Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev discovered a book at a flea market in Moscow about Russian avant-garde art that miraculously survived Soviet censorship. That chance encounter led to many years traveling back and forth between Los Angeles, Moscow, and Uzbekistan, piecing together the history of the most remarkable trove of modern art you’ve probably never seen. The result is The Desert of Forbidden Art, which premieres on THIRTEEN on April 5, 2011 at 10 p.m.
Independent Lens sat down with the filmmakers to discuss their travels and the making of the film.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
We hope that our film will serve as a catalyst to bring international attention to protect and preserve this endangered 20th century art treasure. Even though the museum houses a collection worth millions, government salaries for its staff average less than $100 a month. This is just one example of the economic pressures on the museum. Ninety-seven percent of the collection is in dire need of restoration. We are using the film to encourage a traveling exhibition of Nukus Museum paintings to several museums across the U.S. Our final act of art activism will be to create the first book in English on the collection.
What led you to make this film?
In 2000, we were filming in Uzbekistan just finishing a two-year production on grassroots reformers in the former Soviet Union. Neither of us had ever been to Central Asia before and tales of Uzbekistan’s Silk Road and the fabled blue-tiled domes of Samarkand, one of Muslim world’s most dazzling capitals, sparked our interest. But then we were told of a cultural treasure from our own time, a museum of Soviet-era forbidden avant-garde art in a far off desert at the Western border of Uzbekistan. The improbability of the story was arresting: an amazing art collection, created by a penniless man, in the one of the world’s poorest regions, in an Islamic country suspicious of art created by their former colonizers.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
Usually in a historic documentary where the main characters are no longer alive, filmmakers rely on diaries and letters, but the Soviet regime was so repressive that few people dared to document their views on art and their frustration about the lack of artistic freedom.
Painstakingly, by combing through archives and KGB files, we were able to piece together the story. And luckily we found friends and family with excellent memories of these former times. Children of the artists, now in their 80s, relived with relish their experiences from the Soviet era. And the main character, the collector Igor Savitsky, was so charismatic that everyone who had even the slightest interaction with him would quote him and would regale us with his antics.
Another challenge was the setting for the story. Our film’s saga takes place in a remote part of the world, about a time in history that was harsh and foreign to an American audience. We had to find visuals to bring this epoch to life. We were thrilled to learn that the Soviets had sent one man, Max Penson, to Uzbekistan to document the Revolution. He took more than 15,000 images of the historical, social, religious, and political transformations that were taking place in the same period as the artists were painting. Thanks to his son, we were given full access to this collection by this Soviet Central Asian equivalent of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the father of modern photojournalism.
How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
Tchavdar’s fluent Russian was essential and we came recommended from organizations and other individuals whom our subjects already trusted.
The children of the artists were eager to share with the world stories of their parents’ struggles. At one point, Amanda flew to Moscow with the sole purpose of interviewing the 81-year-old son of painter Alexander Volkov. He welcomed a non-stop filming interview of six hours, declining each hour her offers to pause for a break.
What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
We wanted to show more of the ordinary life of the curators and the people who live around this magnificent collection — because the contrast is so striking between their daily struggles for survival and the art collection they protect which is worth millions. This discrepancy has so much to say about the precarious future of a cultural treasure in a poor country.
One of our favorites is the story of the artist, Ural Tansykbaev, who paints brilliantly as a young man, then sells out and becomes famous painting propaganda works. Then as an old man he decides to go and visit his early work that he has not seen since he turned it over to the Collector, Igor Savitsky. What happens we won’t give away, but it resonates big time.
What has the audience response been so far?
For art-loving audiences who are at first skeptical about “new” discoveries, the bold colors and originality of the art surprises and delights them. We have played to sold-out venues across the globe. We are told the film deals with very dark historical content but in an uplifting, sometimes even humorous way. They respond strongly to Miriam Cutler’s score, richly punctuated with authentic instruments from Central Asia and Russia as well as some of our never-before-seen archival footage.
Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
We sent a copy of the film to the director of the Nukus Museum this last spring and she showed it first to her staff. When these folks had last seen us we were very low key about our filming. We are told there were not many dry eyes at the end. Unfortunately one of our dear characters, Militza Zemskaya, Savitsky’s best friend, died before she could see herself in the film and we were reminded that we made the film not a moment too soon.
It’s a more interesting way to live. There’s an adrenaline rush when you pull off a next to impossible day of filming or editing or when an audience “gets” your film. Making films is exhilarating in its power to motivate and inspire.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
PBS viewers are our ideal audience — open minded, culturally sophisticated, curious about the arts (especially art not familiar to them), hip to a quality film score, at ease with foreign language and sub-titles, and above all, appreciative of the care that goes into telling complex stories.
What do audiences tend to ask after they see your film?
“How can I go to Nukus myself?” We have tips on visiting and supporting the museum on our website.
“What is the future of the collection?” It is endangered, uncertain, and that is why we made the film.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
Tchavdar: I wish we had sophisticated film equipment like a dolly, steadi-cam or a jib arm on location with us at the museum so that we could have glided seemless through the paintings and experience them even more up close, feel the texture of the brushstrokes. But unfortunately as indie filmmakers we didn’t have the budget to physically bring such large equipment to Uzbekistan and did our best using some old tricks that our Russian cameraman had to shoot paintings.
Amanda: I wanted to be able to speak with Karakalpak villagers who remembered Savitsky coming to collect their family heirlooms and hear their response at discovering that these objects were now world-prized. I also wished we could have spent more time following Savitsky’s trail back to Russia, locating more people who had first-hand stories about him.
What are your three favorite films?
Soldiers of Music, by Bob Eisenhardt, Susan Fromke, and Albert Maysles
F for Fake, by Orson Welles
Little Dieter Needs to Fly, by Werner Herzog
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Find a story and with characters who are original enough to sustain your interest for the several years it make take you to complete the film. If you can, find a community of like-minded people who will support you, often quite literally. If you gravitate towards social advocacy, find the small individual stories that reveal your larger themes. Always honor the power of your medium.
There are no craft services on an independent documentary shoot in the middle of a desert in Central Asia. What sustained you?
For us it was honey pepper vodka that helped us deal with the time difference of 12 hours between Los Angeles and Uzbekistan. When was the last time you tried to negotiate visas with a bureaucracy after working a 10-hour day?!