2017, HD video, sound, 23 minutes
Saodat Ismailova’s film The Haunted renders multiple political, linguistic and natural histories of subjugation and extinction during the dawn of modernity into a strong and challenging personal account that takes the form of an open love letter to a bygone tiger.
Anders Kreuger: When you, as the author of this film that involved several creative partnerships, look at it now, how do you experience the balance between what might be called its four ‘tools’, namely (relatively) static new footage, archival footage (which, by comparison, comes across as dynamic), an even more dynamic soundscape and the gentle (but at the same time insistent) use of the Uzbek language in the voice-over? Are you able to retrospectively judge your own use of these artistic strategies?
Saodat Ismailova: I worked with the “tools” you mention also as a process to evoke the complexity of the story and feelings that inhabit The Haunted. When I came across the totem of the tiger, which is deeply embedded in the psyche of the collective memory in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, it appeared as a mix of complex emotions involving those of ancestral presence, spiritual longing and loosing connection with land. The interviews of tiger-related stories and dreams that I collected were so lively that they would create a parallel space to where we find ourselves at now, and the same would happen to time, as if it had been inverted or displaced.
My first tool was the text that I wrote to the soul of the last Turan Tiger, which was the first time I found myself working with a text in Uzbek, my native language.
Locals describe the Turan Tiger as a very silent feline whose sounds were inaudible. Tigers produce low frequencies to hypnotise their victims, which is the reason why I thought about collaborating with the Oslo-based composer Camille Norment, whose previous recordings with glass harmonica fascinated me. Those mesmerizing sounds of the glass harmonica create the perfect soundscapes for The Haunted: they are as hypnotic sessions, recalling the early experiments of Franz Anton Mesmer. This is also why my voice takes presence as a kind of auto exorcism.
The static shots of the empty landscapes portray the places where the tiger was seen last, either for real or in recalling dreams. They are empty and motionless. In contrast to these shots, there are the ghost images from the archives, which evoke collective memories and create a juxtaposition of rigidity and relief. The archive footage creates an ambiguous tension with the text, between the personal and the collective, which is important issue for the two greatest transitions in our recent history of Uzbekistan: the entrance to the Soviet era and the coming out of it.
AK: Would you agree that the oppositions you set up (and pitch against each other) with those tools or strategies serve a wider artistic strategy, namely the poetic construction of what might be called a ‘contemporary elegy’?
SI: ‘Contemporary elegy’ is a good description of the film. When I set up to make this film I wanted to celebrate or safeguard not only the memory of this animal but also its presence in our collective imaginary. It was my fascination to understand why so many Central Asians still dream about the tiger: what the tiger means to them. The imaginary of the tiger in Central Asia is fading out with the disappearance of older generations and I guess that this animalistic connection stayed out of the mainstream gaze of Islam and was kept alive the peripheral parts of the region.
I stumbled across this archetype while filming my previous project, Stains of Oxus (2016), where I followed the Amu Darya River from where it emerges in the Pamir Mountains to its mouth in the Aral Sea, collecting dreams of people along the way. The tiger started appearing repetitively in dreams, and that is when the puzzle started to come together—memories, shared dreams, stories, legends and episodes from epic stories or places that carry the name of the tiger. Each interviewee who told me about the tiger perceived it as a source of lost knowledge or as a bridge to a forgotten but safe past, as if there is an unspoken code that lives under the locals’ skin. For instance, through a dream the tiger taught a young shaman how to heal; an epic story teller had been constantly attacked by the tiger in his dreams before he started publicly reciting; a woman has an urge to make carpets in a disappearing technique to exorcise the presence of the tiger in her dreams.
The Haunted could be called a ‘contemporary elegy’ also because it longs for a spiritual bound with the tiger which has been lost. I address the tiger in order to get it back.
AK: In the light of my previous remarks (disguised as questions), how would you qualify your invocation of nostalgia in this film? (‘Our paradise has born stolen, our garden burned down’)
SI: When I was writing the text, I would let the tiger (Turkestan Tiger is how locals named the Turan Tiger) embed different souls like a transforming tiger creature. When I connected the soul of my great grandfather with the tiger, the association functioned well and the text became clear. Abdul Aziz, my great grandfather, was born in the city of Turkestan in a moment in which there was not a single Central Asian “stan”: there was no division of languages or nations. People identified themselves by the city in which they were born or by the river that ran nearby; they would speak Chaghatai (old Uzbek), Persian and Arabic. He gave me books and writings that remain a mystery to me, texts that I cannot read, written in Uzbek but with Arabic calligraphy. Uzbekistan has changed alphabet six times in less than a century, thus written knowledge couldn’t be transmitted and faded with time. These written objects of desire became a coded gateway to the past and at the same time painful objects to look at. My great grandfather was sent to a gulag for 11 years when he was only 21 years old. He was one of the few male survivors in the family. He couldn’t come back to his home but he came back to a different “home” that spoke different language, where the values were replaced, and one had to chose whether to belong to one or another territory. The land was tore apart into young Soviet Republics. I created a parallel between the fall of the last Turan Tiger and my ancestors’ life; they lived at the same time, I guess they faced similar challenges and they were both hunted. I was lucky to have met my great grandfather, he wouldn’t speak much, as he knew his knowledge didn’t correspond to the times we were born in and it might hurt us; he only asked each of us to “don’t’ forget who you are”—I believe this sentence embraces all possible known and unspoken nostalgias.
AK: Similarly, how would you qualify your use of highly determined visual symbols, such as the almost Eisensteinian archival footage of billowing sails? (On the Aral Sea? This is not explicated, but implied, which strengthens the invocation of loss and destruction.)
SI: It is interesting that you define these images like Eisensteinian as Eisenstein had a film project in the Fergana Canal, which was one of the greatest Soviet irrigational water policies, a key strategy in Central Asia. Despite visiting the location, Eisenstein never started filming it. There are many local anecdotes on why he didn’t make the film. The images of people digging the landscape, water running on dry earth, of a woman dancing, they all come from film archives on the creation of Fergana Canal in the early 1930s. One of the reasons that brought the tiger to extinction was the complete reorganization of rivers and the destruction of reeds for irrigation fields.
At the beginning and end of the film, I worked with earlier archive footage made from 1908 onwards by Khudaibergen Divanov, the first cameraman in Central Asia, whose name is associated to the birth of Uzbek cinema. He was a jadid (a representative of local progressive reformists) who also fell later into Stalin purge. The footage of sails in Amu Darya River, which once was affluent and could carry boats, stroke me with the nostalgia that you mention in the previous question. I read and heard about boats sailing in Amu Darya, but I have never seen them. It is a reality that exists only thanks to cinema. To give you an example, I was filming The Haunted in September and I managed to ford the Amu Darya with some danger but still it was an exciting and at the same time very painful experience, as for us it represents a cradle of our civilization.
AK: You certainly noticed that I avoid steering you into a discussion about the colonial and the post-colonial, focusing on your use of visual and formal language instead. Would you agree that the oppositions you set up—a dynamic but lost paradise vs. its static and depleted ‘residue’ in the outdoor shots and the museum interior; the ambiguous ‘you’ vs. the no less ambiguous ‘I’ in the voice-over; the stretched, stitched skin of the stuffed animal vs. the slight, surreptitious movement of its live descendant or ‘relative’ in the speculative segment towards the end of the film—amount to an attempt at ‘synesthetic reanimation’? (Not just of the Turan Tiger, of course.)
SI: I hope that by ‘synesthetic reanimation’, which is an expression that I really like, you also mean that the sonic world of the film, as well as the way in which the past collides and mixes with its present—with Camille we spoke about how the sound could invoke those spirits.
AK: To conclude, would you agree that this reanimation might function as a metaphor for cinematic subjectivity, as a general description of your approach? If so, and if have thought of your own work in these terms, how would you describe the challenges posed by such a concerted use of the poetic toolbox for yourself, in the foreseeable future?
SI: I believe that cinema can be used to evoke and to reanimate a long gone world and also invisible and parallel worlds. The film became for myself a sort of exorcism of what we were mentioning before. Sometimes in my practice I let myself go and let my intuition work, without bringing theory or what you call a poetic toolbox. I would like to believe that all these instruments are constructed and manipulated by feelings and intuition and that is when I believe the film makes self through me.
Written and directed by Saodat Ismailova
Produced by Leif Magne Tangen
Photography and editing by Saodat Ismailova
Text editing by Ulugbek Sadikov
Music by Camille Norment
Sound design and mix by Cato Langnes
Title design by arc Leipzig/Berlin
Translations by Ibrat Jomabaev, Kirill Kuzmin, Theodore Levin
Special thanks to: Carlos Casas, Sibel Martinez Ismailova, Filipa Ramos, Tursun Ismailova
Thanks to: Katya Garcia-Anton and Antonio Cataldo at OCA, Office for Contemporary Art Norway, Gayane Umerova and Kamola Akilova, Gallery of National Bank of Uzbekistan, Benjamin Cook, Sarah Schipschack, Boris Golender, Tashkent State Zoo, Badai Togai Natural Reserve, Karakalpak State Museum of Natural History
Commissioned by TKF – Tromsø KunstforenigProduced by Map Productions