Animatsiya in English

The Uzbek animation of Sergey Alibekov (b. 1956)

The Uzbek animation of Sergey Alibekov (b. 1956)

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drawing, old man
Sergey Alibekov of Uzbekistan has a rather small filmography (only 4 films as director, thus far), but each of them is different and unique in some way, all of them are quite well-done, and (unusually) all of them are adult-oriented.

You can click on the images below to go to animatsiya.net and view his films with English subtitles. The biographical details in the following text come mainly from the director's profile on fdculture.com, and from this interview on Sputnik News.

Alibekov started out as art director. He did the art for Uzbekfilm's bleak and brilliant adaptation of the Ray Bradbury sci-fi story There Will Come Soft Rains, which won lots of recognition and praise, and counts Britain's Prince Charles among its fans.

Then he was art director for two more films, A Golden Leaf (1985) and The Garden of Crysanthemum (1986) (listed at animator.ru), neither of which seem to be available online anywhere.

Alibekov seems to have been part of a particular team at Uzbekfilm who made similar films around late 1980s-early 1990s. It seems to have been a very small but efficient and productive artistic group. According to Alibekov, the late 1980s was the golden era of Uzbek animation - there was total creative freedom with full state support. It is a pity that many of the films from this period seem to be currently inaccessible.

From 1988, Alibekov began to direct on his own, and began to make very personal, auteur films. He used a different animation technique in each film, and they all feel quite different, too!

The first, Pause, is an abstract rumination about art and control using cutout animation.

I personally find it hard to make out what is going on in Pause, partly because the image is so dark and the existing video (the only one available right now) is too low-resolution to do justice to the art. It seems to be about an artist in a state of limbo, new freedoms suddenly being given freely (e.g. dandelion seeds being like keys flying about, but then being actually constrained in where they fly by glass), and then the artist passing on and trying to turn his writings into a bird that will fly out into the world. That's as far as I got.

Alibekov's second film, The Thread (1989), co-directed with Svetlana Muratkhodzhayeva, used paint-on-glass and is a very moving reflection of an a old man's last days of life and death.

The director was the sole animator, and animated it daily over a period of 7 months. The technique (made most-famous by the Oscar-winner Aleksandr Petrov) required that he destroy or slightly modify each previous image to make the next one. I found it to be very well-done technically and very moving. Yes, "somewhat surreal film about an old man at the end of his life" is not an uncommon niche in Russian/Soviet animation (several other directors have one of those in their filmography - Sivokon's Snow Will Cover the Roads (2004), and Petkevich's There Lived a Tree (1996) come to mind), but this one is particularly well-conceived and well-executed.

Alibekov's third film, By the Puddle (1990) is a ridiculous and grotesque 3D plasticine animation that reminds one of the early Aardman films.

It is a complete stylistic and thematic break from the director's earlier films, and is grotesque and quite funny (and also a little bit not-safe-for-work). I recently made English subtitles for it. If there is a common element with Alibekov's other films, it's that this one too has a point; it's not just funny for the sake of being funny. It's about how easy it is to talk of high matters, but mundane concerns will ultimately cause someone to come back down to earth (quite literally, in this case).

After this film was made, in the early 1990s, the studio's funding from the state dried up and Uzbek animation collapsed with it, so Alibekov stopped doing animation for the next decade did only painting.

Alibekov's fourth film is a heavy, surreal political metaphor animated in stop-motion with plasticine as well as other materials, made for Uzbekfilm from 2001-2003. Some funding had appeared again, the studio's director offered him a project, and Alibekov jumped at the chance. He wrote the screenplay in a week. In total, they used 200kg of plasticene for the 20 minutes of film. At one point, they ran out of plasticene in Tashkent (the capital city of Uzbekistan), and had to go to Moscow to buy more.

The film uses a similar technique to his 1991 film, but is rather abstract, and heavy with political and social meaning - by his own admission "difficult to watch for someone who is not prepared". The specific topic is a matter of some confusion. In one source, he claims it was about "the full catastrophe of the collapse of the USSR". But the description of the version of the film posted to Youtube, uploaded with the blessing of the director, says that it's about post-Soviet events.

Personally, I think the latter explanation is more likely correct. In that light, it is interesting to compare this film with Flad Fesenko's 1992 Ready Or Now, Here I Come! (or "I Go Seek"), also a political film using the cinematic language of surrealism made at Uzbekfilm but a decade earlier, whose contents I analyzed a decade ago here. As I wrote back then, "surrealism [...] is not about being random; it's about using unconventional symbols to portray something that is invisible to the naked eye."

With little work to be found in Uzbekistan, Alibekov moved to Moscow at the age of 50, around the year 2005. He learned how to draw on the computer (which took him half a year) and, after a few years, became a very sought-after art director. He worked on blockbusters such as Turkish Gambit (2005) and, more recently, Viking (2016).

While in Moscow, he started another film based on Leo Tolstoy's work What Men Live By (Чем люди живы). It was to be 30 minutes long. He worked 7-8 years on preparation, then got some government funding, but only half of the minimum amount that was needed - only enough for the visuals. Nevertheless, he began work. Got about 4 minutes done, then got sick with thyroid cancer and needed an operation. They had to give back the money to the government, and it is not clear now what will happen with the project.

Despite living in Moscow, Alibekov still keeps in touch with people back in Uzbekistan, who tell him that they like what's going on there (film-wise), but he's waiting to see what the results will actually be. I also see some encouraging signs from the Uzbek animation scene, if approachable, funny cartoons such as Dmitriy Vlasov's One Hundred Sacks of Snow (2008) are representative.

Overall, Alibekov's trajectory is not unlike that of many other people in animation from the former Soviet sphere. There was a period in the late 1980s-early 1990s during which a lot of animation in the former Soviet space began to have serious themes and artistic experimentation - much of which came to an end in the 1990s as the economies collapsed and funding dried up. People reacted to this in different ways - some managed to stay within the shrinking state-funded animation scene, some moved out of animation entirely and turned to painting or book illustration (as did the Ukrainian Irina Smirnova), others moved to doing commercial work for foreign companies (as did many people from Pilot studio, such as Igor Kovalyov and Vladlen Barbè), others hunkered down and tried to raise their own money for their independent projects, either quite successfully (Garry Bardin) or not so much (Yuriy Norshteyn).

It also reflects a wider trend in history in which the collapses of big empires are typically presaged by a flowering of the arts within the empire - to the point that this is actually one of the warning signs of societal collapse. I suppose from this perspective, the current relatively-more-boring cultural output of the Russian animation scene is a good sign. ;)
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