Janyl Jusupjan says she has always felt a little bit like an outsider.
Born in the Soviet Union near the Chinese border in the isolated Kyrgyz enclave of Atbashi, which she describes as “a place where no road leads,” she moved with her family at the age of six to the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, then a majority Russian city named Frunze after the celebrated October Revolution commander.
She understood from an early age the difficulties faced by ethnic minorities in Central Asia. A talent for breaking down barriers between communities through the power of storytelling has always informed her work as a journalist, but perhaps never more so than now. She is embarking on a new chapter in her career as a freelance documentary film maker, traveling to some of the most remote corners of Central Asia to meet people--Kyrgyz, Tajik, Uzbek, and other ethnicities--living as minorities, sometimes in enclaves not unlike the one in which she herself grew up. Her objective, she says, is to fight racism and discrimination by documenting the lives of ethnic groups living on the periphery of their societies.
“It’s very easy to be seen as ‘other’ in these countries because there is little tolerance for diversity,” said Jusupjan. “If you’re not a good enough Kyrgyz, or a good enough Muslim, or a good enough woman…it’s endless. If we continue like this we will end up completely alienated from one another.”
After studying Western languages and literature at university in Kazakhstan, Jusupjan joined RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service over 20 years ago. She has worked as a radio broadcaster and news writer from RFE/RL’s headquarters, first in Munich and then in Prague, but says over the last several years her most fulfilling work has been visual storytelling from the field.
In 2011, Jusupjan was awarded a "Highly Commended" Diploma at the Association for International Broadcasting (AIB) Awards in London for her brave coverage of the violence perpetrated against women during the Kyrgyz-Uzbek conflict that erupted in the southern city of Osh in June 2010. Her reporting was published as a seven-part series called “The Invisible Women of Osh.”
One article in the series paints a searing portrait of Kamilla, a woman who was raped during the clashes. As Jusupjan wrote, Kamilla "saw the worst of fate, lost a good part of her health, and now with no job, is unable to feed her children and lives hiding her shame from the entire world." Jusupjan’s report managed to be both sensitive and unflinching in covering a subject that is hidden under many layers of taboo in the conservative country.
“There were many graphic threats in response to this series. I was treated very badly, but I wasn’t dispirited,” she recalls. But many more listeners expressed appreciation for the series, and she says the experience taught her that even the most painful stories, if told the right way, can change people’s thinking.In a related series called “Osh Diaries,” Jusupjan produced original audio, video, and photo coverage of issues Kyrgyz and Uzbek women faced months after the violence had subsided.
In a five-part documentary series released this year titled “People Of Two Lands: The Kyrgyz Of Jerge-Tal,” she filmed short vignettes of the lives of the Kyrgyz minority in Tajikistan.
Her subjects include Khamid Boronov, an aging teacher at a school for Kyrgyz children who lovingly collects artifacts of both Kyrgyz and Tajik folk culture, and tells his students “It is our responsibility to learn Tajik history well.”
We also meet a woman named Latofat, Raised in a mixed Kyrgyz-Tajik family, she supports herself as the only female singer in the village.
"People of Two Lands" Series with Latofat
“I always wanted to get deeper into stories,” said Jusupjan. “As much as I love journalism, I felt stuck in the news cycle and the endless train of stories, having to jump from one to the next. But with documentary filmmaking you have to pause, think, and go very deep into your subject matter.”
After a four-month stint in film school, Jusupjan created her own production company in Kyrgyzstan and switched to a freelance contract with RFE/RL this year, allowing her to do exactly that. Her current project is a documentary series about Tajiks living in Kyrgyzstan. She plans to make films about communities in underreported parts of Central Asia, but also to travel to China and Russia in search of stories that have not yet been told through the language of film.
Her work will take her to some very isolated places at a time when the growth of religious fundamentalism in Central Asia has made being a woman journalist even more difficult. Not only does one have to be more cautious about safety, she says, but the perceived value of women’s perspectives has diminished as extremism has grown.
But as usual, the allure of the untold story is too strong to resist.
“These places are really untouched and there are so many stories waiting to be told,” she said. “You just have to go there, take people as they are, and listen to them.”