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‘At Home And Not At Home’

Screengrab from Letters From Pamirs film
Screengrab from Letters From Pamirs film

RFE/RL contributor’s documentary film is a portrait of rapidly changing life for ethnic Kyrgyz living high in the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia.

Filmmaker Janyl Jusupjan says she comes from “a place where no road leads.” After more than 20 years as a journalist with RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, her road led her back to the isolated mountain villages similar to those of her childhood where forgotten people struggle to maintain a traditional way of life in the face of mounting economic, political, and cultural pressures. “Letters From The Pamirs,” her first feature-length documentary film, which is premiering March 8 at the One World Festival in Prague, is a series of quietly beautiful vignettes of the life of ethnic Kyrgyz living on both sides of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border in the treacherous high passes of the Pamir Mountains. RFE/RL Pressroom sat down with her to discuss the film.

RFE/RL Pressroom: You’re from a remote part of Kyrgyzstan near the Chinese border, and in many ways your life experience parallels that of the people you follow in your film. Is that part of the reason you chose these subjects?

Janyl Jusupjan: My reasons for making this film were very personal. I, too, come from a very isolated area like these people and I know what it’s like to be a minority. I know what it’s like to be looked down on by others, even as a little girl, and told my Russian isn’t good enough and I don’t behave the way I should. It was very difficult for my family to integrate even within our own country when we moved from an isolated place to the city, so I know what it must be like for the people in my film who have moved from another country. There are no social safety nets like the ones we had during Soviet times, so it is even more difficult for them.

RFE/RL: Listening to your narration in the documentary overlaying the breathtaking scenes of the Pamir Mountains and traditional village setting, I got a sense of nostalgia. Do you miss this lifestyle?

Jusupjan: We have a saying in Kyrgyz that where the blood drops from your umbilical chord is a golden place. For nomadic Kyrgyz people, we feel very connected to our land, but this is common in all isolated places. I left my country, but because I worked for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, I was reporting on my country so I was able to maintain strong connections. At the same time, because I lived abroad I had a basis for comparing, and I was able to see the problems of Central Asia--wars between ethnic groups and all of the other problems--through the prism of similar problems in other places.

RFE/RL: It’s clear from the film that culture and traditions are a fundamental part of the identity of people in this region. Has that changed over time?

Jusupjan: I grew up in a system where we didn’t have any opportunity to understand our own culture. We were told that we were all Soviet, there was censorship, and someone far away selected what we could study, what we could know and what we could not know. Now students can study Kyrgyz history and culture, but this was a grey area in my mind and in my heart, and that’s why I became very intensely interested in these things as a journalist living abroad.

RFE/RL: Considering the recent history of ethnic conflict in Central Asia, to what extent are identity politics to blame?

Jusupjan: I’m not willing to say that everything was good in the Soviet system because we know what Stalin did and what happened to my culture. But one thing we can learn is not to talk about culture and religion in such a blunt way, or put forward the notion that we are the best or our religion is the best. We need diplomacy and we need to cultivate an attitude of care. We should study each other’s cultures and not be afraid to visit each other and talk, but carefully. We can’t just criticize. If we all do this, there will be no room for conflicts. It takes effort, education, and role models. Except one funny and specific moment, in my film I don’t talk about who is who in terms of ethnicity. I don’t know and I don’t care, and in that sense I want to be a role model.

Childhood photo of filmmaker Janyl Jusupjan (left) with her sister Salima wearing traditional Kyrgyz clothing made by their mother.
Childhood photo of filmmaker Janyl Jusupjan (left) with her sister Salima wearing traditional Kyrgyz clothing made by their mother.

RFE/RL: This kind of “attitude of care” is exemplified in the film by the Kyrgyz teacher you met in Tajikistan. He teaches his Kyrgyz students to respect the traditions of Tajikistan while celebrating their own…

Jusupjan: Exactly. For me he is like a father figure. He told me many times that the most important thing is to respect people as individuals, and not to focus on ethnicity or religion. He said it’s difficult because in Kyrgyzstan his people are called Tajiks and in Tajikistan they are called Kyrgyz. He’s almost 80 years old and he’s still teaching and trying to build a museum dedicated to the culture of the Kyrgyz living in Tajikistan. He can see very clearly how things should be, but will we be able to do it? That’s the question.

RFE/RL: Several of the people in your film also lamented the fact that relatives had left their villages to go to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. In addition to the ethnic and geographic divides, is there also a rural-urban divide?

Jusupjan: There is, and it is driven by economic factors. Young people are drawn to the capital or Russia because of their poverty. In the cities in Kyrgyzstan you have to be pretty tough to survive. You have to be able to throw your elbows to push your own agenda. And these people from isolated mountain villages on the border are not able to do that. They are very soft and respectful and hospitable. They struggle with urban life and are usually pushed to the margins of society.

RFE/RL: At one point in the film you spoke about entering a mosque during a previous visit home and being turned away sternly, even from the women’s section, without explanation. You said it made you feel “at home and not at home.” Could you explain that a bit more?

Jusupjan: This was one of the earliest signs of the changes in Kyrgyzstan. It’s impossible nowadays to question anything connected with religion. You can see this when you look at the comment sections online where religion comes up. They are full of abuse and threats. I’m afraid that soon it won’t be only words. You can see even the physical appearances of people and landscapes changing so much in Kyrgyzstan. More men have beards and there are many more mosques. In Tajikistan, however, it is very secular. Kyrgyzstan chose the road of freedom of religion, which is perfectly fine, but one consequence is that some wealthy organizations and individuals, mostly from Arab countries, can use their wealth to export their vision of Islam--a very conservative, very radical vision. Rural people in Kyrgyzstan are very poor, and when they are handed out money on mass gatherings and schools are built for them by these organizations, it’s almost like a parallel government. I’m very worried. In the film I try to convey this sense of foreboding.

--Emily Thompson