlocked and empty, or full of old film equipment, rusting slowly into oblivion. There were six hundred films in the archive, but nobody left to look after them except Olga and her houseplants.

She showed me a list of every animated film ever made in Kyrgyzstan. I ordered all twenty six of them for ten dollars. “They won’t be ready for a week,” she told me – they were still stuck on the reels. I asked her how they digitalized them for DVDs. I imagined some sort of film-scanning device, spitting out discs for the demanding public. That wasn’t quite right. “We project them on a screen and then film it with a digital video camera.” My eyes shot open and I stifled a laugh. The official state filmmakers of the Kyrgyz Republic were pirating their own works like a teenager at the back of Tron capturing it on his iPhone. There was no other way to stay alive, though. Working two positions at the studio, she made less than a hundred dollars a month.

Downstairs, Olga showed us around the archive itself. It was cold, colder than the halls above. It was supposed to be, she told us, to preserve the films. The reels were stacked high to the ceiling, row after row. Before me lay a national treasure: dozens of cinematic classics, based off Aitmatov stories, adored by the Kyrgyz people; hundreds of propaganda films, touting the latest diplomatic visit or hydroelectric dam; cartoons and documentaries, everything. Decades of filmmaking, reduced to forgotten racks of reels in a locked-up corner of a crumbling building. I felt ashamed that I could come and buy these up for my personal collection. For most Kyrgyz people, that wasn’t an option. They had mouths to feed. Brainfood was out of their budget. One of the perks of the socialist system was that art could be subsidized. Now, it just wasn’t affordable. Olga closed the room up and sealed it with a key, we bid farewell, and I skulked away into the day, weighed down by my bounty.

At home, I found out that the DVDs I had ordered wouldn’t play on my computer like I had hoped, so I went to a friend’s house and made her watch them with me on her Chinese DVD player. I had ordered a few films the week before for my research, short movies about eagle hunting. Soviet synthesizers played over idyllic landscapes and shots of soaring birds. One film was in Kyrgyz, but the plotline was easy to follow. A nomad lets his eagle go when he and his family are moving camp, and travels on to fresher pasture. Soon, though, the swift tide of development comes and he finds his bird stuffed and mounted atop a trailer, turned into a trophy by the Russians. He looks like he’s going to cry. I don’t understand his curses but I feel his pain. The researcher and the nomad share a moment. The magic of cinema, bridging cultures.

If you’d like, I can order you some copies of your own. The films need company, and the archive needs money. What do you say?

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Charlie permalink
    January 5, 2011 12:30 pm

    I would love some copies

  2. Debbie permalink
    January 5, 2011 4:02 pm

    I wonder if anyone with Hollywood money knows or cares about this?

  3. Colleen permalink
    January 6, 2011 2:18 am

    Wonderful description. Wish someone would preserve the films properly.

  4. Greg permalink
    January 25, 2011 5:04 am

    All you gotta do is find the best one and show it to Quentin Tarantino. Before you know it there’ll be screenings at art house theaters all over the US.

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