At the end of every Film Showcase trip I tell myself and others, “Well, this was my best trip ever.”
This might be just my impressionable, excitable nature speaking—traveling and meeting people from different cultures are such treasured gifts, especially when I’m there to share something useful and interesting with them—but I fully embrace this subjectivity of mine when it comes to my adventures with Alex Ago and Mahmud Naimov in Tajikistan, July 15–22, 2013.
The reasons are twofold.
Firstly, I believe the impact we made on our audiences was deep and lasting. Traveling with two of my Showcase entries, They Came to Play and Kids With Cameras meant we could raise two sets of issues in one trip. In the provinces, North and South, including the hard–to–get–to Islamic enclave of Isfara, Kids With Cameras (singled out for inclusion by Cultural Affairs Assistant Mahmud Naimov) addressed the very sensitive issue of mainstreaming within Tajik classrooms and accepting within Tajik society those children on the Autism Spectrum—and there was real evidence that hearts were touched, minds were opened, and opinions changed. The screening of Kids With Cameras for the Autism–oriented NGO Iroda in the capital was emotional, empowering and liberating for many local parents of Autistic kids. On the other hand, the Dushanbe screening of They Came to Play (invited here by the Information Officer of the Public Affairs Section, Nicole Bayer—an accomplished cellist, USC School of Music graduate, and fan of the film from back in the States) exposed young audiences to the exhilarating joy of music and the hope-giving nature of nurturing an artistic hobby.
Secondly, the personal enrichment and overall quality of the experience were absolutely fantastic. From the culinary (here I’ve tasted the best peaches, cherries, melons, cantaloupes, apricots, and some of the best grilled meats ever) to the cultural (Dushanbe is the home of the largest pre–Islamic statue of Buddha in Central Asia, and up North by Istaravshan there is a strange, giant Lenin statue jutting out of a deserted dam; I got to see up-close a 1310 AD calligraphed Qur’an, and its owner recited/sang a sura for a small group in which I found myself by happy accident; I experienced the purchasing of hand–crafted knives from a master in Istaravshan and the sheer joy of perusing lapis lazuli, my favorite stone, in the form of jewelry for my wife); from the individual (a teacher in remote Kayrakoum saying to me she will integrate Autistic kids in the classroom from now on; young people meeting Americans for the first time— Alex Ago and me!—and friending us on Facebook in Isfara) to the natural (the incredible trip to Khujand, the “tunnel of death”, the mountains, the clean air and fresh water, the strangely non–oppressive yet high heat, the indelible and sadly inedible smells of the fruit market, the soothing swim in the Kayrakoum reservoir); from the quaint (YouTube is banned here because of a single controversial video; the only road North to South is a toll road, despite the inconvenience that causes; I get handed a rough personal reminder to never wear crocs in the mountains—by a steep gravelly descent to the Fondario river, a tributary of the gold river Zaravshon, during a sightseeing stop; 80% of the cars here run on propane, since gas is expensive; there is a stretch on the way toward the apricot–capital and radical region of Isfara where one side of the road belongs to Tajikistan and the other to Kyrgyzstan, this one peppered with cheaper gas stations patronized by Tajiks—because of preferential oil prices to Kyrgyzstan from Russia—and casinos also built and patronized by Tajiks because in Tajikistan casinos are illegal); to the unexpectedly memorable (my first day in Dushanbe I go on a walk alone to buy sunscreen, get lost for a short while, and loved every minute of it in the majestic park next to our hotel; our extraordinary driver, Sayid, is fasting for Ramadan, so during our lunches he prays and is often still missing for a few minutes when we’re done—and once I find and photograph him sleeping after prayer on the steps of an emptied Mosque; another time we’re pressing on, driving after sunset to return to the capital, and from the passenger seat I feed him from our lunch doggie bag—he’s ravenous, welcomes this haphazard meal and keeps on driving; on our last day we visit a tenth century castle in Hissar valley, and have lunch at a restaurant whose covered, breezy terrace overlooking the mountains of Uzbekistan is divided by a six–foot wide, boisterous mountain river deviated and forced to run through, keeping the place chilled in the 110 degree heat and allowing patrons to take cool dips between servings of incredibly delicious fried chicken; on the way back to Dushanbe that day we pass endless fields of sunflowers with their heavy heads turned away from the sun—and we argue about the explanation) … from all these points of view our Tajikistan trip will not leave my mind and senses any time soon.
I’d been wondering about conclusions for the duration of my first two flights on the way home—when a winning thought finally rolled out of my head just as I boarded the third. After this many Film Showcase trips—it started with Kazakhstan three years ago, and I can see the similarity between these two countries in particular, which is probably what made it click—I finally realized that all these children laugh at the same moments in my films, and generally arrive to the same conclusions about the characters. In Dushanbe as well as New York, Luanda as well as Nicosia, El Salvador as well as Bucharest or Beirut, young audiences like Esfir Ross in They Came to Play, Casey Metcalfe in Kids With Cameras, and all the kids who may not look like them but share their same basic fears and expectations for life, in Shakespeare High… and as a side note, all the really young ones want to know if I’ve ever met Justin Bieber (for the record, no).
In the age of internet-driven global cultural access, at an early point in life most children everywhere in the world are the same—open, tolerant, curious, excited—even if they often grow up to be such different adults.
It was a special honor for me to meet these Tajik youth, and to offer them a glimpse of what they have in common with Americans, young and old.