Wednesday, July 17
Alex Rotaru and I traveled to the remote northeastern village of Isfara, a community more heavily influenced by Islam than Dushanbe or Khujand. The drive took us through more rugged, desert-like terrain, notable for its oil fields, a rarity in Tajikistan. We also briefly crossed the “border” into Kyrgyzstan, though in reality, no physical barriers exist in this section of the country, and many Tajiks take advantage of lower gas prices from their more oil-rich neighbors. The 34 teenagers awaiting us at the American “Window” (a smaller incarnation of the typical American Corner community center) were brightly dressed and, after some latecomers took their seats, reflected a more balanced gender breakdown than the previous day. Alex opened the session with an introduction about autism, and how the condition has received more attention and awareness in the years since filming Kids With Cameras. In particular, Alex offered a compelling anecdote about the differences in tactile responses to human touch (handshakes, hugs, eye contact) between children considered “neuro-typical” and those on the autism spectrum. The conversation that followed the screening continued to probe the issues surrounding autism: how to diagnose it early, how children with autism can thrive in adulthood with the right care and learning environment during adolescence and childhood, etc. Filmmaking itself was relatively absent from the conversation, although Alex fielded many questions about which celebrities he had met (Johnny Depp), or has worked with (Ian McKellen, Kevin Spacey). Tajik students seem most preoccupied with whether or not Alex likes and/or has met Justin Bieber, to which Alex confesses having “parked behind Bieber’s car” at a friend’s Hollywood home, which is next door to Chris Brown’s, whom “the Bieb” was visiting. Sadly, Alex chose not to perform an encore of his aria from the previous day, despite my taunting.
Our next encounter was with the teenagers at the upscale American Corner in Khujand, a free learning environment which offers a plethora of computers, Hollywood films, and a vast library of both contemporary fiction and educational books. This time, the demographic skewed noticeably male, although about 10 girls rounded out the roughly 30 guests. Less interactive than the morning session, the kids were reluctant to engage with their experience of watching Kids With Cameras, and more anxious to know if Alex had met Kobe Bryant (to Alex’s dismay, they were less enthralled by his very interesting encounter with Shaq). Sports, hobbies, and LA were the central focuses of their questions, despite more in depth discussion offered by Alex about the complexity of understanding autism and its many variations. They were, however, very enthusiastic about finding us on Facebook, and I even offered a tour of the USC School of Cinematic Arts to a student who will be spending the next year in California.
That evening, Mahmud disobeyed our pleas to keep the feast to a standard of common decency (“Are you guys on a diet?”), and once again fattened us up with the likes of Thai beef salad, sausages, oxtail soup, and the “hit of the day,” sheep’s tongue, which I did not eat (but Alex did!) on strict orders from my stomach and overwhelming sense memories.
Thursday, July 18
The day began with a quick trip to nearby Qayrakum for a screening of Kids With Cameras at the American Corner for about 19 teenagers, mostly girls. By this point, Alex has come up with an effective bullet-point list of the key issues to discuss prior to screening the film, including anecdotes about diagnosing autism, how education is changing to involve the autistic community, and, in response to previous sessions, turning the discussion over to the students about whether or not they know or have engaged with any autistic individuals in their own lives. The conversation was very interactive, including many filmmaking questions—from why he wanted to make the film, to how long it took to shoot, to whether or not he knows Justin Bieber (cue me, crying on the inside, as I listen to the car story for the third time). The discussion ended with a powerful revelation: the teacher in charge of the session opened up about the issues facing autistic children in Tajikistan—specifically, lack of access to education. She professed that the film had significantly impacted her own perceptions about autism, having experienced it first-hand via a close friend with autistic children. She has now reconsidered what the condition means, and what children can accomplish—so much so that she no longer considers it a disability. This reinforced much of Alex’s discussion about the potential for success, both artistic and scientific, in the autistic community, as well as the accomplishments of the characters in his film.
The drive back to Khujand was marked by two extraordinary detours: the first, an essential “dip in the pool” for Alex and me in the “Tajik Sea” (an artificial freshwater lake created by a dam) that dominates the region; the second, an eye-popping visit to the Khujand marketplace, a bustling epicenter of melons, pistachios, salty yogurt balls (“good with beer”, says Mahmud), dried fish, meats, sheepskins, and spare tires (other than the ones beginning to visibly strain under our shirts). While Mahmud and Sayid were having none of our “let’s go swimming” enthusiasm, Alex and I energetically plopped ourselves into the water, most refreshing on a 100+ degree day. Also, we discovered that Tajik men are in much better shape than we are. The market was bordered by impressive mosques, both old and new, with a beautiful mountainous backdrop and a frenetic community of butchers, bakers, fruit vendors, and other merchants of all varieties. Many snacks were purchased and quickly consumed.
Before heading back to Dushanbe, we were treated to a private lunch with exquisite grilled meats (quickly contradicting Alex’s edict of “no meat today,” I might add). Another stop brought us to a silk merchant, who easily convinced us that our respective better halves would be very disappointed if we didn’t bring them back a world-famous Tajik silk scarf. Our return trip to Dushanbe proved even more adventurous than the way over (although, to be fair, I slept through most of it). The infamous “Tunnel of Death” was somehow now in worse condition, and our water-tight Land Rover got a free carwash along the way. The latter half of the perilous mountain pass provided some spectacular stunt driving, as a log-jam of trucks along the narrow road forced opposing traffic to dare passage across an exceptionally tight shoulder lane with a high probability of falling into the adjacent ditch. We also made some required pit-stops for dried apricots and evening prayers. Too exhausted for dinner, we quickly collapsed back at our Vefa apartments in Dushanbe, ready for the next adventure.
– Alex Ago, AFS Staff