Life Through a Camera Lens
Elnura Osmonalieva is a promising independent filmmaker and producer. She came to AUCA in 1998 after a student exchange year in the USA as a FLEX program participant. Being very interested in camera work, photography and drama, Elnura joined the Journalism department, but later transferred to the International and Comparative Politics department. Today Elnura is back on the filmmaking path. A few months ago she won the International Almaty Film Festival with her film “Shaken Zhuldyzdary”. In addition to her new hardware, Elnura was also the winner of the Best Director Award at the Master Class of Ernest Abdyjaparov and was the Main Award Winner at the Second Auteur Film Festival for young filmmakers of Central Asia.
Elnura, you have just returned from the film festival in Amsterdam. What was this trip all about?
The International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA) is one of the leading documentary events in the world. It offers an exclusive training program for emerging filmmakers, producers, and film students from home and abroad. Each summer the IDFA Academy organizes summer schools to help filmmakers to strengthen the narrative of their films. I was invited to attend the IDFA summer school to work on the “Pasture in the Skies”, a documentary film I am working on this year with Jasper Osmund, a well known editor from Denmark. Thanks to this workshop, I now know much more about structuring a documentary in its script stage and later during the editing.
I assume you have often heard this question: is it easy to be a young film director?
Filmmaking never seemed to be, nor did it turn out to be easy. The work of a filmmaker requires a lot of input - intellectual, artistic and physical, and when combined with producing, the workload doubles. You follow your artistic desires and then you find yourself in a situation where you need to prove something to others through your films. Every single person in your audience comes to watch your film with the desire to be satisfied. The challenge comes in brushing away the expectations of others and following your own vision. This includes brushing away the desire and expectation to succeed. Filmmaking also heavily affects my personal life. In Amsterdam I met a number of people who had decided not to have children, so they could focus on filmmaking only. It struck me again, this realization of how much commitment cinematography requires.
It is a lot of fun, nevertheless. Meeting people and working with people who are usually fun, different, not-normal in a good sense. Traveling and having the privilege to create something that everybody has an interest in. “Cinema” and “film” are magic words, and most people want to be a part of it, either through being in a film or by watching it.
I get much support from my husband Tolondu Toichubaev who did a lot to get the post-Soviet Kyrgyz cinema off its dead zone. He co-founded a production company “Oy Art” together with Aktan Abdykalykov, and with great input from Altynai Koichumanova “Oy Art” was able to produce successful films and push around the idea of independent filmmaking. The result is a new group of film makers with prizes from big festivals and people`s interest in Kyrgyz cinema.
So how come you chose this path? Is there anyone or anything that has influenced your decision?
My mother Nasiba was the main person who gave me my backbone. Most of the things she taught me in life really helped. My father Madalbek gave me a philosophical attitude to life and my favorite quote from him is “kop bolso olturot”, which means “don’t be afraid, the worst thing enemies can do is kill you”. I was lucky as a FLEX student and had wonderful parents there as well – Veryl and Larry Andersen. My host mom taught me how to be a professional at work and combine career with family. She had hosted twelve students before I arrived despite having two jobs and each of her host students thought she and her husband were these incredible host parents.
As for the filmmaking, it was a decision that did not come overnight or an idea that struck me one day. I have always felt the urge to create and as a child and teenager, I wrote poems while dreaming of writing books. I often imagined having a house somewhere high in the mountains among woods and writing. However, I was also very intrigued by images. My father was an amateur photographer as a student and took photos with black and white film. One of his photos was among my favorites: two smiling boys, his younger brothers, standing, facing the camera holding a large dog by its front legs. The dog looks calm and pretty happy and even its tongue is sticking out merrily. On the tree next to them, a cat is looking at the dog, fully concentrated and ready to react at any moment. I loved to look at this photograph. It gave me a wonderful feeling of childhood, carelessness and it was full of life because of their smiles, the way the camera captured a moment of leisure, and fun witnessed by a cat from a very different angle.
While growing up, I used to watch films to see how they were made by trying to understand how the camera moved and where the cuts were. I also learned that this was best done, especially with music videos, if the sound was turned off.
As a FLEX student I had my host parents’ video camera for one year and took class on media communications and loved looking at the world through the camera lens. My tutor told me that I had “a good eye” and a local television station invited me as a camera operator to a number of events. I still dreamed about writing though.
Later, however, when I was confronted with a blank piece of paper to write up an assignment at a journalism class, I felt a great loss and that feeling lingered for a number of years. This desire to write now helps me to write scripts and proposals to get funding for my films.
And when you decided to go “pro”?
I chose to get serious about making films in 2006, during the time I was graduating from AUCA, because I felt a strong urge to do what I saw director Ernest Abdyjaparov do at the set of the “Pure Coolness”.
Two years later, when I was talking and talking about wanting to make films and reading some literature, I made my first short film. A personal mischief that occurred shortly before the making of this film, and lingered on for a while after I completed it, really set me strongly in the direction of film making, as it was the only thing that could keep me distracted. Now filmmaking has turned into an obsession I love to have, the profession I cannot do without, and turned out to be the kind of life I have been looking for without even realizing it.
Eugene Grishkovec said that “Young filmmakers do not shoot real films, but rather dream about money and house in Nice”.
My energy in filmmaking mainly comes from the desire to bring change to Kyrgyzstan, promote creation of an open society and live in an environment that is not hostile to people who are different, who want a better life or future and who want to formulate their own independent opinions and choices.
Your last movie “Almaz”, what is it actually about?
“Almaz” is about the strength of hope, and desire to be happy despite the odds. The film is made primarily for the Kyrgyz audience, although everybody told me it was a wrong approach and one should make a film for all of humanity. With this film I wanted to target the Kyrgyz audience primarily. The reason for this was one of my major frustrations with Kyrgyzstan as many young people, as well as parents, seem to have lost the understanding of how important education is.
For many, poverty and hardships justify a life where education is not a priority, because there is never money for it, or because they see that it is not educated people who succeed, but those who are corrupt. There seems to be no understanding of the long-term value of education both for personal development and satisfaction, as well as professional accomplishment. Therefore I decided to make a film to tell a story that would refute these ideas, senses, and stereotypes.
How did you find a hero for this movie?
I met Almaz by coincidence at the Center for Protection of Children (CPC) a couple of months after I started working on this film project. He was really the person I was looking for – bright, positive, sincere and really strong. Almost immediately I knew he could help me let others know that studying was worthwhile and that challenges, even the hardest ones, could be overcome.
I found funding and we started shooting. I must admit that I did not have much sense about how the film would come out, but I really wanted to tell Almaz’s story in a way that would not bring pity to him by becoming yet another film on poverty and children, but inspire, cause admiration and recognition.
Since “Almaz” is about hope and happiness, what does “happiness” mean to you?
I do not think I know what happiness is for me, as I always seem to be struggling. I often feel happy, and the main source of my happiness is my daughter Churyok. For the time being I am rushing through life like somebody is after me. There is very little time for contemplation. This makes me miss my teen years as I seemed to be much wiser and less frustrated back then.
What do you think about the prospects of cinematography in Kyrgyzstan?
Tough question… If we manage to get ten or twenty people educated in the best film schools in the West then we might have a rather noticeable change. Otherwise, no increase of funding will be able to help Kyrgyz cinematographers make better films. It is not just the issue of money. It is also an issue of understanding the modern world, the modern cinema industry, and film making techniques and approaches. I gave up on my belief in somebody making great films without learning about cinema or about directing, script writing, and editing after the IDFA summer school in Amsterdam. Just a week of talking with people who had the knowledge and experience gave me so much artistic and technical value.
And what values for your success were laid at AUCA?
I had great professors who taught me to be creative, persistent and responsible. I learned to formulate my thoughts in writing. AUCA gave me the belief that everything was possible if enough effort was made.
When I visited AUCA for the first time, twelve years ago, I was still a high school student. Back then I thought, looking at AUCA students that they must be some divine creatures because they looked so busy and important with their concentrated faces and backpacks. I just could not believe that just a year later I would be one of them. Therefore, being admitted to AUCA was already achieving a benchmark for me.
How did you do at AUCA?
I had a GPA of 3.6 while having one or two part time jobs. Because I needed to work, I never excelled to the extent I wanted to, in any of the courses I took. I was always rushing, stressed or busy. I remember being always late for 8 am classes, because I would stay up till 3 am after work studying. Therefore, I avoided taking a class that started at that time if it was possible. Despite this I was part of Amnesty International Club, KVN and “The Star” for a while. I also participated in three large debating tournaments on behalf of AUCA and came out the winner of the Central Asian Championship, CIS Championship and did well at the International Competition in Glasgow.
With several academic leaves, related to work and travel, I finally graduated in 2006. I still wonder whether I would have been able to gather my strength and finish my studies, if not for my husband who was telling everybody we met that he “was living with an uneducated person”. Everybody laughed but I saw his point. So I came back for that last semester, and although I could not complete my senior thesis, which was about the Kyrgyz State Television not fulfilling its obligations, I did enjoy the preparations for the state exam on Kyrgyz history, which I successfully passed.
Unfortunately, I missed the graduation ceremony, because I was away at the filming of “Pure Coolness”, where I had a small role. It took ten days of filming, and the director did not let me leave even for one evening. Therefore, I do not have this sense of closure with AUCA. It just feels like I am on a long academic leave again.
But is it still a special place for you?
In some ways AUCA was not as exciting as my high school, where the head teacher was gay and was dating another male teacher, both married; another married female teacher was seeing a student, and the oldest teacher of all was harassing female students on a daily basis. AUCA was “normal” in that sense.
My fondest memory of AUCA is always having people, both professors and students, willing to help. It is the concentration of talented youth, committed and qualified professors, and staff who communicate with respect and desire to make the best of their time at the university.
I loved studying in AUCA also because the students were told to be, and really were, the owners of the place. I think that our student petition in fall 1999 to replace the toilet soap, which had a stinky smell, was really the pinnacle of student activism. It could not get better than that and, of course, the administration told us that we had no shame.
Most of the best things I have in my life come from AUCA – knowledge, skills, contacts, impressions and inspiration.
I think alumni should stay in touch via alumni meetings, come to meetings with students, recruit high school graduates and consult them about the enrollment procedures.
I believe our readers would love to know what your favorite movie is.
I have not watched that many films or as many as one would expect a filmmaker to watch. From those, which I have seen, I like Fellini’s “8 ½” and “Empty House” (3 Iron) by Kim Ki-Duk.
So what's next for you? New movies?
I have to learn a lot. I still have great doubts about my talent as a film director, but for the time being I would like to keep making films, as I, now, cannot imagine my life and myself without it.
Any plans of winning Oscar?
Although I understand the importance of it and enjoy festival screenings of my films, I was never really interested in film festival success. I often feel like making a film is very similar to writing poetry, and how could you dream of writing a poem that could win a prestigious award? You either write it or you don’t.
At AUCA we have a Student Movie Club, where students get together to film movies. Any advice to them?
Try getting movies that get into the selection of competition programs of the main international film festivals. Certainly watch the classics and, if interested, watch documentary films – they have the added value of representing true life stories. Please invite me to the screenings – I would love to watch some films with you.
By Kemel Toktomushev